Is room service alone enough to sway a choice of hotel? For most, the answer is no. While a midnight club sandwich with lukewarm fries has its place, in-room dining has never been high on the gastronome’s bucket list. Until now. Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver, the eccentric gents behind London’s seminal St John Restaurant have added a new 15-room hotel to their idiosyncratic family of eating establishments. ‘We think this will be a hotel where people will actually want to eat at the restaurant’ says Henderson the beloved bon vivant of British cooking, known for popularizing the philosophy of ‘nose-to-tail’ eating. As St John Hotel ‘stays within the vernacular of the restaurants’ its likely his hunch will prove correct. Unfazed by fashion, St John served spleen when sushi was de rigueur and typical to form, the new hotel maintains a charmingly unapologetic ‘we do what we do’ attitude. Labeling their new establishment a ‘hotel’ somehow seems a stretch, it is really the ultimate evolution of the English Bed and Breakfast tradition, or if you like, a restaurant with rooms.
There is no mistaking that this project is one geared to the predilections of Henderson and Gulliver, you can almost visualize the moment the idea for the hotel was germinated – at a table after a few burgundies (and likely a generous nip of Fernet Branca), the duo lamenting all that was missing to complete the experience was a comfortable place for a quiet post-degustatory lie down. They wanted a place where guests and friends could not only eat well and then roll a few steps to bed but a place without the annoyances of flashy hip hotels nor the homogenous feel of a chain monolith. ‘There is hot and cold written on the taps, you can easily find the bloody light switch and there are real bedspreads that one doesn’t get the feeling a thousand naked bottoms have sat on’ says Henderson with a chuckle. This is a hotel that the seasoned, rather than splurging traveller, will surely relate to.
In 2007 when Gulliver noticed that the landmark Manzi’s Seafood Restaurant had suddenly been vacated, the owner ‘pulling up stumps for Monte Carlo’, a location with ‘form’ presented itself. While never operating as a hotel, Manzi’s still maintained rooms above the dining room that apparently offered another kind of ‘hospitality’. Keen on folklore, Henderson and Gulliver found the opportunity to fold Manzi’s reputation for a rollicking good time into St John’s already robust mythology irresistible. Located in what was a wheelie bin riddled, seedy laneway in a nexus of Leicester Square, Chinatown and the red light district, the hotel’s arrival has already breathed life into what was a no-man’s land in the heart of the West End. ‘You can throw a cricket ball to six theaters and we will manage the floor (of the restaurant) with a mind to curtain up and down’ says Gulliver.
As the masters of offal and offcuts it is trite to call the restaurant the beating heart of the hotel but with ambitions plans to serve food until 2 am nightly it is clear that is the goal. Astonishing for London. They are opening hours that are sympathetic not only to their location and guests but also a deliberate decision to cater to two of St John’s most loyal and enthusiastic constituents, off-duty chefs and artists. In the 90’s when ‘Cool Britannia’ ruled, the Young British Artists made St John their clubhouse and Fergus a lifelong member of their wild coterie. It then comes as no surprise to learn that the hotel is backed by artists like Tracey Emin and that the collective hope is to create a kind of modern English salon in the restaurant, bar and rooms of the small hotel.
© Vogue Living, June 2011, Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora
Henderson trained as an architect before trading pencils for pans and this project has allowed him to reengage with his design roots. The renovation is his alone and only the original facade with its slate roof and bold, characteristic signage of moules, huitres and langouste has remained. The process was fraught with Gulliver mid-construction even staring into the hole where the interior once was and murmuring ruefully, ‘ooo bugger,’ but is clear that the persistence of their vision has reigned. Retained from the powerful St John aesthetic are the clean white walls, coat hooks and use of strong black type face. Perhaps inspired by the location’s colorful history they have had a flirtation with a new palate including ‘pond’ green, royal blue and campari red to the mix. With a slight maritime flavor, cabin like rooms and a different shade of flooring for each of the four levels there is an inescapable feeling of being on a peculiarly elegant Atlantic liner.
When famed restaurateurs become hoteliers it follows that the food will be a showcase. Tom Harris the former sous at St John offers up a charmingly concise menu penned in a classic no nonsense tone that reads like a school maam’s elocution lesson. Potted pigeon with pickled quince, pike and leek pie and Duroc chop and turnip tops mingle on the ‘supper’ menu. However, for those already familiar with the St John’s dinner time excellence, it will be the other meals of the day that will hold the real curiosity. The hotel will offer a kind of masculine morning tea taken with the obligatory glass of madiera called ‘elevenses’, the Little Bun Moment that promises pastry ‘as warm as buttocks’ and of course, then there is room service which is taken very seriously indeed. It is likely that the real point of difference of this hotel is oddly enough its room service, with Poire William and champagne in the mini-bar for a either a nip or a nudge and a full service menu taken from the restaurant, it is likely that the with its rich chocolate ice cream taken in a silver cupole and langoustines with handmade mayonnaise that St John Hotel can lay the claim to having the most deliciously comforting room service of any hotel, anywhere. For Henderson and Gulliver, the visionaries of true English dining it seems that the next evolution their influential nose-to-tail eating manifesto is table-to-bed dining. Watch the others follow.