One advantage of turning a former town hall into a hotel is that you tend to start out with a rather nice period building. The Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green retains its impressive Edwardian façade, while inside gorgeous Art Deco features have been restored to their former glory.
There’s a serious amount of marble in the foyer but it's cool and tasteful rather than over the top. During the day, a domed skylight about 30 feet up illuminates the wide staircase, which curves off left and right and would provide a grand entrance or exit for a bride (they do weddings). Accentuating the 1920s feel are period trappings such as the stylish four-faced clock, and jazz playing at a soothing level in the background.
Rooms range from spacious doubles, through studio apartments, to signature suites. They're elegantly minimalist with a mid-20th-century twist, thanks to well chosen furniture and accessories.
Studios are described as your "pied a terre in the city", and for good reason: not only do you get cooking facilities – complete with spacious fridge and quality glassware, including Champagne flutes – but there's also a washing machine. When not in use, the whole lot can be hidden behind neat fold-away walls so they need never betray a hint of self-catering apartment.
The layout of our studio scared us for a minute: the bathroom is just a few feet from the bed and only divided from it by floor-to-ceiling glass – potentially a little too close for comfort how ever well acquainted you are. As it turns out, a curtain draws across the whole thing, the door fits pretty snugly and it's actually fun being able to chat and share a glass of wine while one person enjoys the ergonomically designed bath (which is actually roomy enough for two, in case you’re interested).
Apart from the bar and two restaurants (see below), hotel facilities include a small but well-equipped gym and an even smaller swimming pool. If you were imagining, like I was, that the pool might be one of those echoing, Art Deco affairs you see in the movies, think again. It’s more a big trough than a swimming pool. Nevertheless, there’s room enough for two people to comfortably swim short lengths alongside one another and even get up some speed, and I have to admit there was something about the combination of its cute dimensions, the natural light streaming in from above and the silvery blue mosaic tiles that I found quite charming. It’s definitely worth experiencing and is another reminder that – from the opulent to the just plain quirky – the Town Hall Hotel is full of character.
Eating and drinking
Until early 2014, the Town Hall Hotel was home to Nuno Mendes’s much vaunted Viajante. Mendes is now cooking at celebrity magnet Chiltern Fire House and in Viajante’s place is Typing Room, serving modern European cuisine from Lee Westcott (a protégé of Jason Atherton) and getting decent reviews for it.
(For pre- or post-meal cocktails, check out wood-panelled downstairs bar Peg + Patriot across the corridor. The drinks are a little try-hard but the atmosphere is conducively chilled.)
I have a real soft spot, though, for the hotel’s smaller restaurant, Corner Room, which punches well above its weight and which you must visit if you're staying here (or if you live anywhere nearby). I first went when it was still overseen by Mendes and it was seriously good. Now chef John Christie is in charge and not much has changed. Corner Room is still serving inventive dishes, and using unusual ingredients, and some cheffy techniques, but to great, rather than gimmicky, effect.
The focus tends to be seasonal, and dishes make colourful, tasty use of vegetable elements alongside pork, fish, chicken and offal. Vegetarians, meanwhile, generally get a choice of several options as clever as any you'd find at a ‘gourmet’ veggie restaurant.
The menu consists of small(ish) plates ranging in price from £4 to around £16 but with most at the £7-10 mark, which means you can afford to (and should) try a few things. It won’t always be clear from the menu exactly what’s going to be on your plate until you get it, so just dive in. Most dishes come out looking like beautiful little gardens.
We start with two “snacks” – crispy pigs ears (basically posh, very good pork scratchings) with a delicious egg, caper and parsley dip, and radishes, which sound simple but turn out to be one of the best bits of the meal. They're planted in an incredibly tasty mix of something like pea puree, horseradish and creme fraiche, with the surface dusted with a savoury ash to look like soil.
Sadly, the lamb sweetbreads had run out but we very much enjoyed a smoked salmon tartare (except for the overpowering dots of piccalilli sauce on the side), a delicately sous vide piece of pollock with peas and maple smoked bacon and some crispy-skinned, succulent chicken, somehow pepped up with extra chickenyness. A dessert of sponge, cherries, cinder toffee and a custard sauce was that elusive thing – light comfort food.
The Corner Room is also where breakfast is served, which is great because the quirky little room with its feature wall of retro light fixtures also has huge windows and during the day gets lots of natural light. Across the hall is the buffet where you can choose from a selection of cereal, fruit, bread, pastries, cheese and hams included in the price of the room, while a supplementary menu features a range of cooked choices.
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Another advantage of turning a former Town Hall into a hotel is that you've generally got yourself a building close to the heart of the local action. Situated on Bethnal Green's Cambridge Heath Road, the Town Hall Hotel isn't surrounded by noisy bars, and has its main entrance in a quiet side street, but it's within walking distance – or a short bus or taxi ride – of everything.
Just up the road is 'pop up shopping mall' Boxtown (which popped up in 2011 and has shown no signs of popping back down again since) and the famous bustling Brick Lane, home of street markets, late night bagels and bars, and more Indian restaurants than you can shake a poppadom at, most of which are BYO. Beyond it is the infamous Hoxton, whose hipster bars and clubs these days also cater for an increasing number of parties from Essex and beyond. Be warned, on a Friday and Saturday night it can be carnage.
On Kingsland Road, just off Old Street, take your pick of the mostly excellent authentic Vietnamese restaurants, some of which are cheap, cheerful and also BYO.
On a Sunday during the day, visit the famous bustling Columbia Road flower market, various bits of which you might recognise from TV shows and ads and which also offers boutique shopping, hipster pubs and a few cafe restaurants (tapas bar Laxeiro doesn't take bookings on a Sunday but is well worth a visit if you can get in).
Radio Times Travel rating: 9/10 – "A unique, stylish and loveable hotel in the heart of the hip and happening East End, with generous room sizes and a quirky and affordable restaurant punching well above its weight"
Price: Double room: £191.40; Feature double: £211.20; Executive studio: £221.10; Feature executive studio: £267.30; 1 bedroom: £227.70; Executive 1 bedroom: 234.30; 2 bedroom: £267.30; Interconnecting 2 bedroom: £419.10
Address: Patriot Square, off Cambridge Heath Road, Bethnal Green, London E2 9NF
Contact: 020 7871 0460 email@example.com