Hotel Insider: Great facilities and swift service but a deathly atmosphere at Town Hall Hotel & Apartments, London
Quietly appealing quarters in east London
What looks like the front entrance of this hotel is actually the restaurant - the main entrance is down a side road called Patriot Square. The imposing doors and cavernous entrance hall to this handsome Edwardian former town hall, converted into a boutique hotel by Singaporean hotelier Loh Lik Peng and opened this time last year, are still very town hall-like. The reception area looks more like a security desk, but I was greeted warmly, checked in swiftly and my bags and I were escorted to my room almost too enthusiastically by the beaming Turkish bellhop.
Despite the fact that Alexa Chung lives there, Bethnal Green isn't one of London's finest areas. It's not as pleasant or trendy as other parts of east London such as Shoreditch, and the part of the Cambridge Heath Road the hotel is located on is pretty drab. The building fronts a housing estate, which while not offensive to the eye, isn't exactly inspiring. It is, however, just two minutes' walk to a Central Line tube station and thus just 10 minutes away from the City and Liverpool Street (the hotel provides a free shuttle bus there in the mornings, too). Between the hotel and the station are some points of interest: York Hall spa, the Museum of Childhood (part of the Victoria & Albert Museum) and the pleasant Victoria Park Gardens. The hotel is five minutes' walk away from the cabaret cum restaurant Bistrotheque. It's 10 minutes by foot from Broadway Market, which on Saturdays has a great food market, and from there it's a further 10 minutes to Columbia Road and Brick Lane.
Quiet would be an understatement. Apart from the bar and restaurant, which weren't at all lively while I was there on Friday and Saturday nights, there seemed to be very little life in this hotel. This isn't something I mind particularly, as I like to be anonymous and use hotels to rest and recharge, but even I would have liked less domesticity and more buzz. I put it down to the fact that many people staying here are long-term guests who self-cater and thus spend all their time in their rooms. Breakfast was the only time I saw my fellow hotel guests, who seemed to be mainly middle-aged Europeans. I felt the hotel's considerably large common areas - open staircases, wide hallways and big lobbies - were wasted on the Town Hall Artworks, works of art commissioned for the building. Peng describes them as "exciting and innovative"; I found them dull and slightly depressing, reminiscent of a sixth form art project. I liked the original elements of the property but the renovated corridors had a Travelodge-style feel to them.
My room was on the top floor and lovely - exceptionally spacious, with separate living and dining areas, and a great kitchenette complete with cooker, fridge and washing machine. There was a large, decked outside terrace, which sadly one wasn't allowed to venture out on for "health and safety reasons". In the height of midsummer I found this frustrating. The bathroom was very high-spec with a green marble strip floor and cool white fixtures. The bed was comfortable, the bedding excellent and the room gorgeously quiet, apart from an irritating drip-drip-drip coming from the drain outside that started at 5.30 on my first morning and continued on and off until I left.
The mostly eastern European cleaning staff were lovely and the restaurant staff were knowledgeable and efficient, but I had to badger the maintenance staff to fix the dripping noise but, sadly, after they did, it started again.
Breakfast consisted of a good cold buffet (£11; Dh66) of fresh fruit, bread, cheese, salmon, cold cuts of meat, pastries and yoghurt or a cooked breakfast (a choice of items such as sausage, wild mushrooms, eggs and toast cost £9; Dh54).The food was let down by the fact that tea and coffee were served by the small teacupful and only filter coffee was available. At the highly rated restaurant Viajante, headed by young Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes, we tried a three-course lunch tasting menu, which, for £25 (Dh150) a head, including drinks, blew us away (with various amuse-bouche it was more like six courses). Diners can specify what they don't want to eat, but beyond that, each course is a surprise. First came a delicately cured piece of house sashimi, followed by a roasted beetroot, goat's cheese and crab salad and then pan-fried lemon sole with egg and asparagus; dessert was a crumbled polenta flavoured with lemon. Delicious.
The large room size and interior decor, Viajante restaurant, the swimming pool - a rarity in London hotels - and the little historical narratives dotted around the place. The fish tacos (£7, Dh42) from room service were a great snack and service was swift.
The fire alarm being tested repeatedly without warning one evening, the drip-drip-dripping from the drain outside my bedroom window and not being able to use the outdoor space. In Viajante, I didn't like the false walls and ceilings and cheap-looking furniture, which detracted from the character of the hotel.
A good bet if you get a discounted rate and stay for a while. The facilities are great but the vibe isn't - for this, the hotel will need a bigger and better bar or a roof terrace.
The bottom line
Double rooms at weekends currently cost from £174 (Dh1,040) per night, including taxes but excluding breakfast. Town Hall Hotel & Apartments, London (www.townhallhotel.com; 00 44 20 7871 0460).