It’s with nostalgia that we wander up Clerkenwell Road towards the Zetter. Clerkenwell has come a long way since the Sixties. My father studied at the art school here, and his strongest memory of the area is of the all-pervading aroma from the local tobacco factory. Years later, I attended the same college, but by then all the factories were empty; by the time Mrs Smith attended, a decade later, Clerkenwell was firmly established as a thriving and fashionable London arrondissement – the cigarette fumes now emanating from the many bars and clubs.
We’ve had the Zetter described to us as an ‘urban inn’. It is housed in a Victorian warehouse building that blends in so well with its surroundings that it seems more likely to be a top-end design company. We almost pass right by, then, just as we’re trying to work out how to get in, a glass door glides open. We get the feeling we’ve been let into a secret lair rather than just an exclusive boutique hotel…
Having sworn I’d avoid using the much-abused word ‘cool’, what can I say? That’s exactly what the Zetter is. It’s a hotel that’s all about cutting-edge design, with the clever and ironic contrasts and clashes of modern styles that you’d expect from an establishment embodying London’s eastside renaissance. The flamboyant pink chandelier that greets you in the lobby is a statement of intent, and the bold thinking continues throughout the building. Just off the lobby is a small bar that smacks of Seventies Austrian chalet; wood panelling, floral chairs and cork stools make us smile.
The staff are genuinely warm and charming, and there’s an informality that we find immediately relaxing. But as we rise in the lift, Mrs Smith is most excited about the small touches. As a graphic designer, she appreciates the work of Precious McBane, a playful mix of the contemporary and the classic, used in our quirky key fob and the number on our door, a rooftop studio. (It’s well worth the extra to go high: not only do you get your own balcony, but also views over the London skyline.)
The room is modern and full of light, yet cosy. The fittings are minimal, but ornate flourishes include a Z logo embroidered on an orange blanket, and a delightfully absurd standard lamp. The bathroom has a nautical theme, with a porthole that looks out onto our olive tree on the balcony patio. And, fittingly for Clerkenwell, land of the digerati, the Zetter comes out tops on technology too; there’s nothing you can’t access from your TV, be it the internet, a library of 4,000 songs, or extensive local information. Who needs a butler when you’ve got this?
What’s so special about our room is that it feels like a dream studio apartment. Not folk who like everything to match, we love furnishings like this: surprising, original and a little cheeky. It’s the sort of place former geeks with something to prove should come to, and take some photos of themselves ‘at home’ to post on friendsreunited.com: the 21st-century equivalent of turning up to a school reunion in a flash motor – the thought of anyone belonging in these surrounds would give them insta-cred.
Our favourite touch, oddly, isn’t anything costly or showy; it’s actually the water. To our amazement, the handsome bottle that stands before us is full of aqua that’s been pumped from aquifers 1,500 feet below us. Sure, you wouldn’t expect EC1 to be giving the Swiss Alps a run for its H20, but before you wince at the thought of sipping from East End sewers, let us add that this is an area whose name is derived from the Clerks Well, which in centuries past was revered for its health-promoting qualities. Anyway, nutritious or not, London water has never tasted this good.
After such a salubrious start to our stay, we head off for a few aperitifs. On our way out we discover the hotel’s most striking piece of design – its back stairway. We’re overwhelmed by the raucous carpet and vivid walls: decoration at its boldest. The fact that the red gloss walls clash with Mrs Smith’s outfit is all that prevents us from taking a photo. Our first stop in the outside world is Exmouth Market – a strip of boutiques, bars and eateries that is, unusually for London, mainly alfresco.
As we walk past a few old haunts, memories of misspent afternoons flood back, and I can’t help keeping an eye out for one of my alcoholic lecturers. Convinced we spy one at the bar of an old boozer, we decide to have a butcher’s at Medcalf instead. (An appropriate rhyming-slang slip, as that’s exactly what it used to be.) It’s now a laid-back bar/restaurant, as is customary for this terrain.
Continuing on the meatery-turned-eatery theme (when you’re Eastside, part of each hip hang-out’s charm is often its previous incarnation, carnivorous or otherwise), we think it fitting to head to our namesake-for-the-night, Smiths of Smithfields, a former meat warehouse turned into four floors of restaurants and bars. It’s Saturday night, and Clerkenwell is livening up, though it’s not too heaving. (Local workers party hard on Friday nights, whereas the rest of the weekend is more relaxed.) After rum cocktails in the huge embrace of Smiths’ red-leather banquettes, we stroll back to the Zetter’s beautiful high-ceilinged restaurant, with its huge 180-degree curved windows overlooking a cobbled square.
After dinner we have the best intentions of reliving our student days on a nearby dancefloor (several clubs are within walking distance, and Hoxton is a brief cab ride east), but four courses of delicious Modern Italian have put paid to that, and our room with a view is too tempting. As we bemoan our bodies not being as young as they were, we return to find that the hue of the pink fluorescent light in our bedroom’s ceiling is wonderfully flattering, and feel sufficiently rejuvenated to trawl the TV for music to have a nightcap to (admittedly opting for less BPMs than we might once have done).
If we didn’t go to bed with ringing in our ears, we’re only too delighted to wake up to it; there aren’t many sounds in London more romantic than the bells of St Paul’s on a Sunday. Just as I comment what a unique memory our leisurely breakfast on the balcony will make, I notice Mrs Smith smuggling a rather-more-real souvenir into her bag. Once I’ve convinced her to not pinch the offbeat ashtray, we reluctantly head down to check out. Though we might be leaving the Zetter empty-handed, we don’t leave empty-headed. It has left a vibrant stamp on our consciousness of London. ‘Maybe it was something in the water,’ smiles Mrs Smith.