WINNER: HOTTEST HOTEL BAR – SMITH HOTEL AWARDS 2015
TheZetter TownhouseClerkenwell may look like an antique shop on entering, but it's actually a laid-back luxury hotel, with dramatic shabby-chic decor by designer Russell Sage and a cocktail bar with curious concoctions from Britain's past. Rooms are candy coloured and classic by turns, with repurposed circus-carousel headboards and Union Flag-canopied four-poster beds. Inspired by the adventures and amours of an imaginary Great Aunt Wilhelmina (whose 'portrait' hangs in the bar), this hotel is like a weekend break in a rich relative's time-capsule abode.
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Home-made smoked salt fudge and guaranteed late check-out until 1pm
Thirteen, including two suites and the Townhouse Apartment.
Noon. Check-in is 3pm.
Double rooms from $213.92 (£164), excluding tax at 20 per cent.
Rates usually exclude breakfast.
The portrait of 'Great Aunt Wilhelmina' (which bears a not entirely accidental likeness to Vivienne Westwood), the invented character who inspired the hotel, was painted by Terry Greenwall – who previously painted portraits for the Harry Potter movies.
At the hotel
Brompton Bikes are available to borrow for free. In-room: flatscreen TV, selection of classic novels, Rare Tea Co teas and ground coffee, free bottled spring water (from the hotel’s borehole), rotary-style phones and hot-water bottles with hand-knitted covers.
Our favourite rooms
Room 11, a Townhouse Deluxe, clashes colours and cultures – turquoise walls with a red fireplace; a Buddha head in the grate and a repurposed Victorian carousel headboard – creating a vivaciously vintage-style space with clear views of London's skyline from the window and a dramatic black marble-panelled bath set into the wall. Families staying at the hotel will find more than enough room in the Townhouse Suite, which has a double sofa bed in the separate living room.
Some stamina, for a brisk bike ride over cobbles, bridges and docks in the day; and for exploring Farringdon's nightlife later on.
Room 2 is wheelchair accessible and the hotel lift goes to all floors. In-room spa treatments are available and there's no gym, but guests can get a day pass for nearby Soho Gym for £10.
Welcome. A cot (free; suitable for under-2s) or an extra bed (also free; suitable for children aged 2–16) can be added to the Townhouse Deluxe rooms or Townhouse Apartment; the latter can fit two extra beds if needed.
The Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell is remarkably forward-thinking, employing nifty gadgetry and schemes such as an energy loop (which heats your room and cools hotel fridges simultaneously), occupancy detection systems, water drawn from a borehole, and sustainable, recycled and environmentally friendly materials throughout. The Zetter is also a founder member of the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
Swishing a glass around in front of a roaring fire feels especially decadent in these surroundings and if the second dining room isn't being used for events grab a perch near the stuffed boxing kangaroo for a great conversation starter.
You'll feel equally at home in jeans and a jacket in the bar as you would be in something pre-war and full-skirted with an opera cape. Designer Russell Sage's deconstructed Union Flag blazer is spot on, if you're lucky enough to own one.
No restaurant, but the small eats and supper bowls in the lounge take Brit classics and give them a weird and wonderful twist; such as Scotch egg with haggis and curry mayonnaise, and smoked trout with a lime-pickle potato cake. Take part in the most English of traditions, afternoon tea. Take your pick between Aunt Wilhelmina's tea with a selection of traditional finger sandwiches, and Uncle Seymour's with more substantial snacks like devilled eggs, sausage rolls and mini croque-monsiuers; both come with scones, jam and clotted cream, and a variety of cakes. Finally choose your tea, or for something a little stronger, opt for bubbles or cocktails.
The Lounge's drinks are dreamt up by cocktail maestro Tony Conigliaro, who has leapfrogged over run-of-the-mill menus into the past, to bring tinctures, bitters and herbal remedies back into fashion. Many of the ingredients are handmade in his Islington laboratory and fin de siècle-style fixings such as Byrrh, nettle cordial and absinthe are muddled in to mix things up.
The bar serves snacks and cocktails 7am to midnight from Sunday to Wednesday, and 7am–1am on Thursday to Saturday.
A 24-hour room service menu offers high-end nibbles, charcuterie plates and desserts – including grown-up chocolate fudge – to enjoy in the splendour of your suite.
This Georgian townhouse sits across a cobbled courtyard from sister hotel The Zetter on St John's Square in Clerkenwell. St Paul's Cathedral is a 20-minute walk away and the Old Bailey is 15 minutes away, as is cultural nerve centre, the Barbican.
Stansted airport (www.stanstedairport.com), the landing point for many budget airlines, is an hour's taxi ride from the hotel. Heathrow Airport (www.heathrowairport.com) is under an hour's drive away, but to avoid the battle of wills that is London driving, ride the Heathrow Express train to Paddington and take a leisurely Tube ride to Farringdon on the Circle line; the hotel is just a 10-minute walk from the Tube station.
There's a frequent train service direct from London Gatwick to Farringdon overground station, which is a 10-minute walk from the hotel. Many National Rail trains and the Eurostar arrive at St Pancras International; from the station Farringdon is just a 15-minute overground trip away. Farringdon and Barbican Tube stations both service the Metropolitan, Circle and Hammersmith and City lines.
If you decide to take the plunge and get behind the wheel in London you should be aware that driver hordes and ninja traffic officials aren't the only annoyances you'll face, because Clerkenwell lies within the Congestion Charge zone. On weekdays from 7am to 6pm, there’s a £10 daily payable to drive into and around central London (www.cclondon.com). There's no parking at the hotel but the Hat & Feathers NCP car park (www.ncp.co.uk) is just a minute’s drive away on Clerkenwell Road.
Worth getting out of bed for
Since Clerkenwell's factories, breweries and distilleries became warehouse conversions, fine dining and Fabric nightclub (+44 (0)20 7336 8898) have appeared on the scene. However, as one of London's most ancient enclaves it’s scattered with relics from well before the Industrial Revolution, so in between gourmet scotch eggs in Farringdon's gastropubs and waiting for the beat to drop, you can brush up on your British history. St Paul’s Cathedral (+44 (0)20 7246 8350) – domed masterpiece and much-beloved part of the London skyline – took Sir Christopher Wren over 30 years to complete; the Shard and the Gherkin may tower above it, but this Florence Cathedral-inspired institution holds its own. The landmark dates back to the 17th century, but it’s also well known for a certain low-key wedding held there in the 1980s…Charles and Di? Nah, never heard of them either… The Museum of London’s (+44 (0)20 7001 9844) incredible archives detail the settlements, fires, plagues and wars that built the London of today and it's made all the more fascinating because there’s still evidence of the city’s layered history close by; not least, the remnant of London's Roman wall just outside the museum. However, Clerkenwell’s not all worship and crumbling walls, Old Street is a 10-minute trot away and you can tell by the surfeit of directional-haircut sporting hipsters and bizarrely mustachioed boys skulking about that you’re in the thick of London’s art mecca. There are scores of galleries to stroke your chin in: Hoxton’s White Cube Gallery, Victoria Miro, Parasol Unit, Kemistry Gallery, Rocket and many more tucked away in winding streets; be sure to plan your visit on the last Thursday of each month to schmooze at private views. If you prefer your art multi-faceted and all in one handy space, pay a visit to the Barbican Centre (+44 (0)20 7628 3351) – its Brutalist architecture may look rather ominous, but this labyrinthine cultural hotspot is one of the best arts venues in the UK. Theatre, music, film, dance, art and music are all covered here, and the centre is willing to take a punt on lesser-known, international and obscure artists alongside more established ones. Performances are on every night of the week depending on what medium takes your fancy.
The Modern Pantry’s (+44 (0)20 7553 9210) dove-grey walls and black furnishings act as a subtle backdrop to dramatic dishes, such as sugar-cured New Caledonian prawn omelette and coconut- and lemongrass-braised pork belly. The Modern Pantry also does a brunch menu that goes above and beyond your average fry up, with trappings such as tea-smoked salmon, yuzu mayonnaise and English muffins with kumquat marmalade. Just around the corner from the townhouse lies Sushi Tetsu (+44 (0)20 3217 0090), which serves an array of bite-sized fish dishes served on bamboo leaves. Don’t be shy, chefs here will happily make any off-menu rolls and there’s a chef’s selection for the choice-stricken. If you prefer your light bites in the form of designer dim sum, head to Cicada (+44 (0)20 7608 1550), where inventive tempuras and sashimis served in dainty dishes are the order of the day. They also serve heartier BBQ dishes such as black cod with sweet miso and lamb rendang. If the whimsical Brit-a-brac in the Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell tickles your fancy, St John (+44 (0)20 7251 0848) will suit you finer than a bowler hat. The restaurant’s menu is filled with quirky dishes revived from a few eras back but even though chitterlings and dandelion, roast bone marrow and parsley salad and rabbit offal may have gone out of vogue, fortuitously St John realised they were tasty enough to warrant a comeback.
Café-cum-diner, Giant Robot (+44 (0)20 3119 3053) employs Fifties-style kitsch and mid-century Modern furnishings – robot salt and pepper shakers and Eames-style chairs – to ensure this upmarket burger, meatball and slider joint draws a grown-up crowd; although the plumed and brightly pigmented cocktails are another excellent reason to visit.
The Hat and Tun (+44 (0)20 7242 4747) is a traditional British pub filled with Chesterfields, a dark-wood bar and a menagerie of stuffed animal heads. Here half pints o’ prawns and kiln-roasted salmon are washed down with a range of Brit beers. A 10-minute walk away you’ll also find the Craft Beer Co. (+44 (0)20 7430 1123) in Leather Lane, the fleet of beer taps that greet you along the bar of this cosy boozer are a welcome sight indeed. With 16 cask beers and 21 keg beers to sample, this Clerkenwell favourite may require a few repeat visits.
A small, charming Georgian square deftly removes the Townhouse from the Clerkenwell Road. I arrive at the cobblestone EC1 cul-de-sac and enter the front door to discover… a rather fabulous cocktail bar. There’s no real reception – once we’re identified as staying at the hotel (walking in with luggage helps with that), a member of staff asks us to take a seat, another enquires if we’d like a drink. I wasn’t planning on one, but a quick scan around the room at people settling in and enjoying an afternoon libation, I realise this is exactly the right way to start.
The Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell evokes a certain type of Englishness. Or perhaps many certain types. From stripes that wouldn’t be out of place on a Paul Smith suit, bag or umbrella, to brocante and antique brass lamps, replica ships, animal illustrations, heavy crimson curtains and reclaimed stools. Each piece might not ‘match’ but certainly comes together and creates a distinct whole.
It may be counterintuitive to be envious of a person who doesn’t exist, but the inspiration for the Zetter Townhouse – a character called Great Aunt Wilhelmina – has led a rather fabulous life if her paper (and trinket) trail is to be believed. The intricate free-hand paintings on the lift doors hark back to halcyon hippie-trail treks, repurposed vintage magazine wallpaper speaks of her Lambeth days, and headboards in the top-floor rooms – made from Victorian carousel trappings – are souvenirs from the time she ran away to the circus; the Master at Arms cocktail served in the bar is a subtle nod to a dalliance Wilhelmina had with a sailor during the war. If you’re going to stay in a fictional character’s ‘house’, it may as well be a dun-roaming flâneur with a saucy side, a hefty fortune and some healthy eccentricities.
We’re in the Townhouse Apartment. While still more like a hotel room, it is certainly as big as an apartment – particularly one in Paris or Manhattan – and by London standards, it’s a room of generous proportions. If this Zetter Townhouse weren’t such a stickler for detail you might not feel so green-eyed, but Great Auntie’s story is crafted to be watertight; all modern technology is covered by tapestries or made from repurposed vintage tech, bathrooms have purposefully tarnished mirrors and Roberts radios, the faux-herringbone wallpaper in the bar has been hand-painted and artworks hang delightfully askew in the hallways or have light fittings dangling through them. It’s uncanny, but after just a few drinks here you really do feel like a guest at her house, so you’ll feel utterly at ease donning a lounge suit, cracking open one of the Zetter’s pre-mixed cocktails in your minibar and swanning down to the games room to challenge someone to a furious game of ping pong.
My honorary Mrs Smith lures us to a rooftop party at a hotel in the West End. Arriving at the central London hotel’s foyer that I realise how different it is to the Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell, and how unoriginal and bland some stays can be – even supposed ‘luxury’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘sophisticated’ ones. Thanks to London’s heavy drizzle, the party has been relocated to the bar; we have one drink before longing to be back at the Zetter, a jasmine tea gimlet in hand, knowing that a bed is just a stairwell away… When we do return to the Townhouse, the cosiness and charm of Tony Conigliaro’s bar has been enhanced by the fact that it is now evening, and it is indeed time for a nightcap. An amaretto for the lady and an amaro for myself; the night was capped.
Being in East London on a Sunday places markets high on our agenda. After a continental breakfast next door in Bistrot Bruno Loubet (in the main Zetter hotel) and a super-sized serving of newspapers and plunger coffee, it’s a short walk to the nearest Boris Bike dock and 10 minutes later we’re getting lost in the magical Colombia Road flower market and fighting for space at the bar at the Royal Oak, the wonderfully boisterous pub in the heart of it all.
Finally we retreat back to the hotel room, and settle happily into an afternoon of laptop-tapping while perched facing the window in the square below. A stately antique writing desk, a shiny new silver laptop, a gin from the mini-bar… what more could a writer want? It’s the kind of desk you could pen a memoir at. Staring out into the window as I do far too often, it hits me that the view from the room is lovely – not really of anything at all, other than a cobblestone square and a few brick buildings, but complete with a red phone box, black cab and people scurrying around with umbrellas, it’s a classic London view, yet without a landmark in sight.
As for where to eat, the Zetter’s location dazzles with dining options. It’s just a five-minute radius from some of London’s great London’s drinking and dining spots, including Moro, Caravan, Quality Chophouse and the Modern Pantry, which is literally next door. 10 minutes by cab, bus or Boris Bike puts you at Broadway Market, London Fields, Shoreditch and Dalston, or the same in the other direction and you’re at Covent Garden, Soho and the West End. It inspires you to make like that Great Aunt Wilhelmina, and be a great explorer. And if you’re feeling too lazy you could always stay put – you’ll feel as though you’ve had an adventure from here.
Whenever you book a stay at a Smith hotel or villa, we’ll invite you to review it when you get back. Read what other Smith members had to say in The Zetter Townhouse Clerkenwell’s Guestbook below.
The hotels team, which was very welcoming and helpful. The room, which was very light and cosy and felt quickly like home. The shower, which was so nice that I forgot I usually prefer bath tubs. The bar downstairs is also very lovely and we regretted not getting the afternoon tea by the fireplace.
A big room – it's quite tiny.
Stayed on 18 Jan 2019
We loved the whiskey sours and the quirky rooms.
Don't expect big hotel style.
Stayed on 19 Mar 2018
Everything. The decor was eccentric and quirky (a stuffed cat in a dress anyone?) but with all of the attention to detail and mod cons you could possibly want (bathrobes, slippers, toiletries, wonderful shower). The staff were professional and friendly. We loved it and I, for one, was reluctant to leave. The Modern Kitchen directly adjacent on the Square serves excellent, modern food.
A 'proper' restaurant or a conventional hotel reception. It's far cooler than that.
Stayed on 5 Aug 2017
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