‘Are you for real?’ Mrs Smith is unenthused about being raised from her afternoon nap by Mr Smith, not least because I’m calling on the house phone from the bar. ‘No, really, you have to get down here,’ I say. ‘There are things going on that defy sense, logic and at least two of Newton’s laws.’ And that’s just the apéritif.
‘You’re familiar with the movie ‘Anchorman’?’ asks the young Australian bartender. Certainly. Who in their right mind isn’t? ‘I think you might like the drink I’ve made, named Ron Burgundy.’ Ron for rum, Burgundy for the pinot, served on a leather-bound book and smelling of rich mahogany with a smoking cinnamon quill garnish – making for the very rare joke drink that’s nonetheless well made enough to give the drinker the last laugh. It’s just one of a series of successively more impressive concoctions, each delivered with more élan than the last.
Such high-falutin’ hijinks are of course entirely in keeping with the fact that the bar at the Town Hall, the Bethnal Green beachhead of hotel-cool in East London, falls under the auspices of Nuno Mendes, the talent in the kitchen at the adjoining Viajante restaurant. Mendes was born in Portugal, trained all over the US and interned at El Bulli, and his menus are equally restless. If you’re looking for a quick steak straight off the plane or a bowl of pasta before you head out, this really isn’t the restaurant for you. For one thing, it’s prix fixe or degustation only, and for another, the kitchen prefers not to disclose what you’re going to be eating until it’s actually in front of you. Know this: you can pretty much bet on it being a wild ride, whether it’s smoky yoghurt, milk skin, razor clams and dashi or beef with burnt fennel, ‘chunky’ miso and ramps.
Curiously enough, it could be the bar menu where Mendes’ genius really shines (possibly because he’s not trying quite so hard). The design is no less aggressively funky – what are those rows of fuzzy things dangling like so many knotted strings from the ceiling? – but we graze our way from prawn and leek potstickers to marinated olives, almonds and tiny jamon bocadillos. The olives are fat green gordals, meaty and savoury, the almonds nothing more than the best Valencia has to offer, salted and plated, and the bocadillos are the perfect ham sandwich every bar needs. We’re rusted on regulars for the rest of our stay. And that’s before you factor in the dazzling three-gin martinis, or the lethal mescal margarita.
It’s Mrs Smith’s firm belief that the adventure-playground of art in the Town Hall’s public spaces is something best enjoyed while still under the spell of the mescal margaritas, and not their after-effects. It’s wild stuff, and not for the faint of aesthetic. Claire Morgan’s artwork Too Woo You, freezes an autumnal flurry of leaves above a staircase, replete with an onlooking owl, beautiful and bewildering in all the right ways. Plaques have been installed around the corridors as a part of art project walkwalkwalk, telling stories of the neighbourhood that blur the routine and the fantastical. They are no less bemusing; one reads: ‘Miss World pushes an old man in a wheelchair down Wilmot Street. She has a question mark branded on her right buttock. It bobs up and down as she walks...’
It’s wonderful stuff, in keeping with Bethnal Green’s nascent arty reputation, underscoring the tension between the civic splendour and council-chambers chic of the original building’s Deco lines, its mighty Edwardian frontage and its latter-day purpose. Mercifully, the rooms are not art installations themselves (‘that would be a terrible idea after a couple of three-gin Martinis,’ notes Mrs Smith), but they are simple spaces decorated in a contemporary mode, an effect heightened considerably by the laser-cut steel screens over the (working) windows of the new upper floors.
As with the modern-meets-Deco-meets-Edwardian look, there’s also a slight disconnect here between the apartment side and the boutique hotel side of the operation. Settling into apartment after we’ve pried ourselves from the bar, and giving it a good old snoop, it’s interesting to note that it has an impressively kitted-out kitchen, but there’s nothing in the fridge except milk and water. (There’s wonderfully little hotel collateral adorning the shelves and tables; the idea of taking them up on the offer of having chef Mendes’ team prepare a six-course in-room tasting menu, it must be said, fills Mrs Smith with ‘equal parts dread and fascination’.) There’s plenty of room to swing cats and most other domestic pets of reasonable size here, and someone with an eye for quality has ticked the boxes with the linens, the iPod docks and the free wifi. L’Occitane products (perhaps incongruously rustic in a hotel so urban) feature in the large and rather saucy bathroom, as does a neatly concealed washer/dryer. Perfect, in short, for anyone who likes to mix a little light cleaning with their dirty weekend.
The Town Hall is still the hippest thing on its block, though it’s a title contested only by the Museum of Childhood, a service station, a Nigerian restaurant, and the Family Butcher (has there ever been a more thrillingly ambiguous name for a meat man?). It is, in short, a happening waiting for the rest of the immediate neighbourhood to catch up. The fact that any mention of a hotel at this Patriot Square E2 address gets a ‘Wheeere?’ response from even the most grizzled of veteran black cab-drivers, is telling. If you’re looking for somewhere convenient for Theatreland or in any way handy for the airport, this isn’t it; if you’re seeking a base for your East End safari, somewhere that’s of the Shoreditch-Hoxton axis of awesome without being uncomfortably in it, this is your new favourite indie pied-à-terre. It's certainly ours.