When is a hotel not a hotel? When it's built by a pair of restaurateurs who have made their name preaching the joys of offal, the glory of chitterlings, the meaty delights of pig cheeks and lambs' brains.
Possibly. When the dining room stays open until 2am. When the bar never shuts. When there's Fernet-Branca and Poire William in the minibar, and when the bedrooms come with green rubber floors "because it'll be like sleeping in a pond – very calming". Oh yes, there's not much that's hotel-like about Fergus Henderson's and Trevor Gulliver's new venture. Apart from the fact that it is actually a hotel where you can actually stay, although with just 15 rooms, above what promises to be a world-class restaurant, just one step away from Leicester Square, with the £5.5m cost funded by investors that include art world luminaries such as Tracey Emin, Sadie Cole, Sarah Lucas and Peter Doig, you may have to form an orderly queue.
What marks out the St John Hotel is that it's not saddled with the usual hotel logic. Gulliver calls it a "hostelry" and Henderson says that "the spirit of the place is 'yes'." And it's already a part of London history, housed in Manzi's, the fish restaurant on the fringes of Chinatown that had been there forever, until suddenly it wasn't. Begun in 2007, and arriving a respectable six months behind schedule, it's the latest adventure for the pair, who nearly two decades ago opened St John, the bare bones restaurant next to London's Smithfield meat market, founded on the concept of "nose-to-tail" eating. If you're going to eat meat, Fergus Henderson has always said, it's only polite to eat the whole animal. The new concept is table-to-bed. "Like Isambard Kingdom Brunel," he says. "He built the Great Western Railway then arrived in Bristol and saw the Atlantic and thought 'A ha! I'll cross that next' and built the SS Great Britain." Here, Henderson explains how it happened:
Fergus Henderson: "It all started in Beirut. I went to the wedding of a friend there, and he said, come and do something here in Beirut. It was based in a palace which had been a hotel and I rather saw myself in a white dinner jacket like Humphrey Bogart in Rick's Cafe: just smoking and watching the scene. That fell through but the seed had been sown and then Trevor spotted that Manzi's was empty. Now Manzi's has been a feature in my life since the word go, almost. I remember going there the night I had my wisdom teeth out: I had oysters and lobster soup because I couldn't chew anything.
"It was a real institution, and it always had a little hotel above. In the 80s if you worked in advertising and the boss asked you to Manzi's for lunch, you sort of knew that your afternoon was destined to end upstairs. It needed a new start so we gutted the whole building, there were just two walls left, and it's been fun watching it take shape. It's looking really cheeky. We've got some colour, which is an adventure for me, but I have to say I think it's worked very well.
"It will be cheeky in a nice way. Cheeky could be saucy, which a hotel should be, but not too saucy, because if you're alone it could be rather sad. There's no art on the wall and there are no wooden ducks. Because you're only there for a few days, why would you need a wooden duck? Or a bedspread where you wonder how many people have put their naked bottoms on it. Our idea which we've followed quite closely is Miniature Grand Urban Hut. Because if you go to a grand hotel and you get into any kind of trouble, you know they'll sort it out and it'll be OK. And a hut because in the mountains you go into this marvellous space and it saves you from the elements.
"The bathrooms are in the rooms because otherwise, in small hotels, you have those weird cubicles which cut into the room. And also you can't watch the telly in the bath. There's a separate room for the toilet, though.
"There aren't going to be pig trotters in the minibar, no, no, no. But there will be carefully selected spirits with nips to cheer you up like Poire William and Fernet-Branca. And Toblerone. Of course. It hurts your mouth as you bite in, and reminds you that everything's not perfect. Which is good because sometimes you can feel a bit too smug in a hotel.
"The restaurant will be open till two in the morning. No one else is, which is a good thing. There could be a reason, of course, why restaurants aren't open till two. Oh well. We may have to work that one out. And the residents' bar, well, there's no reason it should ever shut. It is the hotel of my dreams, basically. There's no point in doing it otherwise.
"We're hoping the clientele will include chefs after work, and the drummer from some orchestra or other. The place has a foodie vibration so hopefully that will put off the people looking for a fast food burger. But then again, everyone's welcome. I started off working in dodgy members clubs. And I hated that. People not being allowed in. What we do is open our doors and see who comes in.
"The menu is going to be like the hotel, a little oasis of calm, a brow-stroke, you know: good food, good wine, all is well. There's a GK Chesterton book where a character goes, "Landlord! Some beans and bacon and a bottle of your finest Burgundy!" I like that idea, that you could walk in and say that. And there'll be lots of buns, of course, perfect for dunking in coffee.
"A kitchen is very like an 18th-century man o' war, I think. It's like Master and Commander. I'm not sure what book expresses the hotel, although I do like Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans. He tells the story of a wedding in the main ballroom where these dwarves come out of the cake and then row it across a lake. Which is a million miles from anything we could achieve, but I quite like his ambition. Gosh, yes." OFM
St John Hotel, 1 Leicester St, London WC2H 7BL, opens on 31 March; rooms from £200 pn; 020 3301 8069; stjohnhotellondon.com
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