Review by Fiona Duncan, published 12th October 2011.
Where's the corkscrew? Surely these people have a corkscrew."
"Don't be horrid about them. They're nice. They're in love," I say.
"What's that got to do with it? How do you know, anyway?"
"This card. And watch it, one of them is in the police."
"How do you…? Oh, never mind. I've found the corkscrew."
Welcome to the Unhotel, and to the apartment of two young professionals whom I will never meet, but whose photographs, greetings cards, books and CDs are liberally displayed. Luckily for them, cupboards and drawers are discreetly sealed with special tamper proof tape to prevent further nosy investigation on my part.
The Unhotel is for people who want a short spell in London, enjoying the standards of a four- or five-star hotel, but in someone's home. One Fine Stay, the company behind the concept, display all the properties – or Unhotels – on its website, illustrated by alluring photos. It tells you the positives and, under "Home Truths", the negatives. And they show the dates that each property has been made available (it's this flexibility that's so advantageous to owners – you can offer your place for whatever length of time suits you, as long as you do so for a minimum of three months a year).
Most properties are in central London, but we chose Richmond to test one of the Unhotels. Alastair from One Fine Stay was there to settle us in and show us how everything worked. The place was clean and neat as a pin. One Fine Stay's own white linens and mattress toppers were on the beds, their towels and White Company toiletries in the bathrooms. And there are a cleaning pack, fruit, cereals, tea and coffee and other goodies to start you off.
Best of all, they give you an iPhone, which can be used to make unlimited calls and texts within Britain during your stay, to find your way round London via Google Maps, and to read on an app the owners' personal tips about their area (see below for this couple's recommendations).
What of our place in Richmond? Part of a gated development of new fully fitted apartments, it's all huge, wood-floored sitting room and minimal open-plan kitchen with must-have built-in coffee machine but hopeless storage: the poor darlings have had to cram their equipment into inadequate cupboard space.
As for us, other people's kitchens are always a nightmare and while we search fruitlessly for wine glasses or a salad bowl, we wish fervently we were in a hotel. But when we stretch out on the sofas and make the place our own, we very much don't. Friends join us for supper and we eat pasta from huge white plates and pad about next morning pretending to be young.
And now I must tell you something. I'm the first person ever to test One Fine Stay from both sides. Our London flat is one of the 150 properties on their books, and after each let, it's returned to us immaculate, with no trace of the previous occupants. There are pitfalls aplenty involved with a complex operation such as this, but so far we haven't encountered them. Anyone want to do battle with my kitchen?
One Fine Stay (www.onefinestay.com). The Richmond apartment, sleeping four, costs £414 for one night; £230 per night for three nights. A pre-authorised card deposit of £1,000 and photo ID are required.
Where to eat
Gaucho Richmond (the Towpath; 020 8948 4030;www.gauchorestaurants.co.uk) serves tasty steaks in a picturesque setting on the river – you can get picked up in a golf buggy from town and driven to the restaurant. Matsuba (10 Red Lion Street; 020 8605 3513) is a Japanese and Korean restaurant popular with locals. Petersham Nurseries Café (below; Church Lane, off Petersham Road; 020 8605 3627; www.petershamnurseries.com), has a Michelin star and is a beautiful setting for lunch. Pizzeria Rustica (32 the Quadrant; 020 8332 6262; www.pizzeriarustica.co.uk) is a charming independent Italian restaurant. It was voted best in London before Pizza East came along.
Where to drink
Stein’s (55 Petersham Road; 020 8948 8189; www.stein-s.com) is a Bavarian beer house which also serves delicious German food. The Duke Public House and Dining Room (2 Duke Street; 020 8940 4067;www.thedukerichmond.co.uk) is an excellent gastropub. The So Bar (10 Brewers Lane; 020 8940 0427; www.sobar-richmond.co.uk) is a buzzy cocktail bar by the green.