Photo of The Zetter Townhouse, London

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 8th July 2011.

Oh, the openheartedness of youth. And the mean-spiritedness of age. "This room has so much character," declared my son Alexander as we chinked glasses – Les Fleurs du Mal for him and Nettle Gimlet for me – in the cluttered, velvety, Edwardian-style Cocktail Lounge of the newly opened Zetter Townhouse.

"Yes, but it's not real, is it?" I replied, crabbily. "It's a pretence, right down to that mock old portrait over there, meant to be the owner of the house. I know it's been cleverly done to look like the home of an eccentric much-travelled aunt from a bygone era, but it just makes me nostalgic."

"For what?"

"For the real thing. I remember hotels that really did look like this, filled with curiosities, with postcards stuck into mirror frames, books piled up, pictures everywhere just like here, probably even strange cocktails on offer. I'm not sure if I care for such heavy-handed pastiche."

"But it's just a bit of fun, Mother. What's wrong with that?"

He's right, of course, but I can't help it. The Townhouse, a fine Georgian building across the cobbles of St John's Square from its contrastingly modern parent hotel, The Zetter, has been concocted for owners Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyan to look like "The Zetter 200 years ago".

Well known for creating essentially English interiors with witty irreverence and a mish mash of styles, designer Russell Sage has rewarded his clients with not just an absorbing, amusing, detail-rich interior, but a story to go with it.

Hence the newly created portrait of a feisty looking Georgian-era lady whom the owners have named Wilhelmina and the staff have been trained to talk of as their patroness… "that's Wilhelmina's stuffed kangaroo over there; she brought it back from Australia…" and so on.

According to the barman, she also created the cocktails. One with Japanese ingredients is called Treaty of 1854 and is served in a jam jar "because that's how Wilhelmina smuggled it out of Japan before the 1854 Treaty ended its seclusion from the rest of the world."

Oh, for heaven's sake. Just give me a drink. Actually it's top mixologist Tony Conigliaro who has come up with these house cocktails (£8.50 each) based on tinctures and cordials that were around in Dickensian times, and nicely different they are too.

But for me there's a flaw – not in the cocktails, but in the lounge. Dark and full of eye-catching oddities it may be, but it isn't risqué enough. Cocktail bars should surely have a whiff of decadence about them, but no one's going to show a suspender here, that's for sure; even a glimpse of a frilly petticoat would require the smelling salts in such fuddy-duddy surroundings.

But it's also a hotel, and the lounge makes an enveloping place to while away time and have a bite to eat.

As for the 13 bedrooms, they are the antithesis of hotel rooms: different, eclectic, brilliantly coloured. Mine had a headboard made from circus carousel and a bath surrounded by gold mosaic tiles. The attention to detail – witness the handmade hotel directory, the retro iPod dock, the hot-water bottle – is faultless. In short, an excellent new London bolt-hole, better still if they give Wilhelmina the boot.

  • St John's Square, Clerkenwell Road, EC1 (020 7324 4545; Doubles from £222; breakfast from £10. Adapted room for guests with disabilities
  • Fiona's Choice

Where to eat

Apart from Bruno Loubet in The Zetter Hotel, just across the square from The Zetter Townhouse, you could try the new Bistro du Vin Clerkenwell, the Hotel du Vin group’s first stand-alone restaurant, open from breakfast to nightcaps at 3am. The menu is simple, with meat from neighbouring Smithfield and a 200-bin wine list.

A five-minute stroll north will take you to Exmouth Market, a vibrant pedestrianised street flanked by small independent boutiques and long-standing traditional shops. There are also many bars, cafés and restaurants, most notably, the award-winning Moro (020 7833 8336;; booking essential).

What to see

At St John’s Gate Museum (020 7324 4005;, opposite The Zetter’s entrance, you can take a tour around the ancient Priory of the Knights Hospitallers, with its Tudor Gate House, 16th-century church and 12th-century crypt. The setting for both Shakespeare’s and Dr Johnson’s place of work, Hogarth’s childhood home and Dickens’s Club, St John’s Gate has many literary and artistic associations.

In more recent times, St John’s Ambulance was founded here and a new interactive exhibition tells its story. Then, of course, you have St Paul’s Cathedral and the new shopping centre, plus the fascinating and undervisited Museum of London, as well as Whitecross Street market, which is only on Thursday and Friday but is a lovely hidden food market.