Review by Fiona Duncan, published 10th July 2010.
The great thing about hotels is that there's always a human hand behind them. The hand behind the unlikely transformation of Bethnal Green Town Hall into a 98-room luxury residence is Loh Lik Peng, a thirtysomething Singapore lawyer turned "accidental" hotelier who is making a speciality of creating contemporary, design-led hotels from unusual buildings in Far Eastern cities. When he heard that this imposing Edwardian edifice was for sale, he couldn't resist. Even its location failed to put him off. Surely, he reasoned, Bethnal Green will "come up" like neighbouring Shoreditch.
Not that soon. Folie de grandeur? Or just folly? We will see. By all accounts Peng is a cultivated man with a passion for "vintage" as well as cutting-edge design (witness his rather creepy collection of old dentists' chairs in the modern, minimalist spaces) and a willingness to do things properly.
He took the bold step of choosing Rare, run by architects who are also researchers and teachers, to carry out the uncompromising design. He stumbled across the experimental cooking of Nuno Mendes and installed him in his own restaurant here, Viajante. He chose six East London artists to install artworks, from delicate woodcuts and murals in pencil to a mounted moose head fashioned from Persian carpet. Above all, he made sure that the neglected Town Hall regained its integrity and sense of purpose.
The result? The hotel has some astonishing elements, but you have to seek them out. Not least Viajante, separated from the entrance hall by a long, stark corridor. Here Mendes creates a tranquil, almost homely atmosphere in his open-to-view "finishing kitchen", tweezers in hand to perfect his eccentric, intellectual fusion dishes.
The restaurant critics have been harsh, but I loved my soothing three-course set lunch (£25). I liked the refreshingly different decoration, too, though the simple wooden chairs meant that shades of a benefits office were never far away.
And that's the trouble with this hotel. You have to seek out its treasures, such as the six "feature rooms", including the one fashioned (successfully) from the former gents' loos, with original stone floor, and the massive De Montfort suite; the unchanged council chamber for meetings and film shows; the unique laser-cut grill that encases the rear façade to allow light and privacy in guest bedrooms; the pool and gym; the all-glass top floor.
But most will simply arrive in Bethnal Green, stay the night in a room that looks as if someone forgot to decorate it, breakfast in a room that has all the joy of a town hall waiting room, find nowhere but Viajante's too-dark bar to relax and then leave. In short, Town Hall Hotel still feels, thanks to the rigorous attentions of its creators, like a Town Hall first and a hotel a distant second.
- 8 Patriot Square, E2 (020 7871 0460; www.townhallhotel.com) Doubles from £174 per night, excluding breakfast, until September 7; thereafter £290 per night. Access possible for guests with disabilities.