Over the past few months, as I have trudged off to work in the British Library, I have curiously peered at the huge hoardings outside St Pancras International station. For the last couple of years, vast panels have been proclaiming that something was "Opening soon". Fluorescent yellow-jacketed builders have lined the pavements, and diggers have been grumbling around moving earth behind metal barriers for months. The old St Pancras railway hotel loomed above it all, waiting for its make-over to be complete, and for its rebirth as the new St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Finally, earlier this May, and after a month or so of unheralded operation, the formal opening of the St Pancras Hotel took place. And, hearing tales of cracking cocktails and impressive interiors, I could not wait to go and explore it for myself.
If you're not staying there, choosing to spend time in a hotel can be an odd thing to do, however the St Pancras Hotel boasts a couple of restaurants (one is a Marcus Wareing effort) and a bar which are open to non-residents, so one doesn't need one's pajamas and a toothbrush to justify a visit. And the staff at the hotel seem equally delighted to welcome one-off diners and drinkers as they are those in search of a bed for the night. Their uniforms all appear to be inspired by railwaymen of yore, like someone had raided Bernard Cribbins' wardrobe from The Railway Children. They wore mostly dark blue, with purple and grey tinges, and small metal name badges, which reminded me vaguely of steam engine nameplates. Many of them seemed to be French (maybe they commute into work on the Eurostar?) and all were charm and efficiency itself.
The lofty, gothic architecture reminds me oddly of my old school; great tall walls and pillars in red and cream stone, candy-striped in places, with scalloped windows and glass-panelled doors. (Yes, I went to school at Hogwarts.) But despite the vast proportions the space feels stylishly comfortable rather than cavernous. Aiming for the Booking Hall Bar, an Accidental drinking companion and I were informed that the bar itself was currently full and that we could have a drink on the terrace (i.e. right on the St Pancras platforms) or in the hotel's lobby. We returned to the lobby, and settled ourselves onto a long, comfy leather banquette, from where we could watch the coming and going of the staff and guests, numerous items of luggage, and the ballgown-clad attendees of some corporate event happening behind a large frosted glass wall, from whence issued occasional rounds of muffled clapping.
The cocktail menu at the Booking Hall has been dreamt up by Nick Strangeway, whose alcohol mixing skills for Hix have garnered him much acclaim. And delightfully balanced and sophisticated they are too, served in beautiful etched glassware which must force serious care to be taken by the washers-up in the kitchen. (I wouldn't want to be the waiter who drops a trayful of those!) After one excellent cocktail apiece the Accidental companion and I managed to break our way back into the bar itself, and were seated at a dark wood table, so low that both of us struggled to engineer our knees beneath it. The menu in the bar is unashamedly and stolidly English. From Melton Mowbray pork pies to the beer-battered "fish 'n' chips" (yes, the unfortunately do describe it thus), the culinary message is "Wherever you've come from, you're in London now." We both dined on excellent rib-eye steak and possibly the best triple-cooked chips I have ever had.
After merely sampling food and drink in one bar, I cannot vouch for the accomodation, although I read one review in which a guest had been somewhat surprised to be awoken at 7am by a platform announcement. (The closest I got was the corridor towards the rooms, which are lined with slightly lugubrious recreated portraits of the hotel's original staff. Think scary-looking kitchenmaids clutching doomed chickens.)
For years, after totally adoring the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station in New York, I have felt that London's terminals needed to up their game, and make themselves more of a venue for all Londoners, for those travelling out of the city and for those who are not. Finally, the St Pancras Hotel may be bringing some of the glamour and comfort back into travelling by train. Or at least into a few post-work drinks in one of the city's finest old buildings.