The York and Albany Hotel, London
Alex Preston tries out the tastefully tricked-out townhouse offering the best of Ramsay and just a hint of Ripper…
When I first moved to London as a stripling, I lived with a group of friends in a grand Georgian townhouse on Wilkes Street in Spitalfields. It was wood-panelled and atmospheric – Jack the Ripper had killed someone in the garden. It was also remarkably cheap – Spitalfields hadn’t reached the apex of its gentrification arc back then. We were finally turfed out when the landlords put the house on the market for three million pounds, and we scattered to smaller homes in less fashionable districts.
I was reminded of that house on Wilkes Street when I visited the latest outpost in Gordon Ramsay’s empire, the York and Albany Hotel in Camden. It is not only that the nine-room hotel is situated in a fine, wood-panelled townhouse with an attention to detail that makes the most of the mellow misty atmosphere of the place; it’s also that, with rooms available at prices that are more Holiday Inn than Villa d’Este, a night at York and Albany feels like you’ve somehow pulled a fast one on the capitalist world.
Our room was at the top of the townhouse, reached up a wide, bright staircase. We arrived as darkness fell on a late-December afternoon. In our room (small, but not offensively so) a fire (gas, admittedly, but convincing) flickered in the fireplace, an armchair lolled invitingly, a sense of luxurious cosiness in the warm air. On the dresser in the corner, two oranges, as if a detail by Vermeer. We looked out over Regent’s Park towards the zoo where crows cawed and circled, more exotic animals screeched and growled.
After a few hours’ restorative shut-eye, we had tickets to the opera and strolled out into the darkness, through Camden which is near enough to be accessible, but held at arm’s reach. Mozart over-ran, and our dinner reservation at the hotel’s restaurant passed during an aria. I called from the cab on the way back and the cheerful Australian maître d’ read the menu to me over the phone, making recommendations despite the approach of the witching hour.
The restaurant is reached through the impressive bar area, where groups and couples chattered and nuzzled over a fine selection of wines. It’s perhaps surprising that in a hotel owned by a restaurateur, the dining room was the least prepossessing element of our stay. Ugly artwork, uncomfortable chairs in beige velour: the place reminded me of the BA lounge at JFK. We were the only diners, which was our own fault, but it didn’t help.
The food was good, and the charm of the waiting staff helped to defuse the rather austere atmosphere. I had neck of lamb in a good rich sauce; my wife’s cod was well-cooked and tasty. But all the while, the cheerful buzz of the bar came through to us, and it made us feel that we’d been exiled to a cold corner of the world. It was a relief to finish the meal and move back through to the dimly glowing bar.
It may have been the height of the building, but the bathroom was a disappointment. Hot water reached us in stuttering gasps as we showered, the flow alternating between a trickle and a chilly surge. We are spoiled, here in the twenty-first century, by the predictable regularity of our plumbing. I thought of the room’s price-tag and excused it, but left the bathroom feeling grumpier than I’d entered it.
After a peaceful sleep on a thoroughly comfortable bed (punctuated only by the occasional siren’s wail as the mess of a Thursday night in Camden was cleared up by the emergency services), we woke to bright skies over the park. I was sure I heard a lion roar at the zoo, but it may have been my wife. Leafless trees shuddered in wintry gusts. We made our way down for breakfast.
I have never watched The Apprentice, but the white-haired harridan to our left at breakfast was apparently Lord Sugar’s number two on the programme. She drank only coffee, while we feasted on an exemplary full English. The bar area had been transformed into a splendid place for brunch, and I wondered again how they’d got the dining room so wrong.
It’s rare that one leaves a hotel feeling evangelical; with York & Albany I came close. As the child of a tribe that has seeded itself on the winds of diaspora, I’m delighted to know that there’s a well-run, comfortable hotel minutes from my house (and from central London) that is so reasonably priced. I’ll be coming back, as will my mother, my grandfather, and any number of aunts. Like a country B&B in the heart of London, York and Albany is the antithesis of the snooty anonymity of Park Lane. A resounding hit.
Visit the York & Albany website for more info and prices: www.gordonramsay.com.