THERE are times when you really want to hear the tinkle of ice cubes in your nightcap drinkie-poo after a long day on the road.
So its comes as a surprise to be told the bar had run out of ice – especially before 11pm in a flagship city centre 4* hotel that’s had a fortune spent on an ambitious refurb.
Not a big surprise, granted, that the only stars in evidence were in the night sky, as the bar and lounge tables had been left uncleared as staff finished their shift and left the bar itself largely unmanned; and it had to be explained earlier, after a somewhat unusual dining experience, what Grand Marnier was, and the bottle had to be pointed out on the less-the-crowded shelves.
More galling, though, when night staff we didn’t know from Adam appeared just before midnight with a bucket of ice for some other customers and told me, without an apology: “If you’d asked, you could have had some.”
Ask who, pray tell, when there was no bar staff in situ and I’d already been told there wasn’t any ice?
The stay hadn’t started off well, it must be said, because once past the impressively-restored lobby of the Hallmark Hotel in the heart of Derby, it sadly did not have that certain classy feel that I had expected in what is Britain’s – and the world’s – oldest-surviving railway hotel, built as the first showcase Midland Hotel opposite the city’s main station.
The Grade II listed building was opened in 1841 as part of the Railway Village, a complete railway complex designed by Francis Thompson, and it proudly carried the Midland Hotel banner until renamed by its new owners after changing hands some years ago.
It boasts of being a luxurious, contemporary hotel with original Victorian features, but the marriage is distinctly shaky, with lampshades, chairs and tables in the lounge/bar area jarringly out of context for a start and with peeling veneer very much in evidence on one large, incongruous round table.
Our bedroom – one of 120 – was high-ceilinged and flooded with light from the original window, but felt oddly claustrophobic, uncomfortable and oppressive, with dark new furniture and fittings in an angular 1980s style, which again seemed out of kilter and more motel-like, despite being obviously expensive.
It had the feeling of not being properly thought through, with the TV in a puzzling, no-purpose surround and the full-length wall mirror rendered unusable by being tucked away in a corner behind furnishings and a standard lamp.
And please tell me the thinking behind a huge padded headboard in dark, figured material reaching a sky-high arm-stretch off the floor, with three large prints on the wall above it? Perhaps it didn’t help that the prints were of wine bottle labels, more suited to a bar or bistro.
And that brings the focus to the hotel’s bistro itself, with the menu joining the fittings in seemingly being influenced by a corporate designer and apparently applying across the Hallmark group hotels.
OK, it’s a bistro with no dress code, but it’s also the only dining room in a 4* hotel – not ideal with bare, shiny-topped tables inches apart and food which sounds stylish, but owes more to across-the-brand fast food than serious cheffin’.
A retro prawn and crayfish cocktail at £6.50 could have come straight from a budget supermarket; and my wife’s choice of a half rack of sticky sweet pork ribs at £14 was simply surface-coated, not marinaded as one would expect.
Then there was my £14 main course: Skillet of chicken breast, baby onions, woodland mushrooms in a honey and cider sauce with bacon, served with creamed mash and spring onions. Sounds great, expected same.
Along came a trendy plank of wood, bearing a mini frying pan with what looked (and tasted) to all intent and purposes like a ladle full of thick chicken casserole, accompanied by a small iron-lidded side dish full of insipid mash. Sorry, but that’s not 4* in my book, especially when compared with similar-ranked hotels offering smart, efficient silver service and top-notch food which share a sister status to Hallmark.
It was compounded at breakfast time when again, there were more guests
than seats, with a queue to sit at tables with no tablecloths – underlining how difficult it is to cut bacon on a square plate which slides all over the place. More difficult for the overflow guests, who faced a similar problem, but on knee-high, cloth-less coffee tables hurriedly set for them in the bar/lounge area.
Breakfast was the usual self-service affair (including less-usual ready-fried eggs) except for tea and coffee, which front-of-house staff doled out by the cup from insulated plastic jugs.
The hotel was obviously popular for functions of various sorts, with at least one on the go the previous evening, and there are a number of promotions and special offers also available.
One attractive package includes a pass for Chatsworth House and garden, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s wonderful estate near Bakewell, a fair old drive away, but well worth it and certainly not to be missed if you’re anywhere near this part of the world.
A lot going on at Chatsworth, as there had been a huge concert in the park the night before, along with a mountain bike event to clear up, but all was running smoothly.
It’s a shame that the same can’t be said of the hotel, because both that morning and the previous evening, at least one stressed member of the management team had been running around doing catch-up jobs that should have been handled by properly-organised staff, in a bid to at least keep the wheels in motion.
They just about kept turning, but this former railway flagship was sadly not on the right track for me.