A review of the St. Ermin’s Hotel
I first visited the St. Ermin’s Hotel close to Scotland Yard in St James’s in June 2012 for the first Intelligence Book of the Year Awards. Today, I will return there to attend a reception to announce the second winner of this annual prize by judges Andrew Lownie, Dan Mulvenna, Glenmore Trenear-Harvey, Michael Smith and Nigel West.
As I reported in my last article on this Victorian property, the St. Ermin’s Hotel’s links with the worlds of politics and espionage are indeed strong. Built in the Queen Anne revival style to the designs of Edwin T. Hall (1851 – 1923) in 1887 and completed in 1889, the horse-shoe shaped building was originally a mansion block prior to being converted to a hotel that opened in 1899 after a major refurbishment by the theatre architect J. P. Briggs (1869 – 1944). Briggs remodeled the public areas and created a spectacular neo-Baroque entrance with balconies, ornate plasterwork and a double staircase.
Due to the building’s proximity to the powerhouses of government, the St. Ermin’s Hotel became a meeting point for officers of the Secret Intelligence Service and, as a result, various traitors and spies. Some worked from offices in the building and amongst them were Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Laurence Grand and Eric Maschwitz. Others came there to be interviewed and the hotel’s bar, The Caxton Bar, is renowned as having been a noted meeting place for secret intelligence officers.
One of the most notable meetings at the St. Ermin’s Hotel was held in 1940 when Winston Churchill brought together a group to join him in “Setting Europe Ablaze”. These founding members of what was to become the Special Operations Executive (SOE) took over an entire floor of the hotel and carried out covert operations from there throughout the Second World War. MI6 were stationed two floors above and then in the 1950s, the hotel’s bar was the meeting point of Guy Burgess and his Soviet counterpoint when he passed intelligence to the USSR.
Following on from a £30 million refurbishment to designs by Dayna Lee of Los Angeles-based Powerstrip Studio, the 331 rooms and suites at the St. Ermin’s Hotel are now comfortable, well appointed and decorated in a contemporary style. The two that I inspected, whilst perhaps lacking the charm of a boutique hotel such as Blakes, are absolutely ideal for a business traveller or tourist given the location close to the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. They are well worthy of their four star rating and I slept well given how centrally located the hotel is.
The Caxton Grill, the hotel’s restaurant, continues the traditions of the St. Ermin’s in that it plainly is the haunt of politicians and policeman. Whilst dining there, I met an officer from Scotland Yard who was involved with Operation Yewtree. I can report that, though I had a most fascinating conversation with him about Savile, Davidson and Clifford, I did not leave with any state secrets that I could share here. The restaurant also featured on a recent episode of the BBC One’s MasterChef with Gregg Wallace and John Torode and frankly one could also imagine Hercule Poirot having taken rather a liking to it also. It is modern in style and features wooden flooring, bright décor and snazzy seating.
The restaurant features a menu that focuses on a Josper grill. This £17,000 hybrid barbeque–oven, which I saw so cleverly used by Chris Golding at Beauchamp Place’s Galoupet, allows a chef to cook, barbeque and roast at the same time over charcoal embers at temperatures of upto 600 degrees. Filled with Kentish hardwood every morning, the Josper recirculates smoke via adjustable draughts and, for example, as a result, it takes only about a minute to char infuse lamb and thick-cut beef sirloins. The real thrill of it, though, is that the Josper process ensures that none of the flavor or natural moistness of whatever is cooked in it is lost.
I began with a salad of soured plums, gorgonzola and blackberries (£8) that was colourful and most welcome on a grim winter’s day. My companion tried a roast celeriac and truffle veloute (£7) that though perfectly adequate, did not truly excite.
I continued with a half Temple Farm chicken (£20) that was cooked on the Josper Grill. Well presented and served with a green peppercorn sauce and some garlic and parsley French fries (£4), the cooking process was clearly illustrated. The meat was tender and I must say it was one of the best pieces of chicken I have eaten in years. My companion, an Icelandic financial titan, maxed out on a 300g vintage dry aged sirloin steak (£30) served with béarnaise sauce. Again, cooked to perfection, he was impressed.
Though more than amply fed, we finished by sharing a chocolate fondant (£7). This simple dish melted in the mouth and the accompanying ice cream was just superb.
Wines in the restaurant start at a very reasonable £19.95 for the house white and rise upwards to the £300 a bottle range. A Chablis is priced at £41 and a Gavi di Gavi at £33. The restaurant’s bar, the Caxton Bar, offers a huge array of cocktails but I must say I was rather sad that none of them were spy themed.
The most quirky thing about the St. Ermin’s Hotel is that it has its own colony of bees. “Bees… In Wesminster?”, I hear you cry. Yes, indeed, 200,000 of them prosper on the roof of the hotel and produce the most delicious honey that is available to guests. From three hives, the Buckfast bees, described as being “good tempered”, have fantastic access to London’s parks and travel within a three mile radius collecting pollen and nectar. “London”, states the hotel’s website, is “a perfect environment for bees as… cities actually trap heat, which means they can start foraging earlier in the year than rural bees and continue later into the autumn”. Who’d have thought it? Where once lived spies, now prospers a colony of bees.
St. Ermin’s Hotel, 2 Caxton Street, London, SW1H 0QW. Telephone: +44 (0) 20 7222 7888. Website: http://www.sterminshotel.co.uk
Follow the St. Ermin’s Hotel on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/sterminshotel
Read our report on the first Intelligence Book of the Year Awards at: http://thesteepletimes.com/da-steeps-speaks/long-live-the-spies