What happens when a railway bar becomes the destination? Hamish Smith reviews Booking Office 1869 at St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.
Now, I don’t say this glibly: I have never been to a more beautiful bar than Booking Office 1869. It is outlandishly majestic, so dripping in grandeur and finery, the press release is actually accurate. It makes half of the five-star hotel bars in London look like they opened on a budget.
Booking Office 1869 isn’t precisely a new bar, rather a relaunch of the old Booking Office Bar & Restaurant, which, if the grey matter serves, shared the same St Pancras Station location, glorious original features and very little otherwise. Late last year, it became the Victorian Eden it is now, bedecked with towering palm trees that crane up to arches beneath triple-height ceilings. A 20-odd metre bar sits proud of the original booking office and faces a subtly partitioned room of lively patterns, fabrics and fine features. It’s the sort of makeover you’d expect of a Frenchman named Hugo. Hugo Toro to be exact – and tres bien monsieur.
Alas, and thank all the gods and their creators for this small mercy, looks aren’t everything. Bar experiences have a little more substance than appearance.
We’ll start at the welcome, which at a few ticks past 7.30pm, is lukewarm and utilitarian – it will be 7.45pm before we receive any more of Booking Office’s tepid service. We know the time because there’s a planet-sized clock at one end of the room, reminding us of the passing seconds as if we’re on Countdown. The clock has wound its way to 8pm before our order finally makes landing, just as my companion Brenda and I are discussing the number of trains missed on sufferance here.
Naturally, I had ordered the Arrived on Time (£16), which most certainly didn’t. A wide-bowled, stemmed glass with a good slosh of Boatyard Old Tom gin, a blend of sherries, cacao nibs and floral bitters, it’s a sort of fuller, rounder Martini, and a bold little opener. Hermes was the god of speed, but also the false prophet of Brenda’s long-awaited first drink: the Hermes Fizz (Cocchi Rosa vermouth, Muyu vetiver, reclaimed citrus, sparkling/£15), which was floral with the concentrated tartness of something analogous to oleo saccharum. Very much interesting rather than delicious.
The bar food was neither. Tuna Skewers (£10 for two) were raw and rubbery fish cubes, without any detectable flavour so subsumed they were by soapy green shiso. The Crab Cakes (Old Bay seasoning, lemon aioli/£14) were dry, brown hillocks; claggy, spongy and cold in the centre, while the Fried Chicken (£10), served with a plain, stiff-set yogurt, was so flavour-inert I could have served it to my children. It felt like home cooking. And not in a complimentary sense.
The hospitality up to now had been what you might expect from a railway bar, though probably not one with £16 drinks and £14 nibbles. The staff just seemed a little too preoccupied by the vastness of the task and the operation to provide much more than functional, reactive service.
And then everything changed. The bar manager suddenly appeared as if he had parachuted out of the palm trees. The “hello”, the “how are you?”, the “have you had a good day?” And not just for us, but everyone around us. Then came the glasses of water that should have been there from the start. The second round of drinks arrived as if we had a train to catch and were introduced to us as if we were about to share a journey.
Everything tasted better for this intervention of hospitality. The Flying Scotsman (smoked dry vermouth, Earl Grey chinato, grappa aged amaro/£15) was a rich and smoky digestif without the heady abv, while the Ol’ Signalman (pecan nut-infused bourbon, Cocchi Rosa, coconut bitters/£15) was a little aquatic ecosystem of harmonious parts, a smidgen sweet, but otherwise delicious.
Consistency is such a dull word, but inconsistency is no fun either. Here at Booking Office you could be treated to the experience of a glorious five-star destination bar, or, if you don’t time it right, an airport Garfunkel’s. We experienced both – in one evening.
Value for money 5/10