It was a typical Sunday afternoon in London. Inside The Orange Public House and Hotel near Sloane Square, the locals were engaging in a weekend ritual: Sunday roast. Heaping plates of sliced beef with braised cabbage and crispy potatoes were served up with Yorkshire pudding and gravy. Frothy pints of lager were delivered to wash it all down. And between taking orders and clearing tables, a cheery waitress swiftly tucked my suitcase out of the way and asked me to take a seat: "Your room will be ready soon," she said, "Would you like a drink while you wait?"
For a first-timer, checking in to a pub for the night is an unconventional experience. At The Orange - a trendy watering hole with four bedrooms on its upper floor - the features of a classic hotel are absent. There's no dedicated reception desk, no porter, and no concierge. Upon arrival, guests have to navigate their way through an often crowded ground-floor bar, up two narrow flights of stairs (bags in hand) to the second-floor dining room.
There, the check-in process takes place at the same counter where drinks are poured. This is, after all, a pub that happens to have some rooms for rent, not a hotel with a bar. On a busy Sunday it feels slightly awkward to stand there with luggage, in the middle of the rush-hour bustle.
And yet, there's no sense that you've intruded and no pressure to get out of the way. Like any good hotel, the welcome is warm and since there's no lobby, you're encouraged to treat the pub as your own living space.
The Orange is one of the latest in a spate of restored pubs in and around London that offer good food and drink for the local community, and chic accommodation for those who want to stay for more than a meal. "In recent years, the majority of 'restaurants with rooms' have tended to be in rural locations," says Matt Turner, editor of the hotel design magazine Sleeper. "But for hotel developers, the scarcity of available property in prime city-centre sites makes acquiring pubs for conversion to gastro-pubs with rooms - 'gastrotels' even - an appealing proposition."
Turner believes that authenticity and a sense of place are more likely found in an 18th-century inn than a fancy new-build hotel. Since many of the gastrotels started off as taverns offering accommodation, hoteliers have managed to spruce them up and convert them back to their original function. In guest rooms, flat-screen TVs and rain-forest showers are as de rigueur as claw-foot tubs and old wooden writing desks. At the same time, the charm of the original structure may restrict the level of luxury one can expect. Bedrooms tend to be on the small side. Heating and air-conditioning systems may seem antiquated. And noise levels may be high both from outside (most pubs are situated on main roads, so hearing traffic is inevitable) and in (depending on the level of soundproofing, you may be kept up by rowdy pubgoers).
The drawbacks, however, are minor compared to the overall experience. The recent transformation of Ye Olde English Inn has been led by a group of savvy designers and foodies who are as interested in trendy decor as they are in good food and home comforts. Don't expect the drab meals, dusty velvet booths and weathered dart boards of Coronation Street. The Orange, for instance, traded in its staid Victorian-era image for lime-washed Provençal-inspired interiors, exposed floorboards and soaring windows. Ilse Crawford, the founder of British Elle Decoration magazine and designer of Soho House New York, turned The Olde Bell Inn in Hurley and The Crown in Amersham, two timber-framed pubs in the countryside an hour outside London, into contemporary inns with cozy restaurants that serve traditional British fare made from locally sourced food. The guestrooms are simply adorned in natural tones with woven wool blankets, polished oak floors, farmhouse furniture and a stash of organic toiletries.
Then there's The York and Albany in Camden, which is part of Gordon Ramsay's growing empire and his only pub to take overnight guests. While its 10 rooms range in size from a tiny standard to a 550-square-foot suite that overlooks Regent's Park, each has the same luxurious amenities: 400-thread count Egyptian-cotton bed linens, an iPod docking station, DVD player and complimentary WiFi. At the bar, the drinks on tap range from ale and wine to fruity martinis and Veuve Clicquot. Some say the real draw, however, is in the kitchen. Executive chef Angela Hartnett, a Ramsay protégée, best-selling cookbook author and BBC TV personality, presides over the menu and offers up hands-on cooking classes on Saturdays.
But it's not all about the fluffy bathrobes, fancy drinks and celebrity chefs. "Many people are worried that the gastro pub will take over and that nowadays too many pubs are becoming like restaurants," says Fiona Stapley, editor of the Good Pub Guide 2010, "We have a strict rule [at The Good Pub Guide] If you're not made as welcome just popping in for a drink as you are coming in for a meal, then that pub is not for us."
There's no risk of being turned away at The Orange. On the Sunday night of my stay, the main-floor bar hummed with activity as friends gathered for chats and pints. The mood was friendly and informal. Upstairs, in the same dining room where I'd checked in earlier that day, I sat for dinner as a hotel guest but felt very much like a local, surrounded by an interesting mix of neighbourhood folk. The food was hearty and the prices, compared to the posh restaurants and hotels in the area, were quite reasonable.
This is the modern Britain public house, where gastro-labels and modern décor don't interfere with no-nonsense hospitality. Matt Turner agrees: "Pewter tankards seem to be the new martini glass."
Where to stay
Orange Public House and Hotel 37 Pimlico Rd., London; 44 (0) 207 881-9844; www.theorange.co.uk. From $236 a night.
The York and Albany 127-129 Parkway, London; 44 (0) 207 387-5700; www.gordonramsay.com/yorkandalbany. From $276 a night.
The Victoria 10 West Temple Sheen, London; 44 (0) 0208 876-4238; www.thevictoria.net. Seven rooms starting from $175 a night.
The Olde Bell Inn High Street, Hurley, Berkshire; 44 (0) 1628 825-881; www.theoldebell.co.uk. From $151 a night.
The Crown Inn 16 High St., Amersham, Bucks; 44 (0) 1494 721-541; www.theoldebell.co.uk. From $166 a night.
Special to The Globe and Mail