I have written before about how you can live in a city for years and visit some places over and over, and others not at all. I remember coming to ride the London Eye back in 2000 when we first arrived and my parents visited, and passing by an imposing building Edwardian baroque building on the South Bank of the Thames, just north of Westminster Bridge and facing the Houses of Parliament. I remember being told that this was County Hall, former home to the Greater London Council, where debates took place and policy decisions affecting London were made. But by the time I arrived in London, it had ceased to function as a municipal building and all the functions that it formerly housed had moved downstream to the new glossy ovoid mayoral building near Tower Bridge. So what became of County Hall?
I knew that County Hall is home to the London Sea Life Aquarium and had hosted a Dali exhibition for years, but I had not been aware of the sheer mammoth scale of the building: it houses the London Eye visitors’ centre, various offices, the London Dungeon and a Namco Station amusement arcade. There is also a suite of exhibition rooms which was home to the Saatchi Gallery from 2003 to 2006; a budget Premier Inn; restaurants; apartments; and various spaces available for functions hire, including the original council chamber at the heart of the building. I was also surprised to learn that it houses the 5-star Marriott County Hall hotel, and setting foot inside said hotel recently was another London first for me. The grand Westminster Bridge entrance leads you to the Noes lobby – so named because this was originally a space where councillors adjourned before either agreeing (by voting aye) to or rejecting (by voting no) a political bill. The building is Grade II listed and the lobby is an elegant high-ceilinged and wood-panelled room . While admiring the surroundings we were presented with the hotel’s special Christmas cocktail – a potent, warming and spicy drink topped with creamy whisked egg white and garnished with redcurrants.
The hotel is currently part-way through an extensive floor-by-floor refurbishment programme and before we headed for dinner we had a brief tour of one of the refurbished hotel rooms. Much padding along corridors awash with “new hotel scent” and decorated with quirky bowler hat wallpaper brought us to an upper floor balcony room, so named because of its little balcony facing the Houses of Parliament. The room is a serene mix of greys with surprisingly successful accents of orange, and I particularly loved both the enormous dressing room; the bathroom with its black and white honeycomb tiles and wallpaper featuring a map of London; and the quirky London-centric art on the walls. But the main attraction become obvious when you walk our onto the balcony and find the London Eye almost close enough to reach out and touch, and the panorama of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament laid out before you. It’s quite breathtaking and I can imagine few better places to spend a New Year’s Eve. (Sadly, these rooms are already all reserved for this NYE – I asked!) We also took a peek at the Gillray’s Steakhouse restaurant, an elegantly curved room facing the river and That View; the adjacent Gillray’s bar with its mammoth gin collection and gorgeous modern chandelier; and the Library Lounge (formerly the GLC library), an afternoon tea venue and private dining space that still retains its beautiful collection of vintage leather-bound books.
From there we negotiated the labyrinthine corridors of the hotel to reach the Boardroom private dining room, one of the hotel’s ten private dining spaces and perfect for a party of about 12 people. We were there to sample their Christmas private dining offering, and the room’s regal appearance together with twinkling candles, Christmas crackers and baubles made it easy to forget that it was still November. Once we were all seated comfortably, head chef Gareth Bowen came to talk us through the menu that we were about to enjoyinge were served our starter of smoked salmon with avocado mousse, radishes and pressed watermelon cubes. This was delicious – the salmon was quite subtle smoked so as not to overwhelm the flavour of the fish; and the garnishes, particularly the sweet little watermelon cubes, worked very well with it. I had earlier made the minor faux pas of responding to a question as to whether I like turkey with a resounding no – but evidently that was before I had tasted the Marriott’s turkey! I have no idea what the chef did to prepare it, but it was the most succulent and flavourful bird I had ever tasted. It was served with every trimming you could possibly want: stuffing, bacon-wrapped chipolatas, roasted heritage carrots, sprouts with bacon, gingerbeer-glazed parsnips, buttered cabbage, roast potatoes, and root vegetable mash. A Christmas-lover’s dream! By this time, the wine had flowed and conversation had grown louder – the perfect time to pull our crackers, put on our paper hats, and play with the little boxes of party favours that were laid at each place. Before things got too raucous, dessert was served: individual Christmas puddings with a creamy vanilla rum sauce. Christmas pudding is another traditional dish that seldom gets me excited – but this time was different. The little puddings contained masses of almonds and fruit with almost no dough – and the Gosling Black Seal rum custard was good enough to scoff straight from the sauceboat with a spoon (if nobody were watching!). We finished off with coffee and platters of excellent mini mince pies and Stollen bites.
After dinner some of us headed back to the Gillray’s bar for a nightcap and a chat with head barman Sam Mitchell. Sam has been working in the London Cocktail bar scene for the past 6 years, the past five of which have been spent within Marriott hotels. He joined Gillray’s Bar earlier in 2015 and has been instrumental in increasing the number of artisan gins that they stock to well over 100 from all over the world. His obsession was made evident by the demijohns of various flavoured gin experiments behind the bar, and the shelf after shelf of rare gins from around the world on display. He put together a couple of excellent signature cocktails for us, including a Gin Old Fashioned with sloe gin a Ginger Bees Knees with honey, ginger and fresh lemon juice – very different but both excellent.
Heading back out into the cold night later, it was hard to believe that Christmas was still a month or so away – the Christmas spirit generated by the evening had been pretty convincing! Christmas private dining is available from 27 November until 30 December (excluding 25 and 26 December). The private dining menu like we had costs £70 per person (or £80 per person including half a bottle of house wine each) and includes: a three course menu (three choices for each course); Christmas crackers & novelties; and the exclusive use of a beautiful and historic dining room. . Private use of an iconic dining room (their rooms can seat from 10-60 people). If you are feeling flush you can also add canapés from £18 per person; mulled wine from £7.00 per person; or a DJ from £450.00. Although it is not cheap, it certainly does provide an appetising alternative to slaving away in the kitchen when it’s your turn to host the family for Christmas.
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this meal as a guest of the Marriott County Hall but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
Marriott London County Hall
Westminster Bridge Road
Tel.: +44 (0)20 7928 5200
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