If any city should have a great station hotel, it has to be York, with its glorious railway station, once the biggest in the world, an attraction in its own right and instant gateway to the heart of the city.
The sprawling Victorian pile of the Royal Station Hotel alongside was not that hotel. Ten years ago I inspected it for the now defunct Egon Ronay Guide and write-up swiftly turned into write-off. It was dated and gloomy. They had terrible trouble serving me a half-decent cup of tea and a scone. Royal? I think not. Until this winter, I’d never been back.
Now it’s called the Royal York, and after a year-long restoration in which new owners Principal Hayley have thrown a ton of money at it, upgrading 165 bedrooms, the public rooms, spa and restaurant, the refurbishment is complete.
It’s some transformation. Within the spectacular cantilevered staircase, a giant, gold-baubled Christmas tree reaches up to the third floor. At ground level squadrons of sharp-suited staff welcome guests every few yards.
The dread peachy hues of the public rooms have been buried forever by modish shades of off-white and muted greys. The swirly carpets have been binned for rugs and limed oak floors. There are button- backed sofas and console tables, glitzy chandeliers and striking original art. If it looks over-designed in places – viz. a display cabinet with copper kettles and pseudo-library with cloth-bound books – you’ve got to admit the overriding reaction is hats off, money well spent
A classy hotel needs a classy restaurant. Or does it? Hotel dining is notoriously tricky to get right. Too many hotels come to grief attempting over-priced fine dining from a second-rate kitchen, thus punishing guests who, after a hard day’s work or shopping, probably want nothing more than a proper plate of food, no messing.
Thankfully the Refectory Kitchen – the clue is in the name – has gone for a limited menu of comforting, bistro-style dishes like cottage pie, spatchock chicken, sea bass with mussels, sole with brown shrimps, venison and rib-eye steak.
A starter of Yorkshire smoked wood pigeon comes in generous slices of lightly smoked meat, served on sourdough toast and topped with a heap of “horn of plenty” mushrooms. Soggy toast apart, it’s simple, plentiful and appealing. Good, too, is the ham hock terrine served with pickled quail’s eggs and what is billed as “toasted mustard monkey” which turns out to be good old piccalilli.
So far, so good. Two perfectly agreeable dishes from a list of eight that sound equally attractive: a soup of parsnip and Harrogate blue cheese; crab mayonnaise; crispy squid; smoked salmon. Not much danger of going wrong there.
We move on to the “coal-charred spatchcock chicken” with “winter chilli slaw”, which sounds the business, but turns out to be plain old roast chicken. The skin is neither charred nor crisp. A side order of chips, though excellent, brought the price tag up to £19.50, which is pushing it for chicken and chips.
Executive chef Nicholas Evans (ex Middlethorpe Hall) and his team might take a trip to Osmotherley and the Golden Lion whose definitive roast poussin comes dripping in rosemary and garlic and includes a green salad and a basket of chips, all for £13.90.
Mains are redeemed by a really lovely East Coast slip sole – a small sole sensitively cooked in butter and finished with capers, lemon and shrimp. The fish is sweet and tender with a contrasting sharpness from the capers and lemon and then given a good dose of buttery brown shrimps. Again, it’s incomplete without a side order. Add another £3.50 for a “winter leaf” salad.
It’s a good salad, mind, a collage of torn radicchio, little gem lettuce and red chicory, well dressed and well seasoned but, with the sole coming in at £21, this is bistro food fast approaching posh hotel restaurant prices. Ditto, a well assembled wine list but with no bottle under £20.
The pudding choices stay on the rails of trusty British faithfuls. Dark chocolate and salted caramel pot was an unsubtle gorge-fest of thick chocolate topped with thick cream. The queen of puddings had its proportions all wrong, too little custard, too much meringue and altogether far too sweet. With its little peaks of piped meringue, it looked as if it had stepped right out of Marguerite Patten’s 1970s Hamlyn All Colour Cookery book.
The waiting staff were eager to please, albeit another team trained to make regular inquiries about how we were enjoying our food then serve tepid water, with no ice.
The room is big and buzzy: wood floors, leather chairs, rows of those en- pointe filament lights and dressed-down tables each with a bucket of lemon thyme, a tea light in a jam jar and striped linen napkins. All plus points.
Despite some kitchen flaws – all easily mendable for a restaurant two weeks old on my visit – I honestly believe the Refectory is the sensible future for grande dame hotels like this. It’s got a touch of glamour and luxury without being stuffy or excluding. We enjoyed our evening out. The bill may be uppish for the food but not by the going rate of such places. If I wrote off the Royal Station, I’m very happy to write up the Royal York.
Refectory Kitchen & Terrace, Royal York Hotel, Station Road, York, YO24 1AA. 01904 688688, therefectory.co.uk. Open daily, 12-10.30pm. Price for two: three courses, bottle of wine and service £115.