Memories of most Hull residents around my age of Hammonds (later House of Fraser) are of a typical Grace Brothers-style department store that was always bright, warm and smelled of perfume. I remember pushing through the actual “plate-glass swing doors” mentioned by Larkin in Here and going up the escalators to Picadish, the restaurant on the top floor. If I’d behaved myself on a shopping trip to town, my mother would reward me with a knickerbocker glory. I almost always behaved. The thought of missing out on a towering goblet of sugar and additives was too troubling to entertain.
Picadish, knickerbocker glories and the various departments of Hammonds have, of course, long since vanished. The decline of high street shopping eventually did for all of Hull’s glorious palaces of consumerism and they now exist in various states of demolition and decline. Credit, then, to Artisan Food Hall Trading Ltd, which has developed the ground floor of an empty department store and turned it into a sort of food hall. There’s no denying the expense they’ve gone to, it’s just a shame the results are so poor.
Hammonds of Hull – as it has been named – arrived at the end of last year with press releases making claims “to attract two million visitors a year and breathe life back into the city centre”. This nonsense gave people pause and may explain why, when it opened its doors, there seemed to be a paucity of the much-trumpeted “local” food concessions. Things have improved and now the majority of the concessions appear to be locally-led but with some still owned and run by management.
I ordered pork gyoza (£7) and vegan sushi (£9) from new concession Oishii Ne, which, despite the authentic moniker, is actually run by a Hull lad who is attempting to upscale his business from home deliveries to public-facing. While I waited, I bought a local lager – £5.90 – from the bar (you queue for food and then again for drink) and wandered through the rest of the hall.
I try to find a comfy seat to enjoy my lunch but they’re in short supply. A couple of areas with upholstered furniture aside, the only seating is distinctly uncomfortable chairs and stools. They match the industrial vibe of the decor, which is all bare concrete and exposed ducting. Some might call it trendy, I call it unfriendly.
The gyoza and the sushi were fine. Nothing more. The Rueben sandwich (£8.25) I had from Mr Hugo, offering mainly smokehouse fayre, had too much cheese and was a little sickly.
On a subsequent visit, I tried the veggie pizza (£10) from the Vinny Napoli concession. Great pizza with excellent mini artichokes and sweet roquito peppers and a perfect base. The double cheese and bacon burger (£10) from Grilla Burger was passable but nothing special and – revisiting Mr Hugo – there was nothing of note wrong with the 16-hour smoked BBQ beef brisket (£14.95). What left a sour taste in the mouth were the prices. Everything could do with at least a quid, if not two, knocked off. These feel like London prices in the middle of Hull.
One thing that hasn’t materialised is the “farmers market” element. Taking up around a quarter of the ground floor is what is supposed to be the “artisanal and organic farmers market”. But there is no fresh fruit, veg or anything you’d expect at a farmers market. There are jars, tins and bottles. Unarguably, most of the ingredients in those containers were originally grown on a farm but they’ve since been pickled and preserved and otherwise converted into something unfresh and un-farmlike. It’s actually more like a grocers, and an expensive one at that. If you can find the prices. I estimated that around 70-80 per cent of the products were unpriced. So I cannot report on the cost of wild boar and cognac pâté or litenzia (a Macedonian spicy pepper sauce, apparently) but I can tell you a small jar of strawberry bonbons are available for a mere £6.
While the hall is reportedly busy at the weekend, both times I visited – at peak lunchtime hours – it was pretty empty. It all feels unfinished, underwhelming and disorganised.
Concessionaires tell me that Hammonds of Hull retains 30 per cent of their gross takings. This may go some way to explaining the prices of the food and I might have turned a blind eye to this if the dining experience was better. With plans to open similar ventures in Worcester and Cheshire, Artisan Food Halls may first need to seriously reconsider how it runs its Hull operation, ‘cos it ain’t good.
drink selection 3/5
Hammonds of Hull, 1 Paragon Street, Hull, HU1 3JZ, www.hohfoodhall.co.uk, Open: Monday-Saturday: 10am to 10pm, Sunday: 10am to 8pm.