Restaurant review: Dining among railway history in Refectory Kitchen at the former Royal Station Hotel in York

No city needed a grand station more than York, a railway hub midway between London and Edinburgh, and it was the wealthy North Eastern Railway Company that in the late 1800s commissioned its in-house architects, Thomas Prosser and William Peachey, to design the biggest station in the world and its associated hotel.

What a thrill it must have been for Victorian travellers to steam into the great curve of the station, to disembark beneath the magnificent barrel-vaulted roof and for those who could afford it, a room in the £14 a night Royal Station Hotel, just a stroll across the platform that today goes by the less prosaic name of the Principal.

Railway hotels became a sign of status and wealth for the newly established railway companies. In York, the Royal Station Hotel had 100 bedrooms, numerous banqueting rooms, the Coffee Room overlooking the garden and the Rose Room for dining. Legend has it that jockeys in training were made to run the 100-yard corridor that goes from east to west, while their fat-cat owners looked on from the bar.

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Corridor apart, the most notable feature of the hotel is the imposing cantilevered staircase and decorative ironwork, rising three dizzying floors to the bedrooms. Peachey, was at his zenith when he designed it, having completed Middlesbrough Railway Station and the Zetland Hotel in Saltburn, but when it was discovered he was taking back-handers from the builders, he was promptly ‘let go’. The scandal did nothing to diminish the Royal Station’s status as the grande dame of York hotels.

Smoked duck and liver parfait tartlet
Photographed for The Yorkshire Post by Jonathan Gawthorpe.Smoked duck and liver parfait tartlet
Photographed for The Yorkshire Post by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Smoked duck and liver parfait tartlet Photographed for The Yorkshire Post by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

When I first visited in the 1990s it was a gloomy, dated pile where it was hard to score a cup of tea, let alone dinner. Then in 2015, the Grade II-listed hotel was given a transformational makeover. It is decorated in a neutral palette of taupe and cream, giant mirrors and original art fill the walls. Rugs and sofas, chesterfields, winged chairs and plumped up cushions furnish the former Coffee Room. A place that works as a meeting room and a place to get out your laptop and work away from home. They serve light meals throughout the day and a prime window table with a view across the lawn to the Minster, is a hot ticket for afternoon tea.

By contrast, the Refectory Kitchen with its wood floors, filament lights and scaffolding poles appears at odds with the classic charm of the rest of the hotel, but they might well be onto something. Many of the city’s major hotels have gone down the fine dining route in line with their supposed status. The Grand, (formerly North Eastern Railway’s imposing head office) operates two restaurants, the Legacy currently offers a £120 eight-course tasting menu and on the basis that you can’t eat at that level every night, they have the more accessible Rise restaurant.

City hotels always have a hard time persuading guests to eat in rather than splashing their cash in the city centre bars and restaurants. The Refectory appears to have taken the path between easy, familiar dishes such as fish and chips and roast chicken and more involved dishes like scallops with caviar velouté, monkfish curry, duck breast with goose liver, venison and smoked salsify, with mains averaging around £24. From the grill you can choose a fillet steak at £35 and a Wagyu burger at £14. None of it is cheap, but you are in one of the city’s top hotels and there’s a lot of that interior design still to pay for.

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Our evening in the Refectory started with a nervous young server, a student it turned out, who double-checked our order, anxious to get it right. The smoked duck and liver parfait tartlet was perfectly agreeable. It had a crisp pastry case and a pleasantly smoked duck filling with a few slices of smoked duck alongside. The scallops were a generous serving of four plump morsels. They’d been briefly shown a hot pan so that they were nicely charred top and bottom but still gorgeously tender. I really couldn’t make sense of the accompaniments: pork crackling, cauliflower puree with cumin and caviar velouté. Pork crackling would have been nice. It might have added a salty crunch in contrast to the tender scallops, but it wasn’t there. Nor was the caviar and I could barely identify cauliflower or cumin. In reality, it was a dish of nicely cooked scallops in a nice cream sauce. Lean and tender roast lamb was my main dish, again accurately cooked to just pink. Peas and edamame beans (instead of broad beans) had been placed in a mini pastry case. The mini Shepherd’s Pie was minus its mashed potato topping. The result was a rather tasty dish of minced lamb topped with white sauce. Disappointing when the menu promises more and then delivers less.

Scallops with cauliflower puree
Photographed  by Jonathan Gawthorpe.Scallops with cauliflower puree
Photographed  by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Scallops with cauliflower puree Photographed by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

My pal played it safe with perfectly sound fish and chips and tartare sauce and oddly served with both pease pudding and mushy peas. Good fish. Crisp chips. No slip-ups. Nor with my dessert, a lovely damson frangipane tart with a well-crisped pastry case and a soft, soothing almond filling. A smear of deep purple damson puree, wonderfully intense working in harmony with the vanilla ice cream.

I’m all in favour of the Principal taking a more relaxed route to hotel dining. The Refectory, from the décor to the food, feels straightforward and egalitarian. It’s not intimidating, you don’t need to put on your diamonds and pearls to eat here. But if guests are not going to leg it into town for something better, the Refectory need to keep their eye on the ball. Someone in the kitchen knows how to cook, but it too often falls away when putting together elements on the plate to match the menu. If the word refectory from the Latin refectorium, means, ‘a place one goes to be restored, a little more attention to detail would do much to achieve that restoration.

The Refectory Kitchen, The Principal Hotel, York. Station Road York YO24 1AA

Dinner for two including a bottle of wine and service £140