What’s it like? “Mama loves you,” my plate reads. The seemingly standard blue-and-white patterned china dish, on closer inspection, includes this tiny message. Behind me is a lamp with rabbit feet and ears and, by the reception, beaded Darth Vader helmets top birdcage-style cabinets. Across the restaurant’s black ceiling, graffiti by graphic designer and artist Beniloys is a mix of bright patterns and ancient city rules: “A Freeman of the City of London may drive a flock of sheep over Tower Bridge.” In the basement, not a gym, but two karaoke rooms with 50s-style microphones.
It’s these design touches that make Mama Shelter different from other city hotels of the same size. The brand was created by Club Med co-founders the Trigano family and designer Philippe Starck in 2008, and there are now 12 globally. The group’s first UK hotel is a prominent, matt-black building with black-and-white striped awnings on a corner of Hackney Road, near Bethnal Green. The ground floor is a living space that doubles as the restaurant, with comfy sofas, Aztec prints, ceiling-mounted fireplaces and vintage lampshades. It’s a cabinet of curiosities with a buzzy, already popular restaurant and internal courtyard cocktail bar with a retractable roof. There are 194 en suite rooms, across four floors. Mine, a medium double on the second floor, is compact, modern and unfussy.
What about breakfast and dinner?
Food is made for sharing at Mama Shelter, with a variety of smaller plates and platters, some influenced by the local area. My favourites include pork belly baos with char siu sauce, pak choi and ginger (£6); tuna crudo with pickled kohlrabi, ponzu and calamansi dressing (£12); and a truffle ricotta pizzette (£9). Larger plates on the menu range from French classics and vegan dishes, to posh kebabs and a pie, mash and liquor platter (£26).
There’s a lot of choice at the buffet breakfast (7am-10.30am; a la carte breakfast 10.30am-12.30pm): big trays of smoked salmon, pastries, muffins, cereals, yoghurt, a juice-it-yourself stand, and all the usual cooked suspects along with a vegan bean mix in tomato sauce and flavoured rice. It’s not included in the room rate, however – it costs £15pp – and there are a multitude of cafes to explore along Hackney Road and Cambridge Heath Road.
What’s on the doorstep?
Cambridge Heath Overground (two stops from Liverpool Street) is a few minutes’ walk, or get to Bethnal Green, on the Central line, in 10. E Pellicci (open since 1900) is the classic choice for a fry-up and two famous 24-hour bagel shops are on Brick Lane. Take a wander around east London favourites such as Columbia Road Flower Market, Broadway Market, and Hackney City Farm. The V&A’s Museum of Childhood is also just a few minutes’ walk away, or head to indie gallery land Vyner Street. There are plenty of places to drink, ranging from traditional boozers to taprooms and speakeasies. Notables include the award-winning Marksman pub or Sager + Wilde under the railway arches. For late-night beats, head to Oval Space and the Pickle Factory, or Metropolis for LGBTQ parties.
How much? Doubles from £99 room-only. Two-course dinner for two from around £60.
Value for money? Fun, affordable and stylish is hard to come by, and this has a great location, too, so yes – although it loses a point or two for charging extra for breakfast. •mamashelter.com Antonia Wilson
Inhabit, Paddington, W2
What’s it like? To get to “London’s first mindful boutique hotel”, as Inhabit calls itself, I walk from Paddington station, mid-construction frenzy, along some of the capital’s least zen streets, past fast-food joints, souvenir shops and roadworks. The hotel, set across six Georgian townhouses, is covered in scaffolding (the hotel is still in a soft-opening phase) but once I’m through the door, Inhabit’s Scandi-inspired interior dotted with plants exudes calmness.
The first thing I notice is the wellness programme at the front desk (of which more later); the reception, dominated by a woollen wall hanging, leads into the library, painted grey and blue, and furnished with Danish chairs, and bespoke pieces by Goldfinger Factory, a local social enterprise. Cushions are by Hertfordshire-based Aerende, which sells homewares made by vulnerable people in the UK. The hotel is clearly paying more than lip service in its commitment to wellbeing, thinking about its responsibilities beyond its guests: during the renovation, a link-up with Globechain helped reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill; in keeping with its aim to be single-use plastic free there’s bottled water on tap on each floor and re-useable glass coffee cups for sale in reception.
Daily wellness sessions include morning meditation (free), yoga (£10 a class) and guided walks (£10) into nearby Hyde Park. This week, meditation pods with headphones are being installed providing a space for guests to have a 10-minute guided session. I’m booked in for a Yin yoga class, which involves lying down for a series of very gentle stretches – or “constructive rest” as the teacher puts it. It does the trick: the muscle tightness after a day sat in front of a computer screen disappears. A session in the infrared sauna (free) compounds my sense of relaxation. I’m all set for an early night – and to see if Casper mattresses live up to the hype.
What about breakfast and dinner?
Food is by Yeotown Kitchen – a spin-off of the Devon-based luxury retreat of the same name – and is mainly plant-based, healthy and seasonal. Instead of the usual cereals and pastries, the breakfast buffet offers rice porridge with coconut milk, roast vegetables and frittata. I pour what I think is orange juice but get a surprise when I take a slug of tart, tumeric-infused ginger “elixir”. I decide I like it. Tumeric appears in several of the à la carte breakfast dishes, too (such as eggs royale, which comes with a dairy-free hollandaise, smoked salmon optional, £9).
Smashed avo is a given, of course, but there are more exotic dishes too that take almost as long to say as to eat: orange blossom tigernut-flour muffin-top pancakes with coconut yoghurt and berry compote, for one. The drinks are even more intriguing: a “medicinal mushroom latte” made with mushrooms and maple syrup. I have a moment picturing Patsy from Ab Fab ordering a smoothie the morning after the night before, and I admit, I ordered a plain old coffee with normal milk, but as more of us give up meat or take a flexitarian approach, it’s refreshing to see a hotel offering something other than croissants and fry-ups.
If you’re on the hotel’s room-only rate, and don’t want to pay to eat breakfast in (£15 for the buffet or dishes from £6 on the a la carte menu), there are plenty of nearby options: giant sticky pastries at Bonne Bouche on Praed Street, and an array of artisan coffee shops around Paddington Basin and Little Venice, including the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs and Beany Green. From next month the hotel restaurant will offer a dinner menu (until 9pm). Until then recommended restaurants are in your room directory.
What’s on the doorstep?
Some of London’s most tranquil spots are within walking distance: Hyde Park is a 10-minute stroll south, with acres to explore plus the Serpentine Gallery, the swimming and boating lake and Princess Diana Memorial Fountain; and Kensington Palace is in the adjoining in Kensington Gardens. Walk by the water from Paddington Basin (now a popular SUP spot) to Little Venice, another enclave where you almost forget you’re in the city; a stroll north-east along the canal, past John Nash’s grand Regent’s Park houses and London Zoo, brings you to Camden.
How much? Doubles from £150 room-only.
Value for money? The area has cheaper options if a bed for the night is all that’s needed (relative newcomer Pilgrm, for example)but I checked out feeling like I’d been on a mini-retreat – and that seemed like a result considering I hadn’t left London. •inhabithotels.com Isabel Choat
The William IV, Kensal Green, NW10
What’s it like? A handsome 200-year-old pub on the Harrow Road, which had already been a main highway out of London for centuries when this establishment opened during the year of William IV’s death in 1837. Ground-floor spaces now flow into one linked bar and dining area, where low lighting gleams off polished wood and the patina of vintage-style leather sofas. Nautical knick-knacks, including splendid model ships, are a nod to the eponymous monarch, called the Sailor King.
Three venerable Harrow Road pubs closed recently for redevelopment as flats, so the determination of the William IV’s new owners late last year to recreate a pub from what had become a shisha bar, DJ venue and grotty bedsits is to be applauded. The 15 spacious en suite rooms are plain and simple, with feature fireplaces and pale walls. They have carpets so thick you could almost sleep on them rather than in the comfy beds. White tile-and-marble bathrooms are also minimalist. Ask for a room at the back if you’re a light sleeper: the Harrow Road traffic is noisy.
What about breakfast and dinner? The walk along Harrow Road from Kensal Green station (Bakerloo line and Overground) yields not a single cafe, pub or restaurant, so the imaginative gastropub-style menu is particularly welcome. A starter of wild mushrooms with crispy kale and white bean hummus (£5) is so tasty I forget it’s vegan, and my husband’s chorizo and cannellini on sourdough is like beans on toast’s more delicious self. Sunday lunch is particularly good, with meat for the whole table on big platters, with tureens of veg. Dorothy’s Gin Garden offers outdoor seating, exotic gins on display and an interesting cocktail list.
Breakfast in the dining room is excellent: coffee, with sourdough bread and pastries, plus a good cold selection of cheeses, meats and fruit.
What’s on the doorstep?
Opposite stands verdant 72-acre Kensal Green cemetery, inspired by Paris’s Père Lachaise, with the Grand Union canal on one side. Notable residents include Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, William Makepeace Thackeray and one WH Smith, “merchant”. The stucco mansions and leafy squares of Notting Hill are about a mile away. Buses run from outside the pub to Wembley Stadium (25 minutes).
How much? Doubles from £110 B&B.
Value for money? Pretty good given the period surroundings and friendly welcome, particularly for those who need to be in west London. •williamiv.london Liz Boulter
The Buxton, Brick Lane, E1
What’s it like? A red-brick and stone building on Osborn Street at the bottom of curry mile Brick Lane. It’s a new venture by the people who run The Culpeper, less than 200 metres away on the corner of Commercial Street. The handsome late-Georgian building has been smartened up, with a bar-restaurant on the ground floor and 15 bedrooms spread over the upper four storeys. The bar area is now light and airy with floor-to ceiling windows, yet retains the feel of a pub – open doors, and stools round the bar, with a good view of the small open kitchen, and at a handful of high tables. Once the Archers Tavern, it has been renamed after Thomas Buxton, campaigner against slavery and capital punishment, co-founder of the RSPCA and all-round good egg, who lived up the street. The bedrooms are bijou, with a clean, functional feel: bare brick painted brilliant white, wiring hidden in aluminium tubes, TV, coffee and tea things on a small chest of drawers. The washbasin is in the room, making the shower and loo less of a squash – the obscured-glass sliding door on the loo/shower affords, well, only minimal privacy, however. Despite the urban location, double-glazed sash windows keep the night passably peaceful.
What about breakfast and dinner? Busy leather-aproned chefs in the open kitchen produce modern European dishes from a short menu, including a fish of the day dependent on what has just been landed on the south coast. Bar snacks are a million miles from the East End’s traditional pickled eggs: rillettes (£5), terrine (£6), radishes with cod roe – though there is a portion of chips for £4. From four starters we choose a chilled pea soup (made extra special with perfectly roasted hazelnuts), and scallops with garlic butter and samphire. Equally seasonal is a plate of fresh tagliatelle with courgettes, ricotta and shaved raw asparagus. Husband’s fish of the day (£15) is a good-looking chunk of cod in a deeply sweet-savoury shellfish jus, but I do find the lack of any vegan main surprising given this is east London in 2019.
Breakfast is equally imaginative – though with nothing for vegetarians or vegans: ham and eggs with ethereally light and crispy rösti for him, while I make a veggie option by declining the merguez sausage with my tasty harissa-baked eggs. Excellent coffee and nice pastries, though.
What’s on the doorstep?
It is Ramadan when we stay, so there is a celebratory air at sundown as Muslims break their fast and head to the mosque on Brick Lane, which is also, in sharp contrast, home to late-night bars and clubs such as Big Chill and 93 Feet East, as well as myriad curry houses and two famous bagel joints. By day, Petticoat Lane and Spitalfields markets are minutes away, as is Whitechapel Gallery.
How much? Doubles £100 B&B.
Value for money? Excellent, given the location close to the City and party-central Shoreditch, particularly with breakfast included. •thebuxton.co.uk LB
Red Lion, Leytonstone, E11
What’s it like? On a dark, stormy Monday evening, the Red Lion is a welcoming beacon on a corner of Leytonstone High Road. Inside, to a 1960s soundtrack, we have a relaxed dinner, drink Malbec over Scrabble – and have the bonus of rolling into bed just upstairs. The pub’s 10 new bedrooms are finished in heritage-green tones with floral papered walls, heavy velvet drapes, exposed brickwork and antique furniture. My room is a superior double on the second floor, accessible via the main pub or a side door. It is boutique hotel meets Peaky Blinders: clean lines with 1920s details, unpretentiously cool and a little bit sexy. The room is at the front of the building, which, being on a night-bus route, proves noisy at times. The overall location, though, is great: just three minutes’ walk from Leytonstone tube station, which takes you to the city in 10 minutes.
First established as a pub in 1670, the Red Lion has been through several incarnations – including a salsa bar and music venue, and was one of the first places Led Zeppelin played in London – before becoming a pub again in 2011. The building was rescued by Antic (the team behind pubs across London, among them the Dogstar DJ bar in Brixton) who gave the space a living-room vibe, with mismatched vintage seating and a big beer garden. There’s a quiz night on Mondays, DJs (Fri and Sat, 9pm-2am), and roasts served on Sundays.
What about breakfast and dinner?
The food is great. There are seasonal menus for lunch and dinner, plus bar snacks including cauliflower-cheese croquettes (£5.50) and venison-and-chorizo scotch eggs. We have the smoked mackerel paté with pickled beetroot (£6); mussels, in a creamy saffron and parsley sauce (£6); a pearl-barley risotto with slow-roast tomatoes, kale, baked ricotta, artichoke and beetroot crisps (£11); and a mammoth plate of sausage and mash with savoy cabbage and onion gravy (£8).
Also on the menu, slow-cooked lamb ragu rigatoni (£12); a beetroot and quinoa burger with caramelised onions and goat’s cheese (£10); and a chocolate pot with rosemary biscuits and candied orange peel (£5.50). You can make tea and coffee in the rooms, but breakfast isn’t served here.
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