Review: The Royal Wells Hotel
- Credit: Archant
Back on the scene after a £2.4m revamp, was it money well spent at this prominent Tunbridge Wells town hotel?
Rising like a giant wedding cake topped by a glorious crest above the spa town after which it is named, the Royal Wells Hotel has always promised so much from the outside.
Now, following a £2.4m investment by owner Shepherd Neame, the single largest refurbishment project to date for Britain’s oldest brewer, which took over the hotel in 2012, it at last lives up to expectations.
From the moment you enter you see the changes that have been made during the four-month project and closure. To locals like myself and My Gym Babe Friend who joined me for dinner, it is quite startling – gone is the dark, traditional pub-like interior, gone indeed are several walls, and it is now much more open, inviting and contemporary.
Reception is to your right (manned by the charming Amy, who asked if I’d like fresh milk in my room and then brought it up herself, a lovely touch), and it’s a spacious, elegant, pillared area with ample comfortable seating.
Opposite is the welcoming bar, where you can watch comings and goings though those glorious curved front windows; this leads seamlesssly to the new Brasserie restaurant and a courtyard garden (replacing an old garage), seating 52 for al fresco dining.
Further back is a cosy new Library bar and steps down to the expanded Ephraim Suite, which can cater for parties of up to 150 when combined with the adjoining function room.
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Named after Queen Victoria, who visited frequently as a young Princess in the early 19th century and later granted the use of her coat of arms, not much of the Victorian original remains at this prominent hotel.
Decorated throughout in neutral, tasteful shades of grey, black, cream and beige, there is a welcome injection of colour in the shape of cheerful yellow blinds in the airy, spacious conservatory, picked up in some cushions scattered on padded benches and banquettes.
Moving upstairs it’s all monochrome again, although the black and white old framed pictures of the hotel over the years on walls as you walk upstairs are a nice touch. Four en-suite bedrooms have been added, taking the total to 27, and every room has been refurbished.
My suite was positively decadent; it’s certainly the first time in my life I’ve watched TV from a bath in a copper tub next to my bed, feeling a little Alice in Wonderland-like as I peered up over the steep sides. But there’s a fab walk-in shower in the gleaming white bathroom with twin basins if you need faster ablutions, and the lounge area came with a proper-sized desk (for a change), which gave me a great front-facing view over the town’s rooftops as I worked.
So, to dinner, and my gym buddy and I took a corner seat in the conservatory restaurant (seats up to 70) and studied the large brasserie menu, which has literally everything on it from breakfast and sandwiches through to mains and ‘power salads.’
Steering my skinny friend away from the latter, she chose garlicky mushrooms with truffled celeriac purée on toasted sourdough with a poached duck egg to start.
This proved a tad underwhelming with a distinctly undernourished-looking egg, and I certainly fared better with a simple, plentiful salad of lamb’s lettuce with honey roasted beetroot and the tangy, creamy contrast of Roquefort. I must admit I wasn’t keen on the black slate it came on. Are they still ‘a thing?’ Give me a nice white plate any day.
For mains – you can choose from ‘Chargrill,’ ‘Fish,’ ‘Meat’ – and I guess the ‘Light plates and power salads’ are aimed at the veggies – I had a very decent slow-roasted pork belly, the meat really tender and the crackling served as crisp spears sticking out of the yummy crème fraîche and chive-puréed potatoes.
MGBF, alas, found her pan-fried salmon fillet with pesto dry and a bit colourless and the samphire, which should’ve been vibrantly emerald, wasn’t; it was woefully overcooked.
Service was also a little lackadaisical – but it was the hottest day of the year and we were drooping too. A request for a second glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc apiece didn’t materialise until considerable chasing and had the be ‘fetched from the cellar’, as if some rare and unusual request had been made.
I already knew what dessert I wanted as chef had revealed his favourite was chocolate and pistachio brownie with vanilla cream. It wasn’t as gooey and melting as I’d hoped and MGBF definitely did better with a light, zesty citrus posset: “best bit of the meal.”
A humid night woud have made sleeping well in an igloo challenging, but the bed was supremely comfortable and a power shower got me down to breakfast on time.
We were a mix of business people and couples mainly, helping ourselves to the buffet (shame about the lack of local seasonal fruit at a time of such abundance, however).
I ordered my favourite avocado on sourdough with poached egg, but the duck's egg was underdone and the salsa over-dominant.
It's early days and I am confident the food offer and service will soon live up to the promise of the fabulous refurbishment.
Meet the chef
David Holmes, head chef
Tell us a bit about you
Although I was born in Maidstone, I grew up in Herefordshire, and after school I studied catering as part of a three-year hospitality qualification at Herefordshire College. I moved back to Kent and joined the Royal Wells 21 years ago, starting at the bottom and working up to head chef in six years. I really enjoy my job, particularly when I have the opportunity to be creative and come up with new recipes and presentation ideas. I live in nearby Southborough,
Your principal local suppliers?
We get fish from Griggs of Hythe, fruit and vegetables from RJ Kingsland & Son in Maidstone, and meat from J.C. Rook & Sons.
Do you have a signature dish?
My favourite dish to make on the menu at the moment is the chocolate and pistachio brownie with vanilla cream. Brownies can be dry but this one is very moist with nuts to add some crunch, and I enjoy making its presentation perfect. I think desserts are very important, as they are the last thing people remember from a meal.
Your top cookery tip?
Use good-quality, locally sourced ingredients, and don’t play around with them too much. Let them speak for themselves.
Who has influenced you most?
My mum was influential, as it was helping her in the kitchen from a young age that led me to pursue a career as a chef. I was about six when I started helping her make sponge cakes, and I loved it. I kept on baking and cooking for the family as I got older, making more and more advanced recipes.
Your must-have kitchen gadget?
My stick hand blender.
Who would you like to cook for?
Definitely Marco Pierre White. I love reading his books and watching shows where he is cooking. I find him fascinating, and would really enjoy learning from him.
What did you have for breakfast?
I was on the breakfast shift at the hotel, so I had some of the bacon, fried egg and hash browns.
Where: The Royal Wells Hotel
59 Mount Ephraim
Tunbridge Wells TN4 8BE
01892 511 188 or firstname.lastname@example.org
What: elegant, spacious hotel a short walk from town centre
When: open: 8am-11pm
How much: Roquefort salad £5.95, 10oz ribeye steak £17.95, honey and raspberry brûlée £5.50