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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 19th August 2005

Refuel


Earlier this year, I was in Soho, desperately looking for a place to park, when I remembered that there was a notorious, crack-infested multi-story car park on Richmond Mews. Should I risk it? The last time I'd ventured into this hell-hole, I'd been accosted by a drug addict who'd threatened to pee on my car if I didn't "lend" him 50p. Still, I was late for the theatre and my wife was waiting for me in the foyer. There was no alternative.

Imagine my shock, therefore, when I discovered a hotel in the car park's place. I was furious at the time--Soho needs more parking spaces, not another hotel--but I made a mental note to check it out at some point in the future.

The Soho Hotel, as it's called, is the latest venture from Tim and Kit Kemp, the husband-and-wife team behind some of London's most elegant boutique hotels, including the Covent Garden Hotel, Number 16 and the Charlotte Street Hotel. Prices start at £235 for a "superior double" and peak at £2,500 for the "terrace suite", though if you can afford twice that much you can rent an apartment in the hotel with its own private entrance. It's an ambitious, no-expenses-spared venture, with half-a-dozen function rooms, two screening rooms, a gym, a private dining room and, of course, a restaurant. It reminded me of Soho House New York, though it doesn't have a swimming pool. Apparently, the Kemps intend to rectify that with their next project, a new hotel on Haymarket.

The restaurant is called Refuel, presumably a reference to the previous occupant of this site, though it has the unfortunate effect of making it sound like a no-frills pit stop for those who eat to live, rather than live to eat. This impression is confirmed when you enter. Rather than being separated from the hotel, as Locanda Locotelli is from the Churchill InterContinental and Maze is from the Millennium, Refuel is very much part-and-parcel of the larger venture, even to the extent of being forced to share space with the hotel bar. This wasn't a problem when I had lunch there on a Wednesday, but I can imagine it being pretty irksome in the evenings when the bar becomes extremely popular.

The décor, chosen by Kit Kemp, is bright and modern, with two racks of funky, ceramic pots separating the restaurant from the bar area. The attention to detail is impressive, with all the different components fitting together in a pell-mell sort of way. Personally, I prefer the dining room of the Charlotte Street Hotel, with its air of fading grandeur, but there's no doubting Kit Kemp's visual flair.

My dining companion was Mike Jones, a top financial adviser, and we were meeting to discuss whether I could afford to move house. (Answer: no.) He started with roast proscuitto, olive bruschetta and pickled onions, while I had saffron risotto with crispy squid, and, for his main course, he had peppered monkfish with spring onions and beetroot vinaigrette, while I followed up with grilled mackerel and a cress salad. It was good, if undistinguished, the kind of fare that any halfway decent high street restaurant can produce. The astonishing thing was how much it cost. Our fairly modest meal for two, accompanied by two glasses of white wine, came to over £80. Given how much competition Refuel faces in this part of town, that seemed ludicrously expensive. Indeed, it was almost as overpriced as the NCP car park it has replaced.

Our fellow diners were a mixture of hotel guests and media brats, the kind of charcoal-suited high-flyers who plonk their Blackberries on the table the moment they sit down. The fact that it was so integrated into the rest of the hotel, with a constant stream of guests wandering past, robbed it of much atmosphere. It was less like a destination restaurant than a way station, the kind of place you'd pop into in the course of a long evening rather than somewhere you'd like to end up.

Given Tom and Kit Kemp's mastery of the boutique hotel business, it seems odd that they should be so slap dash when it comes to their in-house restaurants. A landmark hotel like this, situated in the centre of the dining capital of the world, really should have a better restaurant than Refuel.

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