Bankside, London, is a funny old place. Just a short walk from London Bridge, trendy Borough Market and soon to be painfully cool Bermondsey, it remains anchored by imperious buildings, from the corporate majesty of the Blue Fin, to the industrial cool of Tate Britain.
The hotels that inhabit the area tend to be of the new generation, like ultra-modern CitizenM, the affordable Ibis and Mercure brands and the lavish Mondrian at the striking Sea Containers.
But within spitting distance of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and numerous the tourist traps of the Southbank, it was never going to be long before the bigger boys sat up and took notice.
The first Hilton to open in London since 2006, the famous brand moved in during the autumn of 2015, but it had a job on its hands; standing out in an area filled with affluence, sightseers and international attractions.
So, if the architecture of you’re building doesn’t match the Tate Modern or the Globe,and isn’t going to instantly drag people in from the street, you have to provide something internally. And Hilton Bankside has done it with its F&B.
Firstly, the hotel has achieved something all others are now striving for, a separate entrance for its F&B concept.
On the corner of the hotels ground floor, The Distillery takes up a distinct position. Huge glass windows look out onto a street terrace, while inside, softly lit Chesterfield-style banquette seating, soft furnishings and brassy metals make for a cosy atmosphere. The lively bar brings the atmosphere, while a table service from the team dressed in cut-off neck shirts and braces offer guests a choice of joining the party or retreating to a corner for a private meeting.
There are cut glass light fixtures, shining cocktail apparatus and 1930s uniforms, all pointing to the golden age of cocktails.
The Distillery is Bankside’s destination bar. It has a strong theme and credentials behind it to help it run and run.
Located on the site of Stevenson & Howell’s Standard Works, a renowned essence factory in 1800s, The Distillery pays homage to its heritage, serving a range of signature cocktails incorporating homemade aromatics, infusions and bitters.
Even a Penny Wall art installation, featuring pennies dating back to the early 20th century, is inspired by a rumour that the building was once a coin warehouse for the Bank of England.
The bar specialises in craft beers and stocks more than 50 hand-picked gins, from old classics from across the world, to new age gins from artisan distilleries springing up across Bankside, Southwark and Bermondsey.
While the exclusive Distillery Craft Lager – only sold at the hotel – offers something special for the beer drinkers, the cocktails are where the in-house mixologists get stuck in.
Of course, many have a gin-base, for example the Garden of Eden (Malfy Gin, Amer Picon, Absinthe, Crème de figues, angostura bitter and fig jam), the adventurous nature of both the ingredients and the theatre of service create a special experience.
For smoke and a big reveal, look for the Crystal Cloud, which comprises Calvados, Zubrovka Vodka, Noilly Prat, Drambuie, moskovado sugar and aromatic bitter, all smoked in Applewood. But for adventure look at the Hakumai, which uses Skully Wasabi Gin, Choia Sake, Noilly Prat, King’s ginger and lime syrup, finished with salmon, black sesame seeds and cucumber – yes, it is a cocktail.
While gin masterclasses can also be booked in The Distillery, the F&B concept also lends itself to providing little extras for the overnight hotel guests as well as those just using the bar.
On our visit, in-room, there was an ice bucket, slices of lemon and Fever-Tree Indian Tonic Water as well as two miniatures of Bankside London Dry Gin, created for the hotel exclusively by Blackdown Distillery in Sussex.
Accessible through the rear of The Distillery, the lobby of the hotel and Price’s Street, OXBO is, firstly, attractive. Its wood and exposed brick interior allows the concept to be instantly different from the hotel or The Distillery.
The theme is a mixture between a modern British hunting lodge and classical brasserie offering intriguing cartoon-like animal art hanging on some walls. The reaffirmed history of Bankside in never far away, though, with one piece of exposed brickwork is daubed with an artist recreation of the actual Rose Brand Fine Teas mural of the James Ashby and Sons company found on 195-205 Union Street (nearby).
While the 168-cover restaurant is divided up cleverly with wooden partitions to create more intimate seating areas, the open theatre kitchen at the end of the restaurant is the real draw.
Chefs can be seen busy grilling and plating up a menu that champions fresh British ingredients – it would be silly not to with Borough Market on its doorstep.
Of course, the menu changes and develops with the seasons, but the philosophy remains as it did when the restaurant was first opened in 2015 by executive chef Paul Bates, formerly of The Beaumont and Intercontinental Park Lane; carefully-selected dishes featuring a mix of strong UK provenance and the exotic tastes us Brits are looking for.
For example, as part of the Small Plates section, seared scallops are served with broccoli puree, tempura prawn and champagne cream; while Dorset snails are served with Oxspring prosciutto and grilled sourdough.
The headline-grabbing elements of each dish are predominantly British meat or fish, but the touch of finesse comes from all over.
Blythburugh pork belly, Casterbridge rib eye steak and Dover sole fillets are just some of the dishes garnered from suppliers in the south of England. Meanwhile, the calaspara rice served with the seabass and sauce mistral served with the Aberdeen Angus fillet steak are dashes of rare accompaniments.
There are, of course, all the hallmarks of hospitality within a hotel like a sommelier on-hand to guide guests through the extensive wine selection. Likewise, in the morning, OXBO is transformed into the hotel’s breakfast restaurant.
A large central island table is filled with cereals and grains, while open grab-and-go refrigeration units store continental style breakfast items from cheeses and hams to smoked fish and fruit.
OXBO goes all out on the milk, with individual potions bottled and labelled to reveal skimmed, semi, skimmed, almond, oat, soya and more.
The hot items – sausages, bacon, tomatoes, beans, mushrooms – are served from the kitchen pass. Eggs, other than scrambled, are made to order, with rustic-looking iron pots being replenished continuously giving breakfast and extra bit of theatre.
Hilton Bankside has done what is needed by any new hotel, and any established hotel looking to snap up new customers and open extra revenue streams – it focused on its F&B.
Both the bar and the restaurants are individual concepts in their own right, with separate websites and booking platforms away from the hotel. They have their own brand and are destinations with both the promise and execution of a quality service, while the products they serve won’t leave guests disappointed. If you could distil those traits, bottle them and sell them, there would be a queue of hotels lining up for a punt.
OXBO BANKSIDE SAMPLE MENU
Seared Scallops – broccoli puree, tempura prawn, champagne cream
Dorset Snails – Oxspring prosciutto, grilled sourdough
Cream of Sweetcorn – spiced popcorn, early cob, chilli corn
Fillet of Aberdeen Angus – braised beef hash, Lyonnaise onion, mistral sauce
Seabass – saffron squid, charred baby leeks, chorizo, calaspara
Broccoli and Courgette Dhal (V) – soya beans, garlic flat bread, yogurt, coriander
FROM THE JOSPER
Blythburugh Pork Belly – grilled belly, caramelised onions, shallot jus, duck egg
Casterbridge Rib Eye Steak – 28 day dry-aged
Grilled Dover Sole Fillets – early spinach, hearing roe, fennel, samphire
Valrhona Dark Chocolate Terrine – mandarin glace, gold leaf
Sharphams Rustic and Elmhurst Cheese – pear chutney, wheat wafers
Apple Mousse – caramel apple jelly, pistachio sponge
THE DISTILLERY SAMPLE COCKTAIL MENU
Skully Wasabi Gin, Choia Sake, Noilly Prat, King’s ginger, lime syrup, Finished with salmon, black sesame seeds and cucumber
MIND & SOUL
Appleton Rum, Kraken Rum, Velvet Falernum, apricot syrup, pineapple shrub, Bankside honeycomb
Gosling Rum, Cacao crème brun, decaf coffee, Abbott bitter served with soya milk and Crème de menthe
Calvados, Zubrovka Vodka, Noilly Prat, Drambuie, moskovado sugar, aromatic bitter, smoked in Applewood
Brockman’s Gin, Chambord, Galliano, house infused Martini Rosso, cherry bitter, edible gold