Birmingham aparthotel Staying Cool at the Rotunda and fine dining restaurant Wilderness combine in this pop-up for the post-lockdown age
I’ve never understood the appeal of room service. When I’m in a new city, the idea of being cooped up with a lukewarm club sandwich and a vodka coke is far from my definition of adventure. Not to mention the small mortgage required to afford either.
But that was BC. Or ‘before coronavirus.’ And like many other more important things, everything has since changed. Even the trivial notion of room service.
After a few bizarre experiences in London restaurants, including one particularly packed-out place where a waiter physically bumped me on the head before leaning in close sans mask to apologise, the idea of eating in the privacy of my own room started to jump up in allure. And it would seem I am not alone.
Hotels around the UK have been busy adapting to the new normal, with many offering a different way to dine than before. At Cliveden, room service charges have been dropped; in Devon, Michael Caines has extended Lympstone Manor’s room service menu to include everything you can normally enjoy in the restaurant; and both Bvlgari and the Town Hall Hotel in London have launched packages for hosting a ‘bubble’ dinner party in your own room. Bvlgari also offers the option of an in-room hair appointment beforehand, which given the last few months of split ends, doesn’t actually sound as extravagant or ridiculous as it should.
What drew me to aparthotel Staying Cool at the Rotunda’s pop-up though was the fact it was sold as a full restaurant experience. Three courses would punctuate the evening, of course, but there would also be other elements like a curated playlist and live videos from the kitchen. Alex Claridge, chef and owner of the nearby feisty fine-dining restaurant Wilderness, is the man behind the collaboration of two independent Brummie businesses. What intrigued me more was that he had decided to not reopen his restaurant proper yet and had merely mooted a September date, when it seemed that nearly every other chef was popping the corks to be back again.
He explained his decision like so: “Every restaurant that had to reopen, I have my sympathy. But if you look at the measures they’re taking to meet current legislation, they’re totally incompatible with an experience that I want to go to. I’ve eaten out a bit, and any venue I’ve been to with face masks or any covid measures, I have no interest in going there again at all.”
He added, “[the lifting of lockdown has] put restaurants in a position where they are trying to PR the sh*t out of it, pretend it’s something to celebrate. But it’s not man. Like the alchemy of restaurants is the connection between humans, the way food can bring us together and remind us that we are all fundamentally one and the same.”
The setting for the evening was 16 floors above Birmingham in one of the centre’s most iconic buildings. Being able to watch the city come back to life from high above through an open floor-to-ceiling window upped the ante on the sense of freedom and celebration that we all seem to be looking for now, though I’d be far stretched to call the Brutalist views knockout. That said, as the sun set and twinkling lights emerged, I began to think this city has more to offer than the sarcastic comments it often pulls in.
The aparthotel had a minimalist meets Sixties aesthetic - think glass dining tables, mod photos shot on location in Birmingham and the occasional splash of colour. We began by pressing play on the playlist, which with the likes of The Rolling Stones, Nirvana and the Ramones, aimed to bring some of the dark and moody punk interiors of the restaurant into this light and bright space.
In normal circumstances, Wilderness serves 12- to 18-course tasting menus; here, they’ve had to strip back to a three-course set-up, but there is still the option of matching wines or cocktails. They are also very much a barbecue-led restaurant, but naturally in a residential block of flats you can’t do much of that.
“We only learn as a restaurant through doing things that are slightly off the beaten path,” Claridge said to me later.
Throughout, we were encouraged to check the Instagram page to watch live videos of what was happening in the kitchen and how each dish is prepared, but I was surprised at how much I enjoyed looking at the pictures tagged at the hotel’s location posted by others, who were dining on perhaps the floor above me or the room next door. I’ve missed that sensation of eavesdropping in a restaurant, and this gave me a small flicker of that bizarre feeling of looking through a window into another person’s life.
The restaurant’s videos themselves have a very raw feeling to them and help to imitate a small sliver of what it feels like to chat with the chef at a countertop seat, but they don’t quite deliver on what I am hungry for. The human connection is there, but it’s still at a distance.
The food on the other hand more than delivers, from a decadent beef short rib main to a Pedro X-baked cheesecake with barbecued strawberries. The most creative dish was a cured scallop starter paired with sweet melon and cucumber balls, confit almonds and spicy wasabi. It was seriously standout and screams of summer on a plate. We opted for wines, with the likes of sparkling Nyetimber classic cuvee and dry Spanish Gabo de Xil, but on reflection the cocktails (cherries and oak tannins; hibiscus flowers and rosé) might have made for more interesting pairings.
We ended up awake until the early hours, finishing the drinks (you can’t order glasses of wine, they come in bottles) and chatting in the comfort of our own space. I had thought that I would want to head straight to a bar, but the urge never arrived. Once you’re settled in, the indulgent feeling of not having to leave the room at all is rather romantic. In the literary sense, I’m here with a friend; though the chef tells me one room in particular seemed to be particularly disheveled and flustered each time they delivered a new course. “Who knew if you took the restaurant experience and added a bed, that is what would happen?” he laughed.
Claridge went on to reiterate what a difficult situation hospitality is in and that more help isn’t coming so they needed to do something to stay afloat. When I mentioned the takeaways that they initially did in lockdown, like many other UK restaurants, he immediately shuts down the idea of doing that again, saying how hard it was to do it successfully with fine dining and make a profit: “Honestly, it was less of a joy than my first marriage, and my first marriage wasn’t great.”
But he has enjoyed the pop-up and it is filling a hole for now until they can reopen: “We can’t offer you a normal experience so let’s do something completely different.”
I’m with Claridge on this one, I can’t wait until restaurants are completely back, and room service will never replace that for me, but in the meantime I’m happy to see it given a reboot. For now, staying in is the new going out, and it’s rather good fun.
The Wilderness X Staying Cool at The Rotunda Birmingham next pop-up date is August 27 2020. Prices from £150pp based on two people sharing including room, three-course meal and breakfast (also delivered to your room by the Wilderness team). Two-bedroom aparthotels with dinner for four also available. Drinks are extra.