Tips for Travellers: Hotel Plaza and Restaurant, Craiova, Romania

.. as it hides a myriad of sins. The Hotel Restaurant Plaza has an impressive front and beneficial location. It has a hard working staff and a large spacious restaurant in which you might imagine all kinds of wonderful meals would be served up. Its bedrooms are warm; its shower-rooms come equipped with everything you think you might need for a comfortable stay. “It has potential!” as an estate agent might say when they show you a dilapidated town house whose ceiling is falling in and whose water pipes refuse to stop clanging when you turn the water off.

However, the Hotel Plaza’s reality has a long way to go before it meets its potential.

True, its front is impressive: but it is just that, front and nothing behind it. Seriously, hardly anything. True, its staff are very hardworking: they have to be as there only ever seem to be two of them on duty and they’re rushed off their feet most of the time, tending to several different duties all at once.

Breakfast is a variable experience and a bit of a lottery: one morning there’s a bit of cooked food which is over an hour old and no-one to serve anything else; the next morning the breakfast is much busier and staff who are only too happy to help and get you anything you need.

On the last night of my stay, our work group saw one poor member of staff taking food orders, drink orders, rushing in and out of the kitchen, back to the reception, back to the bar, and probably all points in between trying to find a cork screw. She found one eventually but it took a while. As did my meal, which, by the time it had arrived, was over cooked yet cold and consequently inedible.

True, the shower-room is decently equipped: but it takes for ever to get a decent running shower, by which time this traveller had to give up as he had a schedule to meet and hanging around for the shower to make up its mind and fulfil its potential was no longer an option.

Potentially, this hotel could be a real asset to the city of Craiova but with one member of staff openly admitting that she had no idea why people would visit the City, let alone the hotel, there’s a long way to go before the hotel can consider itself on the assets side of the cultural balance sheet.

The hotel management need to take a long hard look at how to invest in their staff and premises: otherwise that impressive front will soon falter as other more attuned hotels offer what customers actually need, not the promise of its potential at some time in the future.

Give Us This Day: a Toast to Toast at Gray’s in Leicester

What’s for breakfast?
Tea and toast? Well…
Fry up? Er…
Organic muesli and yoghurt? Hmm.. not sure.

All of the above plus lavish helpings of the most idiosyncratic contemporary music around complete with references to Delia Derbyshire, Kevin Coyne, Flaming Lips and all points bezerk? Ah yes, that’s for me, definitely.

If you’re one of those people who need an aural fix in the morning alongside their habitual brew, then Gray’s is for you. Snuck in off one of the main precinct streets in the City of Leicester, right in the heart of its cultural quarter, Gray’s is open from 8.30 and is guaranteed to open up your sound and taste buds from the off and get you in the swing for the day.

It’s a heartening change to the diet of greasy spoons and predictable chains that are scattered through the rest of the city and consequently is one of those businesses which defines Leicester’s character. And you get a decent bacon barm into the bargain.

My Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen and Members of the Jury, please raise a toast to Toast at Gray’s in Leicester.

Give Us This Day Our Daily Toast: read all about toasting here

Tips for Travellers: Waverley Hotel, Workington

Hot spots, cold spots and soft spots.

What many hotel managements don’t get these days is that along with the 17 different types of eggs you can choose for your breakfast, what the travelling business person or giraffe needs from a hotel is a functioning, reliable, uncontested and free wifi as part of the package. It’s no longer good enough to pretend to have a network in your hotel if all you can see is the room next door and no access to the wider world, known these days dear hotelier, as The Internet.

For those hoteliers who are unaware of this amazing invention, the Internet is the phenomenon a lot of people rely on to get on with their daily jobs of earning a living, socialising, catching up with the news and pretty much everything else the lone traveller is inclined to need. These days, dear hotelier, a connection to the Internet is as vital as running water in the shower. And that means water running at the right temperature out of the right tap. We don’t mind too much those rooms whose mattresses have clearly supported heavier bodies in earlier days or whistling showers or those that rhythmically clunk their way into action, as long as there is finally action which you can rely on for the time it takes you to complete your ablutions. Much the same can be said of the need for the functioning wifi connection.

These days, dear hotelier, a functioning wifi is an essential, not a nice-to-have. The Waverley Hotel in Workington would be a sweet spot of restful accommodation and business functionality were it not for the constant searching for the hotspots of wifi connection, functioning bathroom taps and mattresses that don’t throw up their springs in horror every time you have to adjust your sleeping position.

The staff are cheery, friendly and helpful; the breakfast plentiful and fresh; the bedroom spacious enough and perfectly adequate for the odd night’s stay. But if, dear Hotelier, you want to welcome visitors for a second, third or fourth time, you need to invest in this hotel by stabilising its hot spots, doing away with its cold spots and radically overhauling its soft spots.

Tips for Travellers: Panna Kitchen and Canteen, Liverpool

Dreaming of musical reunions at the dreamy PANNA café.

PANNA Kitchen and Canteen is a chic café on Tithebarn Street in Liverpool. The kind of place where you might meet aspirational, visionary and sparky musicians of the future, it was setup by Slovakian business partners Peter and Ivana, and offers a refreshing relief to the myriad of chain coffee shops which populate the Liverpool commercial district. It was a new business start just a couple of years ago so it’s a real joy to see how a business which was just a business plan then has come to fruition.

The food is fresh, based on artisanal baguettes and salads, continental pastries and a unique in-house coffee blend which doesn’t leave you feeling wired after a couple of cups. The continental feel is tangible everywhere you look or sit – from the cool graphics, to the furniture to the whitewashed walls – you could be in Berlin, Bratislava or Vienna.

It’s crying out for a pop in lunch visit by by David Bowie, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp – 3 of the UK’s most influential musicians and artists. They haven’t collaborated properly together since Bowie’c iconic Heroes album in the late 70s (and I don’t count Lodger as it wasn’t a brilliant album) so that dream lunchtime date would be bound to rekindle their experimental and pioneering spirit in the best European tradition. PANNA would be a perfect venue for that rekindling, especially over their coffee and continental pastries.

Tips for Travellers: the Royal Hotel, Purfleet, Essex.

The Surprise of London Views without London Prices.

I’m visiting a conference in Essex where the organisers have, in referring delegates to the local corporate hotels, omitted to mention the Royal Hotel in Purfleet which presents itself as a delightful surprise in this part of urban Essex, some 25 minutes by train from the City of London.

It’s a surprise which is generated by its hard working and friendly staff who make you feel welcome the moment you step through the front door: they book you in quickly, organise a taxi for the next morning rapidly and serve a late night meal cheerfully without the usual sense of jobsworth that you often find in the corporates. The surprise is topped off with a glorious view of the River Thames and the City. These are indeed London views but without exorbitant London prices.

However, surprises always come with side effects. In the cold light of the morning, the Royal’s side effects took some of the shine off the night before. The decorative finish of the rooms leaves a lot to be desired in as much my room was decoratively completely unfinished; and a lack of wifi, overlong bedroom curtains, a mattress which feels like it had been liberated from a nearby skip and sticky, unwashed dining tables all gave an impression of a hotel that’s been thrown together at the cheapest possible price.

Whilst the staff continue to be cheerfully and authentically polite and friendly, you get the impression of them struggling against some long term under-investment on the premises. The Royal may well have non-London prices, but at the moment it also suffers from non-London based quality issues.

With a bit more tender loving care, the Royal could live up to its name and surprise everyone, including forgetful conference organisers.

Tips for Travellers: The King William IV Pub, Sneinton, Nottingham.

A (beer) case of mistaken identities.

The King William IV Public House  -also known as King Billy’s – also known as the Sneinton Snug – also known as Robin Hood’s ‘hood – is a charming atmospheric English pub with a myriad of identities as well as a fine selection of independent micro-ales and nano-beers.

Not only does the discerning drinker need to negotiate previously unheard of types of mead, he or she has to decipher the unattributed poetry in the toilets. Are we reading Becket? Einstein? Blyton? We cannot be too sure given the ambivalence of the atmosphere. Or it may be given the strength of the Jaipur IPA which clocks in at a deceptive 7.4% ABV. And very tasty it is too. Or was that the pork pie?

The pub banter only serves to add to the ambiguity:

“What happens when you mix black rat with white rat?”

You might think that given the hostelry’s proximity to a local biomedical research centre that you are over hearing an after works chat about state of the art genetic engineering practice.

“You get grey rat?”

“No, you get more black rat.  The taste of the black rat over powers the taste of the white rat so all you taste is black rat.”

Genetic engineering? Ale blending? Who knows. No-one seems to worry too much either given the soporific effect of the mixed race rat.

Given the parallel universe that is King Billy’s, it is only when wending our way up the hill back home when we realise that uphill is in fact downhill. At that point we know we have come across a fine local pub, albeit with identity problems.

Tips for Travellers: The Greenhouse, Llantarnam, Wales.

Missing: the Menu.

We came out for a family meal a couple of days after Christmas and whilst we were met with a friendly staff welcome, the menu was noticeable by a series of absences: most of the local beers were missing, the mash had gone AWOL and the taste of the chicken dishes had been obliterated by some over-zealous over-heating.

The fun game for the evening was second guessing what HAD stayed on the menu and I was reminded of the old Monty Python Cheese Shop sketch where the hapless customer found himself in a futile search for a variety of cheeses only to be met by an ever increasing array of excuses about why the aforesaid cheese was not available. So a fun filled evening was had by all, although not in the way the owners may have intended.

Tips for Travellers: The Furness Railway, Barrow in Furness, Cumbria.

Revisting Old Haunted Haunts.

The Furness Railway is perhaps one of the most evocative, curious and welcoming pubs in Barrow. Seemingly open at all times to all customers, I’ve never heard them say no to any customer, whatever the time of day or nature of the request.

The food is cheap and cheerful; the beers cheap and surprisingly good and the staff welcome unfazed by some of the more feral members of the community who might inadvertently tip their beer over your head.

It might be a part of some large anonymous chain, but the Furness Railway is a unique experience at all times of day to all types of customer. It’s a ‘must-go-to’ haunt in one of England’s most haunted towns.