Torquay: home of beaches, guest houses, palm trees, a large wheel, a marina, train station or two and lots of people of a certain age. OK officially the oldest town in Britain is Southwold in Suffolk, and despite the stereotypes Torquay is adorned with, it has many different faces. One face is a young and vibrant resort with clubs and ‘things to do’ and the other face is the Torquay that is friendly to the older folk. It is multi-faceted, and much more so than its gentrified brother Exeter.
If you have never been to Torquay before, it is likely you are going to be hard pressed to find another place like it. Like many large towns and cities the whole area is a conglomeration of small villages and towns that has grown in to one large massive built-up area; Cockington, St Mary Church and Babbacombe were all quite separate in their own right to begin with but as Torquay hit its Golden Age in the late 19th Century, the resort became much more like the resort we know today. And with this came the railways, and with the railways came more tourists and the building of The Grand Hotel in 1881.
Torquay is a veritable warren of small roads and windy streets with a one-way system that changes with the wind and a host of stunning views across the bay from many vantage points. Some lucky people live on these vantage points and everyone is very envious when they say how lovely the view from their loo is.
The arrival of the railways became catalysts for the very concept of holidays and hotels started springing up next-door to railways stations especially in resorts like Torquay. The Grand Hotel was built to accommodate the GWRs expansion in to the South West, originally only with twelve bedrooms it grew over the years and in 1926 the installation of one of the first central heating systems within a UK hotel – it was the height of luxury.
We were invited (please see our FAQs to see what this means) to stay at The Grand Hotel and be their guests. We were treated to a dinner and breakfast too along with an overnight stay. It was a ‘nano-break’ and it was certainly needed given our life at the moment. The Grand Hotel is owned by The Richardson Group who also own The Groservor Hotel in Torquay which Co-Editor Lauren reviewed a few months ago.
The Grand Hotel sits in a commanding position with a fantastic sea-view that would make folks back home quite jealous. The vista encompasses the entire bay from Torquay Marina all the way over to Brixham in the distance. With a sea-view room, you can see everything; a short walk away is The Princess Theatre, Las Iguanas (which we visited a while back) and a row of nice restaurants and cafes which are definitely worth a visit. But with the lovely food served in the restaurant, why would you want to?
It has had its share of famous residents including Agatha Christie to name but one, the luxury that comes with a name like The Grand is a calling to anyone looking for the finer side of things. But the majority of residents are simply those who are on holiday, taking advantage of Torquay’s mild climate and local beaches.
Because of its close proximity to the station, I wanted to take the train originally but out of the sake of ease and comfort we decided to drive instead. The romance of the image of arriving off the train and walking through the doors was overshadowed by the idea of timetables and the dire state of our local commuter trains “Oooh lets go down by train!… upon second thought, nah we’ll just drive”.
Parking at The Grand Hotel is split up between being able to park on the road directly outside the hotel, between their own allocated parking next door to the station and on the Rugby Ground. We were fortunate enough to be able to park on the road which was free and very convenient.
We checked in, booked in our evening meal and settled in to our room.
The height of the hotel means the views are good no matter which side you end up on, but naturally we had a sea view.
A large spacious room with nice comfy beds, a sea view and all the amenities that one comes to expect in a hotel room. Tea and coffee making facilities, trouser press, television en-suite bathroom with complimentary toiletries, a working shower with loo roll!
But, first thing is first, a little exploration followed by a complimentry glass of prosecco.
On the outside The Compass Lounge looks like a last minute thought, stuck on to the side of the hotel rather ungraciously, but inside it has lots of light and central bar that serves drinks and coffees. It also serves light lunches in The Keith Richardson Brasserie as well, and is the perfect day-time destination if you miss breakfast, or if you wish to grab a light bite to eat before you head out to the wilds of Devon.
There is table service here and as with all of the service at The Grand Hotel, it was friendly and incredibly attentive. We settled in with a glass of prosecco and watched the world through the lovely large windows, perfect for people watching as they went about their Saturday afternoon.
The Grand isn’t just about a place to stay and a place to eat, there is also a Spa and Pool area. We did’t get a chance to experience this, but we went downstairs to have a peek at the facilities.
We had booked in to Dinner at the Restaurant 1881 for 8pm – their large restaurant area is also the place where they serve breakfast from 7:00am most mornings. A vast room with strong coloured walls and a jazzy vintage patterned carpet – we were shown to our seat and given a menu. We were served by the lovely Felix throughout the evening.
The menu is straight forward, there are no bells or whistles with a firm focus on the food and the quality. We were both taken with how the whole menu encompassed a range of tastes and expectations, it wasn’t eclectic but it catered for a wide spectrum of diners.
For starters I kicked off with a starter of Wild Mushroom Risotto served with parmesan crisp and pickled mushroom. Tori kicked off with Pan Fried Scallops which she has developed quite a taste for since being introduced to them by Chef Tom Williams a couple of years ago at the Food Magazine Festival of Food and Design.
It was moist and mushroomy – can you see why I’m not a professional food writer? – I ruminated on the words that I needed to describe this dish and the best I could come up with was mushroomy. Earthy, savory and exceptionally moist.
For main course we both went for Pan Fried Duck Fillet served with celeriac, rhubarb and five spice. Full marks for quirky presentation, slightly post-modernist but an attractive arrangement none-the-less. The duck was beautifully cooked, moist and full of taste as you would imagine from a restaurant with an AA Rosette.
The contrast with the duck and the rhubarb was weirdly nice, bitterness contrasted with the savory of the duck meat was a palette that I hadn’t experienced before.
Our final chapter of the meal was the dessert and for me this was particularly memorable. I opted for the Pina Colada (pineapple sorbet, coconut panna cotta, chilli poached pineapple and lime gel) and Tori went for the usual chocolate option which was Black Forest (dark chocolate mousse, which chocolate mirror glaze, brandy poached cherries, cherry gel, cherry jelly, chocolate soil, vanilla and cherry macaroon).
Pina Colada has so many connections, not all of them are positive. I think of Pina Colada and think of naff cocktails and package holidays. But something drew me to it, some sort of inner need for a classic cocktail told me to have this dessert. I had no idea really what to expect but the whole thing was gorgeous. It had a real summer taste, sitting on a coconut panna cotta plate, the elements were arranged like a little beach scene (I didn’t have to use my imagination too much) which gave me a very summery glow. It was rich, sweet and coconutty, like coconut scented sun cream, it really evoked an inner feeling.
We finished off the meal with a lovely coffee and a stroll down The Strand to breathe in some fresh sea air, reflecting on an incredibly enjoyable meal.
The next morning we rose earlier than we normally would on a Sunday to get down to breakfast. There is a helpful chart in the lift that shows peak times for breakfast, and the best time to get down. This is great if you’re a super early riser, but like most people, we are not.
So there were two queues. One queue for being seated and one queue for the breakfast buffet – they merged in to one which was quite confusing. But it was fine as a waiter appeared and seated us in a position where we could watch what happens at Breakfast time.
Unfortunately I feel The Grand Hotel suffers a bit with breakfast because there were long periods where certain things would run out at the breakfast buffet and then there would be a period of diners standing around waiting for certain things to come out. Naturally if we had come down earlier, this is unlikely a problem when there are less bodies, but the sudden peak of diners seemed to throw the service and possibly the kitchen.
Given this we ended up waiting a bit for the queue to die down. When we realised that the queue wasn’t going away, I sucked it up and joined in.
In the end, after a little more waiting, I was able to get most of the items we wanted for breakfast apart from Bacon. And here is the ultimate test of any establishment, how are they going to resolve the problem? What happens when someone wants bacon?
The resolution was perfect. One of the waiters advised me to go and sit down at the table and he would bring over the bacon, and within a few minutes four slices of thick bacon appeared, appeasing any bacon based disappointment.
We were approaching the end of breakfast service so that was it for the bacon for the day, the staff went above and beyond; we went away feeling incredibly happy that we managed to get bacon.
Our stay at The Grand Hotel was a welcome break from the life and everything else. The service was attentive and eager to please, the hotel itself was unconventionally homely and echoed a heritage that still draws guests back regularly.
Please note that this stay and dinner was paid for by Richardson Group.