It's a rare thing for Dav Eames to be sitting at his favourite table in George's Bar, where he has been Bar Manager for the past seven years; usually he can be found mixing drinks behind the bar or in the kitchen brewing syrups and creating intricate garnishes. The short distance from his usual post gives Eames a chance to reflect on his 20-year career in hospitality – and to appreciate the magnificence of his working environment. 'I often think to myself, looking at this room – I wonder if I could ever have dreamed of working here. It's beyond what I would have imagined.'
As rooms go, it's beyond what many could have imagined. The former reception of the Midland Grand Hotel is unashamedly opulent without overwhelming the eye, marrying Victorian Gothic artwork with contemporary interior architecture. Gazing up at the ceiling affords an instant snapshot of the contrast at play: the brightly painted ceiling Sir George Gilbert Scott masterminded above a cluster of giant golden bells – London's most extravagant lampshades – brought in by David Collins Studio. 'The biggest, most talked about feature by guests,' according to Eames.
Eames's journey to George's Bar began in Bangor, where he grew up and had his first job, aged 17, as a potwash in a pub. 'I enjoyed the working environment there: the hustle, the bustle, the push, the night-time work. I'm definitely a night-time person,' he says, pausing to order a double-shot flat white. 'This is morning for me.' (It's 4pm.) After Bangor, he moved around England with various hospitality roles – waiter, chef, restaurant manager and bartender – before getting a call from Chantelle Nicholson, who was overseeing operations for Marcus Wareing's businesses (and is now chef-patron at Tredwells). Wareing was opening his first bar and they needed someone to run it. 'I wasn't really even aware of the [St Pancras Renaissance Hotel] building – I hadn't been to Kings Cross much. I remember walking down these halls thinking 'This is the poshest place I've ever been in my life.''
Fast forward to early 2018 and Eames, Nicholson and Wareing gathered together on the banquette we're occupying now, taking in the newly refurbished – and rebranded – George's Bar. 'I remember sitting at this table after the refurb and everything was picture perfect; we looked at it and thought: 'Wow. This is really beautiful.' And we soaked that in. Then we started thinking 'What are the practicalities?'' In this respect, Eames found, David Collins Studio had thought of myriad details he hadn't even considered before. 'We had this amazing ceiling and there's this incredible height, but we're sitting at a low level, which is usual for a bar. So to join the ceiling and seating together, they put in the trees, which draw the eye up. See that one?' He points to an olive tree growing up through a circular table in the heart of the room. 'What's great about it is that as you come in, it makes you deviate right [towards the bar]and as you're leaving you go the other side. It's almost traffic management.' He points out the mirrored tables, which not only reflect the showstopper ceiling, but feature a subtle grid pattern, referencing the design of the antique mirror behind the bar. The menus, he shows me, are made from the same leather as the banquettes, which in turn borrow their deep teal shade from the original artwork above our heads.
As I admire the table with a newfound appreciation, a bartender arrives and adorns it with two more cocktails. Up until now I've been sipping a 'Lost in Marrakesh', which Eames was inspired to invent after following his nose, quite literally, through the streets of Marrakesh, inhaling cinnamon, rose petals, mint, orange blossom. These flavours made their way into a pleasingly tactile basket-weave glass, alongside rum and citrus. A cinnamon bark garnish is briefly ignited to release a heady aroma before you taste the drink; the whole experience is transporting. One of the newcomers is a Rhubarb Gimlet, swirling around a stemmed glass with a lilypad of lime floating on top, which is crowned by a ribbon of dehydrated rhubarb. 'A circle in a circle in a circle,' says Eames. It tastes like its colour – a beautiful blush pink – and is extremely refreshing.
Being a station bar, a restaurant bar and a hotel bar, the people-watching opportunities must be endless? 'That's what I find so interesting about working here' says Eames. 'At 5 o'clock people are going to pour in to get a Martini; maybe they don't want to pile in the tube yet, maybe they're on the train back to Cambridge later. That then transitions to pre-dinner drinks before people go through to the restaurant – which is adjacent to us – and hotel guests coming for a cocktail before heading out to a show. It's very transient and there's a lot of movement. Towards the end we have the late night crowd coming in for a last drink, like an Old Fashioned.' Despite the transience, do many treat George's as their local? 'Absolutely. That's what's lovely – there's a balance of lots of people coming and going, but often familiar faces. And they always order the same drinks.' Eames tells me of one regular guest, a CEO of a tech company, who came at noon one day for a Londonist 'She said she was going to Paris for lunch – then I saw her for another Londonist at the dinner service.' The Londonist is the third cocktail I'm presented with. It laps around an un-meltable ice cube and has an edgy bitterness that I love; I think I'd bookend a day trip to Paris with a couple of these too.
By now, an inviting cosiness has settled upon the bar as the sun disappears outside and candles are lit within. Eames continues to point out his favourite features; the bursting pomegranates and exotic animals carved into the walls, the transparent café curtains that David Collins Studio installed in place of previously opaque drapery. 'Occasionally the rear tail-lights from cars going past flash through the room; with the traffic swirling around it feels even more like an oasis in here.' I savour the last of my Londonist, just as a group spills in through the revolving door. Martini-o-clock is about to strike. As the outside world clocks off, Eames prepares to get to work.
"This was inspired by a trip I made to Marrakech last year, and by the intoxicating smells of the souks there. As someone who is driven by ingredients and flavour combinations, on my return home I started playing around with what I’d experienced in Morocco. This is the result – it’s a great refresher for enjoying outdoors on a warm day."
10 mint leaves
20ml fresh orange juice, plus 3-4 wide shavings of peel
40ml white rum (I use Bacardi Carta Blanca)
10ml rose liqueur (I use Briottet Liqueur de Rose)
1-2 drops orange blossom water
15ml fresh lemon juice
15ml fresh lime juice
25ml cinnamon syrup (sugar syrup with a cinnamon stick steeped in it)
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
Mint sprig and rose petals, to garnish
Bruise the mint leaves, then roughly tear them and put in a rocks glass with the orange peel. Fill with crushed ice and stir, then pour in the rum, rose liqueur and orange blossom water, and stir again. Add the citrus juices and the syrup, stir a third time, then top with more crushed ice. Splash the bitters on top, and garnish with a mint sprig and a couple of rose petals. Serve with a (paper) straw.