It’s a part of our lives that we all come to understand. The beloved friend or family member is taken ill, maybe rallies a few times, but over time begins to weaken, fade, and eventually is laid to rest. So it is with big seaside hotels. In the middle of the 20th century these palaces of jollity and holiday fun were at their heyday – packed with families throughout the season, lining the seafront and even backstreets of thriving seaside resorts such as Ryde. Now, threescore and ten years later, so many of these grand places have waned, lingered for a while maybe, but in almost all cases finally closed to visitors. In Ryde, the toll is a high one. The infamous Royal York stands forlornly derelict. Others have simply become housing – the Teneriffe Hotel, the Appley Hotel; or just been demolished, as with the Royal Pier Hotel.
With such an air of melancholy inevitability about the decline of the great hotel, the rejuvenated Royal Esplanade Hotel, set in Ryde’s ‘leisure strip’, is a remarkable thing. Remarkable just for staying open – since 1867 no less – for being full of guests, and looking clean and presentable. How much more remarkable would it be, then, if it actually turned out to be capable of delivering a decent meal? That’s the sort of thing that sets us to wondering. And of course, there’s only one way to settle that sort of uncertainty.
Inside the Royal Esplanade, the bustle of the busy interchange outside is replaced by a genteel atmosphere, with smartly-attired staff on hand to receive guests, and necessarily guide them through the maze of well-appointed rooms, lounges and bars to find the main restaurant. We chose a dining-table with an actual sea-view – a surprisingly scarce thing in Ryde. As the dining room began to fill up with guests coming down for dinner, we tucked into a substantial baked Camembert starter served with figs and spiced Isle of Wight chutney. The canny waiter brought two plates unbidden; Cat pretended to resist before sampling the creamy cheese melting enticingly out of its wooden box. We hid a smirk as a nearby couple exclaimed with concern “Whatever is that smell?”, only to be much abashed when their waiter had to identify our pungent starter as the source.
The menu is full of classic dishes, and keenly priced. Cat always has an eye out for the sub-twenty quid fillet steak, and this time she was not disappointed when a fillet mignon came in at only £18.95. Matt prefers a chewier cut, saying that cheaper steaks are tastier. Well, that may usually be the case, but the fillet at the Royal Esplanade Hotel was pleasingly meaty-tasting. It was also that fabulous fillet texture, soft almost like cheese. Languishing across it like one of your French girls was a bunch of tomatoes on the vine seared to bring out that sweet fruity flavour. The chips were the dish’s weakest point; none of your artisan gnarly hand-hewn triple-cooked fries here, just bog standard regular-shaped pale chips. Still, they were considerably perked up when dunked into Cat’s Stilton and ‘shroom sauce.
Gazing seaward, Matt was inspired to try the beer-battered fillet of cod. This came with chips in a little frying-basket, a device we first encountered around 2005. The fish itself was a good specimen; fried excellently with batter just peeling off as it should, exposing hot, steaming moist flakes of fish beneath. Curiously Matt’s mushy peas were all but served on a blue paper napkin absorbing some of the napkin’s dye and giving him a chromatographic diversion as he cleared his plate. Other than the rather run-of-the-mill chips he could find no fault with this rendition of the seaside staple.
The menu promised granny’s bread and butter pudding with homemade custard. Had Matt’s late granny ever offered him such a dish he would have been stunned. “Granny!” he would have exclaimed. “Why are you giving me custard in a tiny glass teapot? I can’t even get the stuff out of the spout!” But, hypothetical grandmothers aside, the dish itself was pretty good. The teapot was an entertaining substitute for a custard jug and, when Matt removed the lid to allow air in, the custard eventually flowed out of the delicate spout. The summer berries alongside made a visual and taste contrast that worked nicely with what was a decent bread and butter pudding.
After her filling fillet Cat chose the Royal Esplanade Hotel’s petite assiette which the menu described as either chocolate brownie or the pudding of the day – which, the day we visited, turned out to be chocolate brownie. For such a tiny piece of cake it took disproportionate amount of time to arrive. So long in fact that the waiter apologised twice for the delay and offered Cat a commiseratory coffee. However the morsel of brownie eventually arrived and very nice it was too. The ‘tea plate’ was one of those rectangular numbers with the brownie at one end and summer fruits at the other, connected by a chocolate sauce umbilicus. The brownie was soft and moist – and gone in a mouthful.
Baked Camembert £5.95
Cod and chips £9.95
Fillet steak mignon £18.95
Stilton sauce £2.50
Bread & Butter pudding £4.95
Petite assiette £4.95
The Royal Esplanade Hotel has recently undergone a programme of refurbishment; the new owners have respected the hotel’s historical detailing, including a spectacular parquet floor and some original labelling. They are coming in with a bang, promoting rooms at an astonishingly budget fifty quid for two – including breakfast. On that basis we were anticipating a cheap-and-cheerful experience. Instead we found a very good-value menu, some well-presented food and some exceptionally good service. This centrepiece of Ryde’s seafront looks to continue to be a success.
This is the full-length version of a review that was printed in the Isle of Wight County Press
- Top-notch service
- Keenly priced food
- Very nicely presented venue
- Sea views
- Top hotel service, but a delay in the kitchen
- The chips were the weakest point