Vista, The Trafalgar Hotel, 2 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2TS
Sun glinting on an elegant dome; schmooze music smoothing away life’s pressures; olive trees between small tables creating intimacy and privacy; dusky pink and terracotta-coloured cushions waiting to be squished into; waiters weaving discreetly between the bar and us bringing glamorous cocktails – this is not Morocco but central London, high above the pigeons, at Vista, the revamped rooftop bar of The Trafalgar Hotel. The views are fabulous – across to the National Gallery, down to Big Ben and over to The Grand Old Duke of York. And I don’t want to share it.
I’ve been coming here for years – with visitors who I could be sure wouldn’t tell too many others about it. A hidden spot, impressive for its views, it was otherwise unremarkable. Now that it’s been revived, it’s to be enjoyed indulgently and even more secretly. The £5 entry fee, is the hotel’s way of managing numbers. You’ve got to want to be here for what it is and what it’s not is a mass-market bar, overfilled with heaving, guffawing crowds chucking back cheap drinks on cheap dates. There is certainly a price worth paying to avoid that. (And for those who are concerned that the charge is just another way of clocking up the cash, a proportion goes to Cancer Research UK; The Trafalgar donated £22,000 in six months last year.)
Kind-heartedness aside, this is a bar and self-indulgence is expected. A Leila Lavender Martini was bright and fresh with herby notes from the Gin Mare and a wafting spray of lavender. A Mediterranean version of a mojito was frighteningly easy to drink, despite the visually-disconcerting addition of halved cherry tomatoes pressed up against the sides of the glass (adding colour and teasing tastebuds seem to be signature tricks up here). The Hot Chilli Woman, made with chilli-infused vodka, was extraordinarily inventive and complex, combining the house chilli-infused vodka with Black Moth’s truffle flavoured vodka, elderflower, lemon and vanilla syrup. Strangely, the sweetly sour, or sharply sweet, mixture works, particularly in the open air with bright stars shining in the darkening skies above. Pommery is the house champagne.
Grazing plates were accomplished in looks and flavour. Grilled haloumi is easily one of the world’s dullest cheeses, delivering salty, squeaky rubberiness and not much else. Alongside the deep red velvetyness of a strip of piquillo pepper, a splash of viividly green pesto and the brown earthiness of a quarter of a Portobello mushroom it takes on an impressive role. It was stunningly pretty and satisfying. Tandoori chicken tikka was moist and lightly smokily-blackened, its heat softened by a cool minty raita, both eagerly scooped up with a triangle of pitta bread. Beluga caviar is an option, served on blinis with crème frâiche, chopped shallots and grated hard-boiled egg.
Puds are limited – and cleverly so. Cocktails demand elegance; this is not the place for a slab of sticky toffee pudding or treacle tart. It is the place for a delicate slurp of Purbeck ice cream (the red chilli flavour echoed the sweet-spiciness of the cocktail I was drinking) and for the very clever Yummy PopKakes. Beautifully wrapped in cellophane, with pretty labels explaining the flavours, these walnut sized balls of cake on lollipop sticks provided exactly the right amount of gentle sweetness and sticky cakeness a sweet-toothed girl needs when slightly sozzled. Sophisticated and quietly luscious, the Karrot Kake was particularly good and, unusually, not sickly.
The Graze at Vista concept is very clever. Watching the sun set while enjoying views across our stunning city, a sense of freedom from being six floors up in the open air, a quirky menu and an inventive bar – nothing’s missing. It’s not cheap – how could it be, here in one of London’s most impressive locations? It is understatedly classy. Don’t expect it to be open in bad weather.