Ventnor’s hidden gem

It’s a looking-glass world, one of opposites where nothing is as you would expect. The Hillside Hotel is a Georgian House run by Gert and Anna. They have meticulously restored it, but in a minimalist simplicity far removed from its original style, and – and this is the truly audacious bit – they have changed the rules about how and when their guests can eat.

At Hillside, dinner is at 7pm. Non-residential guests are welcome to arrive by 6.30pm, and can enjoy a drink in the conservatory, bar or sitting room, having chosen from three three-course set menus (one meat, one fish and one vegetarian) when they book, which must be at least 24 hours in advance.

Cheeky? It’s a risky approach, surely. To most chefs or proprietors it is unacceptably draconian. To Gert, it is about respect. “It comes from the fact we like to respect everything and everybody involved – from the vegetables used in the dish, the animals that gave their lives, to the chef spending their time and the waitress – and not least the guest.”

In cold print Gert’s words may strike some as eccentric. But his measured, slightly accented tones, reinforce the notion that actually he is talking sense. Restaurants waste food because they don’t know how many people to expect each night and what they are going to choose to eat. Hillside’s chef, Gerald, will shop for the exact ingredients he knows he will use that night.

“Guests come in at a certain time, giving us the best chance to meet their expectations – and hopefully do a bit more. That means when we say its freshly cooked, it is, because we know exactly what we’re cooking for whom and when.  That means the waitress is not standing looking at the customers coming in saying we’ve got all that ready for you – it can’t be! So it actually shows most respect to everybody involved, including the guests’ expectations. Because we don’t waste time or money on things not being eaten.”

Surely that way of doing things is very limiting? “You wouldn’t go to a vegetarian restaurant and ask for a steak,” says Gert, with impeccable logic. “So you won’t come to Hillside if you don’t like the way we do things.”

His incontrovertible sense of how things should be pervades everything he does. He and Anna had not even visited the Isle of Wight before (though they had sailed past it), not been in the hotel or restaurant trade, yet when they saw Hillside – then a warm and homely hotel but in dire need of physical repair – they felt they had come home.  Asked why here, he spreads his hands and lets his eyes take in the view below. “Look around,” he says in his soft Danish voice. “It was my dream. I had to do it.”

He’s got a point. Hillside, nestling under St Boniface Down, looks over the town and the bay. “We loved the people and the little villages – though I think it’ll be more than 25 years before we’re accepted as Caulkheads!” But that, in itself, surely isn’t justification  for the of thousands of pounds of investment in three new roofs, a new garage, new plumbing, electrics, floors, under floor heating. The list goes on.

The refurbishment was stressful, yes. Every loose bit of plaster threatened to reveal some new horror, hence the extent of the rebuild. But the daily compensation was the teamwork with his craftsmen: “They became the people you were looking forward to seeing, people you really respected for what they did and the way they did it, and also their positive response to our very different approach. When you’re working over six months with 25 guys, renovating a building, the building becomes the lead of the play, it says what it needs when. The building stood out and said that’s what I like!”

There he goes again, turning something fanciful into common sense. Being attuned to the demands of the lead player, the house, was in fact what dictated the interior decoration. This has no reference to its Georgian roots. There are no elaborate swags and drapes here, no silver candelabra and close-patterned wallpaper. The clean Scandanavian lines of the décor could not be more contemporary. But to Gert and his team the stripped-bare look is exactly what the house required: “It is exposing all the qualities of the building. We haven’t cluttered the windows with curtains , we’ve exposed the floors, haven’t covered them with carpets, we’ve done up the walls so you can see what the they were like. We’ve exposed the fireplaces. Yes, we’ve actually shown the building as it is.”

He was at his most nervous when the building was finished, in case he’d got something wrong. “If you can’t do it right it’s not worth doing” is something he says more than once. Yet the moment when he opened for business – when he was to expose his dining concept and his minimalist décor to the public – and he felt no qualms at all. “I was so convinced Hillside was a place where people would like to come and eat and to stay because that is what people have done for the past 210 years. So if I just behaved accordingly I might pick up a bit of trade here.“

He is blessed, he says, with the trade already received. “Everybody who comes to Hillside is struck by the ambiance, the presence of history, the feel of being part of something bigger.  The setting of the house itself, all the history that comes with it,” he says.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t deny that turning on its head the accepted way of eating out must carry its own risk.  “The strongest word in business is ‘no.’ When you say yes to a very particular way of doing things, you are also saying ‘no thank you’ to some business. No to people who want to eat at 8 o’clock (though we are flexible for large parties and for those with particular dietary requirements); no to residents who want to have dinner brought to their rooms, because we want our rooms to remain clean and smell nice for future guests.”

As he speaks you feel  again that, far from audacious, his approach is simply logical. He is certainly in tune with the new and long-overdue zeitgeist that wasting food is wrong – witness the current Love Food Hate Waste media campaign. But more than that, it is a logical conclusion to the idea that guests should feel at home when they come to eat. Dinner party hosts specify a time when dinner will be served and don’t generally offer a choice, after all.

So while you can view Hillside’s very smart and accessible website, and register a desire to eat on a certain day, Anna will phone every potential diner to discuss their needs. “It shows respect to all our guests to do it in this way. We can discover the reason for their visit – if it’s a celebration, for example – and ensure everyone understands the way we do things.”

Part of this is ensuring everyone fits in, and if they sound uncomfortable with Hillside’s way of doing things, we will recommend somewhere else. “There are a lot of good restaurants in Ventnor, which I think is becoming a bit of a foodie capital. We are very proud to recommend these to our guests: other restaurants also recommend us. That’s how Ventnor should work together to give the best experience to the guests. If you’re not providing what they want, one of your colleagues will.”

Increasingly this topsy-turvy world of old looking new and seeing rivals as colleagues seems quite sane. Gert is not dictating to guests but respecting them: “If we know who is coming we can fulfil their expectations, and maybe more.”

Everyone at Hillside works to develop the menus and the ideas: local produce is used, even if at a higher cost, if it is good enough, but not if it doesn’t meet their standards. He heaps praise on Gerald for consistently producing excellence, thought he isn’t inclined to encourage him to seek Michelin Stars, feeling that takes the eye off the guest: nor does he shout about the various accolades and gradings awarded to Hillside, though they are listed on the website.  Certainly that new US-led scourge of the dining industry, the online review, is working in Hillside’s favour. With 95 percent of favourable reviews on tripadvisor.com, Gert can afford to be tolerant of the power of this and other websites. But there is no complacency here: “We are only as good as our last meal,” he says. “Here we are fuelled, living for customer feedback. It is what makes us tick. It is like being given a hug when somebody says something positive. It’s hurtful if you’re not succeeding.”

Of course nothing is set in stone, even in this beautiful house which dictates its needs, to those who listen. It may be that the Hillside concept does not ultimately work. “We will give it a couple of seasons,” says Gert.

But somehow, from where we’re sitting in the looking-glass world, it is not Hillside that seems back-to-front and upside down but the many Isle of Wight hotels which expect to stay afloat without moving with the times. Those which still, in the summer of 2010, served tinned fruit salad for breakfast or deterred afternoon tea seekers at the start of September with the brusque words: “The summer is over now.”

A business based on excellence, respect and collaboration? Surely that shouldn’t seem such a bizarre concept.