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A look inside Artist Residence hotel in Brighton

PUBLISHED: 10:39 30 September 2016 | UPDATED: 10:39 30 September 2016

Dining in The Set

Dining in The Set

Archant

Brighton’s bohemian Artist Residence hotel appeared on Alex Polizzi’s The Hotel Inspector: since then it has become a beloved local landmark. Alexander Larman visits to talk to Justin Salisbury about his flagship establishment

For a city with its artistic and cosmopolitan reputation, Brighton is surprisingly low on really interesting places to stay. Instead, even some of its grandest squares are home to guesthouses and bed and breakfasts that seem unchanged since the days of Graham Greene and Patrick Hamilton in the 1930s and 1940s.

It is, therefore, with some relief that one happens upon the Artist Residence hotel, set in a fine position in Regency Square and overlooking the West Pier. It is here that Justin Salisbury and Charlotte Newey have their flagship establishment – they also run others in London and Cornwall – which simultaneously offers sublime comfort and quirkily decorated rooms by a range of Brighton and Sussex artists. It’s also home to the restaurant The Set, which has attracted plaudits for its head chef Semone Bonner’s carefully curated four-course miniature tasting menus since it opened last year. A visit to the Artist Residence is thus both an aesthetic and culinary delight.

Meeting Salisbury at the hotel (Charlotte, who has recently given birth to the couple’s first child, is understandably absent) to discuss all things Residence-related proves an enthralling experience. Most hoteliers are brash, arrogant people who give the impression of almost overwhelming confidence, but Salisbury comes across as polite, unassumingly friendly and seemingly disinterested in the wider financial implications of being the proprietor of a group of successful hotels, instead wishing to concentrate on making a great brand even better. Which is, frankly, refreshing.

Owners Justin Salisbury and Charlotte NeweyOwners Justin Salisbury and Charlotte Newey

After he encountered Charlotte “on the first day of university – she was literally the first person I met!”, he claims that he fell into the hotel trade completely by accident. “My mother took on a run-down hotel in Brighton but before she had a chance to do anything with it, she was unfortunately hit by a bus. So I paused my studies, firstly to look after her, and secondly to take on the hotel. I remember standing on the doorstep of a run-down guest house, not knowing what I was doing, and some people walked past and said ‘Do you have a room?’ To which I replied ‘Actually, we do…’ and that’s how it started.”

It was slow starting (“a steep learning curve – it was like working without a map”, he notes, wryly). It was not helped by the fact Salisbury was finishing his degree and that the former Malvern was described on TripAdvisor as “the worst hotel in Brighton”. An appearance on The Hotel Inspector and the influence of Alex Polizzi (“a brilliant woman... she really felt sorry for us”) helped take the hotel in a more businesslike direction. As he says: “It was a godsend to have someone telling me what to do, which is why it’s amazing when I’ve watched other episodes and the hotel owners are much more combative. Just listen, and take advice!”

The hotel really took greater shape when Charlotte concluded her studies and moved to Brighton, and the momentum that it acquired ensured that it turned into the successful, well-run business that it is today. Beginning with the two of them mucking in together (“I cooked the breakfasts and she cleaned the rooms”), they’ve now developed a working relationship that encompasses everything from day-to-day admin to forging partnerships with local artists and sourcing antiques and objets d’art for the 23 beautifully designed rooms. Divided into “artist” and “house” rooms – the former are wackier and more eccentric and the latter feel like more conventional upmarket boutique hotel rooms, albeit with a stylish twist. The artist rooms feature the work of such people as the Brighton-based visual artists Bonnie & Clyde and Charlie Anderson, as well as international figures including the Dutch painter Lennard Schuurmans. Artists were invited in from the first days of the hotel, and initially offered entirely free rein. Salisbury now describes the experiment as being “perhaps a bit too much, but it certainly made an impact”.

Artist Residence, BrightonArtist Residence, Brighton

Guests divide into the bohemian visitors flocking to the Residence as a destination spot (as well as locals getting away from it all for a night or two) and the more strait-laced, who are less interested in the “crazy rooms” than they are in the more conservative ones. The nearby Hilton is unlikely to be feeling the threat of competition any time soon; as Salisbury says, deadpan: “There was a time a few years back when they’d had some problem and some of their guests were booked in here...they’ve never done that again. Instead, we attract a lot of creative and media people, who I think appreciate what we’re trying to do and enjoy it.”

With the opening of The Set, they’re also expanding into the field of fine dining, although Salisbury is quick to recommend some of the other outstanding local restaurants for guests seeking to diversify. He leaves responsibility for The Set to Bonner – “it’s not really my area” – but thankfully his chef knows exactly what he’s doing, serving up intricate dishes that never fail to impress. As Bonner, formerly of The Ginger Pig with his colleague Dan Kenny, says: “We try to create an informal experience, taking the pretentiousness and formality out of fine dining. It’s quite daunting to come somewhere with white tablecloths and hushed staff and not know what you’re eating.” We sample a range of small plates including the signature dessert of cereal milk and spelt granola, hake with chicken wing and parsnip and a deconstructed leek and mac and cheese and can report that they are all every bit as excellent as every other part of the hotel.

Leaving the Artist Residence, even after a fleeting visit for a few hours, is something of a wrench. Justin and Charlotte have managed to create something rather wonderful and quirky without ever being too serious (a “meeting room” features an enormous ping pong table), and its beloved status in Brighton is entirely deserved. Let’s hope that it begets other places, and that every down-at-heel guesthouse one day ends up being similarly delightful.

Room 21Room 21

33 Regency Square, Brighton; 01273 324302; artistresidencebrighton.co.uk

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