Last time I had Sunday lunch with the wireless on was as a teenager eating roast beef to the Navy Lark in the early Sixties, chuckling at Leslie Phillips saying “left hand down a bit.”
Today at the new Halifax Hall ‘boutique hotel’ in the grounds of Sheffield University the soundtrack is the chatty Smooth Radio, complete with commercials and news bulletins, broadcasting two feet from our table via a lit TV screen.
It’s not quite what I expect. Nor is the roast beef. Two thick slabs are as tough as the proverbial with very little taste. I suspect, as Halifax Hall has only three tables booked, it’s been reheated in gravy.
There’s even the ‘shadow’ where the slices have overlapped and the gravy hasn’t stained the meat – although a member of staff assures me later it was cooked fresh.
Nor have I ever had to dunk pieces of hard dry Yorkshire Pud in my gravy bowl before to soften it.
But if the beef doesn’t cut the mustard – I have to prompt them to bring me the advertised horseradish – surely the surroundings make up for it?
Halifax Hall, built in 1840 for a local magnate, looks great on the website, a squat, grey stone-built Victorian mansion with a colonnaded entrance although when you get there you find reception is through a decidedly municipal-looking doorway alongside.
The reception décor is dull corporate and so is our dining room, labelled the Music Room, which has just four tables plus armchairs and a sofa looking through a bay window onto a terrace. There’s a bigger room if there are more bookings.
With its coving, deep skirting boards, plasterwork ceiling and impressive fireplace it’s got potential but the colours are grey and beige, the walls blank without a picture, the light fittings frankly awful and not a single flower to bring a splash of colour.
It’s cost the university £1.8 million to transform this former student hall of residence but little has been spent on providing the character and individuality that the phrase ‘boutique hotel’ implies.
The place is surrounded by modern student dorms so, for security reasons, there’s a barrier across the drive and you must buzz to be let in.
I only know that Halifax Hall does Sunday lunches because someone has tipped me the wink.
There’s no mention on the website apart from a month-old tweet with a picture of roast chicken.
To be fair when I ring and check they offer to email the menu but that would give the game away. This column travels incognito.
And still to be fair, the hotel which is pitching at the conference, visiting parents and wedding venue market, is more concerned to cater for staying guests rather than the wider public.
When it strung a banner outside advertising meals it upset the local residents.
Two courses here cost £12.95 and three £15.95, with a reduction of a fiver for children’s courses.
Soup of the day was tomato and cinnamon, which I have never had. It works. It tasted sufficiently tomatoey, you could smell the spice at the outset and it registered firmly at the end of each spoonful.
I can’t be as positive about the ham hock terrine, two slices of which looked industrial and had the texture and flavour of Spam, although Spam doesn’t have gristle.
My Yorkshire pudding had not even tried to rise. It was like a flatbread and just as chewy.
The onion gravy was good and so were the parsnips but the roast potatoes were only just cooked.
By contrast my wife’s salmon with a cheddar cream sauce was a rather sprightly dish in comparison.
We ended with a bread and butter pudding which needed more sugar (and eggs) to enhance its humble components and a clunky chocolate and raspberry tart.
I’m told they do coffee here but it wasn’t offered so we thought we’d go without.
As I paid at reception a charming young trainee manager called Aaron asked if we had enjoyed it. I was more forthright than usual.
To his credit he welcomed such feedback rather than the usual anodyne British “fine, thanks,” with a false smile and we went back into the dining room to run through my complaints.
He said the screen should have been turned off (although we would still have had music from an online radio station) and that we should have been offered coffee.
On the décor he said it was not his place to comment.
When I seemed less than taken with Halifax Hall he offered to show us a room.
It was smart and while the bedroom was soulless it had an impressive bathroom, so I would have no hesitation in recommending the accommodation.
Sunday lunch, though, on the strength of our visit, is a different matter.
With a pleasant glass of tempranillo, the bill was £36.70.
Halifax Hall Hotel, Endcliffe Vale Road, Sheffield, S10 3ER. Tel: 0114 222 8810. Open for Sunday lunch and evening meals (ring to enquire). Vegetarian option. Credit cards. Disabled access and toilets. Car park (with barrier).
Star rating 2