Think of a boarding house and think of tatty interiors, overcooked vegetables and faded kiss-me-quick charm. Think of the Seaside Boarding House, perched on a secluded Dorset cliff edge on a glorious stretch of Jurassic coastline, and think again.
This part of the world has already inspired creative types, including Ian McEwan, author of the novella On Chesil Beach, which is a stone's throw away. Broadchurch, the ITV murder mystery, was filmed at nearby West Bay. So, it is an ideal spot for Mary-Lou Sturridge to set up shop with the ironically named SBH.
Sturridge spent 20 years at the Groucho Club, London's media haunt, rising to managing director. Leaving in 2007, she discovered a rundown B&B and former care home with Groucho business partner Tony Mackintosh in 2008. Various delays meant it has taken until this spring to re-emerge. The transformation is cool yet homely, with a dollop of kitsch thrown in.
Take the bar: one part 1930s speakeasy, one part Mad Men long lunch. It has moss-green seats, lamps with a coconut-tree design and the flowers on each table are potted in little trophies – a rush job for Mother's Day weekend that has stuck. Jazz tootles away from the radio on the bar, from where Merlin, the young barman, dispenses advice about what to see and do. So, is this Groucho-on-Sea? Not exactly. Sturridge says it's for people who want somewhere to unwind within a few hours' drive of London, and still know they can get a good Martini after whiling the afternoon away with their dogs on the sands.
The first thing that hits you is the solitude. Even the village of Burton Bradstock, a mile or so away, seems like a metropolis left behind. We ventured as far as Lyme Regis, but had we no child to entertain we would have been happy in the well-stocked library along the corridor. Our three-year daughter was in her element on the beach, insisting we rush to the sand even though it was tipping it down. We took shelter in The Hive, the beachside bakery and seafood shop where Billy Bragg, who lives locally, played a Nepal earthquake benefit a few nights before.
There are only eight rooms at the hotel, though it's planned to double capacity over time. We stayed in Room 401, the closest SBH has to a family room. It is as if all the nautical nods have been stashed at the back of house, from sea captain's desk to stripy blue-and-white curtains. There is plenty of space to unfold one of two camp beds – SBH's gesture towards accommodating young children – and Ren toiletries in the bathroom. The double beds are deep and firm with crisp linen and high-legged so you don't have to crane much to wake up to a sea view. I loved the simplicity. Instead of the usual lengthy room directory, SBH has a single sheet of A5 in each room, under the heading of "a few useful things". The message is, if you want anything, just call. Some might find it too basic. The television – on request – is little missed, and some might want for a full-length mirror. A fridge isn't so important, but most bathrooms have only a shower head over a deep, white bath. There is a communal shower room downstairs.
There is nothing lacking in the restaurant which serves honest, tasty food with some local twists. I had salt and pepper squid: crispy on the outside, springy inside, with a novel mix of salad leaves and pea shoots from Trill Farm, just over the border in Devon. My wife's portion of scallops with pea purée was generous, the roasted hazelnut garnish adding texture.
The first courses were just a warm-up act, though. My John Dory was a firm pillow of white flesh with a crispy layer of skin, served simply on salsa verde and samphire. My wife plumped for the buttery roast brill with leeks and mussels. What I didn't like was eating off a paper tablecloth. SBH might serve peerless fish, but I don't need fish shop-style accoutrements.
At breakfast, I've not had too much sea air when I start raving about the toast – thick, chewy sourdough, smothered with marmalade. There's also sharp, natural yoghurt; dark berry compote and muesli followed by silky scrambled eggs. Hot milk for the coffee is served from retro silverware and, on summer mornings, the glass doors out to the terrace can be thrown open.
There is still more to do at SBH: a coffee deck at the cliff edge is planned as is a chain walk down to the 17 miles of unbroken sands. I suspect the Groucho-style party space, complete with disco ball – already used for book signings and fundraisers – will be in great demand too.
Seaside Boarding House, Cliff Road, Burton Bradstock, Dorset DT6 4RB (01308 897 205; theseasideboardinghouse.com).
Doubles start at £180, including breakfast.Reuse content