The station staff at King's Cross have been yelling "all change!" for decades. But only recently have the buildings started paying attention. A major regeneration has turned one of London's seediest quarters into the kind of place where Google and Central Saint Martins art school want to hang out. Two years ago, Gilbert Scott's Midland Grand Hotel at St Pancras station – once earmarked for demolition – reopened as a Marriott Renaissance property. On the concourse, Europe's longest champagne bar welcomes Parisians off the Eurostar. At Kings Place, there are piano recitals and art exhibitions. One by one, every major edifice has had a facelift, and £2.5bn has been sunk on the railway infrastructure alone.
The latest butterfly to emerge from its chrysalis is the Great Northern Hotel, which stands alone between St Pancras and King's Cross stations. I couldn't picture it before I arrived, possibly because it has been boarded up since 2001. But it's a striking piece of Victorian pomp: curved and tall, topped with gabled windows and giant chimney stacks. It was designed by Lewis Cubitt in 1854 – he completed King's Cross station two years before – and is one of Britain's first purpose-built railway hotels.
If you're thinking net curtains and fry-ups, forget it. The GNH has been reinvented as a boutique hotel, with an emphasis on small-scale style and discretion. So there's no bustling lobby: the front door is a hole in the wall, more like a nightclub – complete with a bouncer, though much friendlier. Sensibly, given the hotel's position abutting the station, the ground floor is a bar. The one restaurant, Plum + Spilt Milk, has been shunted on to the first floor, giving it elevated views and an airy feel.
The menu is impressive but unfussy – sweetbreads and twice-cooked haddock soufflé were big hits – and they try to use British ingredients wherever possible. Were it not for the annoying name – taken from the livery of the London and North Western Railway carriages – I'd predict great things for this restaurant.
Upstairs, there are 91 bedrooms, which are small, but well appointed. The decor – pea-green walls, dark hardwood floors, cream wainscots – is smart but unpretentious. The concept of a railway hotel was never about glamour: it was somewhere to wait in between trains. In this, the GNH has got it right. With a superior restaurant, comfortable rooms, free Wi-Fi and newspapers, and a reasonable rate, there's no reason to look further afield. It may lack the visual drama of Gilbert Scott's Gothic monster, but ask for a St Pancras-facing room, and you get a great view. There is still a sense of history, too. While most of the Renaissance's rooms are in a modern block to one side of the historic building, all rooms here are part of the original structure. Fans of Nancy Mitford's Don't Tell Alfred will recall that the Great Northern was where the naughty and glamorous Northey was conceived, hence her name. The Northey may not have been glamorous in Mitford's day, but like everything round here, that's all changed.
King's Cross station's new western concourse stands next to the hotel's inside curve, and rooms on that side overlook the latticed glass roof. You can enter straight from the station, otherwise the front door is on the street side, facing St Pancras. Trains from King's Cross take you to Edinburgh along the east coast, or cross the road for trains to Sheffield, Paris and other parts of Europe. Six Tube lines pass through King's Cross, and the station's main taxi rank is outside the front door.
A railway theme runs throughout the design. The smallest rooms, the Couchettes, are literally that: double beds boxed in on three sides. The Cubitt rooms are somewhat more spacious, though still compact: there's space only for a small, white leather sofa and table, and the beds are king-size and no bigger.
In the fifth-floor attic are the Wainscot rooms, with sloping ceilings, dark-wood panelling and a brave rich red colour scheme. The effect is sexy, if slightly oppressive.
All rooms are equipped with chrome lamps, Wi-Fi, flat-screen televisions, air conditioning, a mini fridge, music and film libraries. Bathrooms, though small, are classically fitted with white tiles, chrome taps and Malin+Goetz products.
Great Northern Hotel, King's Cross, London, N1C 4TB (020-3388 0800; gnhlondon.com).
Doubles start at £170, room only.Reuse content