On-Trade Progress visits a former ballroom that hasn’t lost its history

In the lead up to Christmas On-Trade Progress travelled north of London, to the quaint heart of Hitchin, where a stunning 1930s venue has been renovated to offer consumers food, live music and bagels. Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant is set in an impressive former ballroom where Eric Clapton once graced the stage and continues to stick to its rich history of entertainment.

“Our aim is to the market leader of ingenuity and gastronomy in Hitchin and the surrounding areas,” says Susanne McGregor, assistant general manager of Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant. “We aim to deliver a service based on passion, experience and enjoyment.”

Rich history

The Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant has a rich cultural history, as McGregor explains: “In the 1930s to 1950s, Hermitage Rd was fondly known as The Herm, but officially the Hermitage Ballrooms and it was the place to be seen.”

She continues: “Everyone would come here to dance on a Saturday night and artists and bands such as Eric Clapton, Thin Lizzy, Alvin Stardust and Baron Nights all performed here. After this, The Herm became a failed nightclub until it was taken over by the Nye family (Anglian Country Inns) in May 2011. The interior was completely stripped back exposing beautiful original brickwork, which we decided should not be covered and plays a key part into the urban/industrial décor our regulars and new customers love.

“We wanted to keep as many features to the building, our restaurant sits on the original maple sprung dance floor and we still have big music nights on the original stage.”

These music nights form a key aspect of Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant’s offering to customers, with its live music nights attracting crowds from all over the local area and further.

At On-Trade Progress, we always encourage venues to find their niche, and McGregor and the team believe they have found theirs. “Before we came to Hitchin, you would be hard-pushed to find a venue that hosted band nights and live music with as much space and atmosphere as us,” boasts McGregor. “We have a live acoustic (Sunday Sessions) every week in the bar with £5 cocktails. We also have a house band called Indi and The Vegas who fill a regular Friday night slot (Friday Night Funk).”

A dramatic flair

While the Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant has a rich history of performance, they offer this same dramatic flair to visitors too. Customers can watch their food coming to life before their eyes in an open kitchen dining experience. If consumers choose, they can sit “at the pass” to look at the action up close.

For the Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant team, its food offering is paramount in importance too, with its menu changing four times a year to offer a fresh and varied flavour.

McGregor says: “Our offer is premium casual dining, serving British-influenced cuisine. Our executive head chef, Joe Walker, is a new breed of young chef with fresh ideas and innovative combinations. We of course have our staple classics such as sticky pork belly ribs and premium steaks, but our menu changes four times a year with daily specials on offer.”

The restaurant also offers a contemporary favourite, coffee and bagels, which it offers on a separate menu – with the bagels made fresh every day.

Getting festive

With Christmas upon us, we are implored to find out what Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant will be offering customers this festive season.

“We have a loyalty card scheme where card holders can receive festive treats when they visit,” explains McGregor, which vary from a minced pie, a glass of cider, pigs in blankets and more. “We will also be having live bands every Friday night in the run up to Christmas. As well as a festive menu offer.

“We try and give our guests as much choice as possible; people get sick of turkey throughout December, so we want them to have lots of delicious options to choose from.”

And it has done just this. As well as a classic roast Norfolk turkey, the restaurant will also be serving up a 28-day aged rump steak, pan roasted seabass, lentil and aubergine shepherd’s pie, a beef and pork burger and a tempura tofu burger. As well as a range of starters and desserts, suitable for both carnivore and vegetarian alike.

Looking back

McGregor and her team reflect on how far the Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant has come; not only from its former ballroom days, but also under the influence of Anglian County Inns.

She says: “When this building was The Herm, it was the place to go, and we have brought it back to that. If you ask anyone in the local area about Hermitage Rd Bar and Restaurant they will know about us. We have pushed the boundary of what a ‘restaurant’ can be with our food and entertainment offer.”

For new venue managers who may wish to imitate the stunning transformation of a classic venue to niche offering, she gives this advice. “You have to 100 per cent believe in what you are doing, Anglian Country Inns saw a huge space and could see the huge potential in it,” she concludes. “If you buy into what you are offering then so will others. Choose your market and stick to it and find a team that love the business. We call our staff family and treat them as if they are.”