Published: 06:00, 22 January 2021
| Updated: 14:44, 22 January 2021
A long-empty hotel is set to reopen in August as a six-pronged complex featuring a country pub, bistro and pizza restaurant.
The Croft Hotel in Canterbury Road, Kennington, was snapped up by renowned restaurateurs Alex and Helen Bensley in early 2018 after plans to replace it with nine homes floundered.
The husband-and-wife duo - who have a proven track record of turning failing pubs into successful eateries - have been working on their plans ever since and have now revealed more details about the bold scheme.
Set to create 75 jobs, the first phase of the £4m project features six key parts: country pub, bistro, Spanish-inspired courtyard, champagne and oyster bar, 100-seat fine-dining restaurant and small gourmet pizza restaurant.
The second stage will see most of the existing lodges at the side of the main building turned into 10 to 30 “quality” hotel rooms.
In 2016, the Bensleys sold five of their restaurants to Shepherd Neame for £11.9 million - including The Old Mill not far from The Croft on the A28.
Mr Bensley, who has owned about 35 restaurants in his career, says he plans to open his latest venture in the summer - but only if the Covid-19 vaccine has been fully rolled out by then.
“I don’t want anyone to have to socially distance when they go in there,” he said.
“I hate the word, but it’s a kind of complex, although it won’t feel like that when you are in there.
“You won’t have to go outside to get to the different areas, but they will all be independent with their own staff.
“It will feel like one of those pubs where you walk into the bar and can then go through to the restaurant. It will be like that, but with more areas.”
In 2012, Mr Bensley turned the Grade II-listed Golden Ball into The Old Mill after refurbishing the site and adding an extension.
He has already recruited the management team for his latest project which includes personnel trained at some of London’s top restaurants.
“When I opened The Old Mill, there was a lot of resistance with people saying ‘we don’t need another restaurant’, but it was such a success," he said.
“That was middle of the road, casual dining, but this is another degree up on that.
“I think people know enough about food now to order a plate of oysters.
“I opened my first restaurant in Ashford in 1991 and if you had offered someone a plate of oysters then they would have thrown them at you.”
Mr Bensley described the construction programme as “a bit of a pig” after a roofer caught Covid-19 before Christmas and Ashford Borough Council had to give the green light to the refurbishment.
But he says his team has taken everything out that was not original and has approximately tripled the footprint by ripping out hardboard walls.
“We’ve literally taken it back to the fabric,” he said.
“The brick floor had three layers of lino and three layers of carpet over it - you probably have to go back to the 1930s for the last time someone saw it.
“We have also found three open fire places which we have fully restored and the basement will be a nice vintage wine cellar.”
Mr Bensley says he will be recruiting more staff nearer the opening date of his project, which is called the Stubbs Restaurant and Bar.
He is also providing on-site accommodation so he can attract top chefs from London and further afield.
“The only other place I know where you can get a decent meal in the Ashford area is probably Pizza Express or the The Pig & Sty in Bethersden,” he added.
“This will be proper fresh cooking but by qualified chefs - and we’ve got some very good chefs lined up.
“I am not in a hurry to open it; if I can get it half right, it will be excellent.”
Mr Bensley’s first project in the Ashford area was The Hooden Horse in Great Chart, which is now called The Little Black Dog.
He says he is “very excited” by his latest plan which includes six key parts in its first phase, which he describes here:
“Cosy, 100% freehouse with its own manager and its own entrance, featuring an open log fire and bar with stools. It will serve best ales, good wines, etc.”
“A separate casual pub restaurant with an easy to eat, drink and chat, old-school but freshly prepared basket and bar menu, again with beams and open fires, leading onto Le Terraza and the champagne and oyster bar.”
“Our outdoor Andalusian-inspired courtyard with Spanish roof tiles, water fountain, statues, terracotta paving, all with extensive, decadent alfresco wining and dining in mind."
“Luxurious leather, high bar stools at a dedicated marble bar serving champagne, lobster, shellfish and oysters.”
“Dining for the fine: a slightly more formal casual restaurant, in the style of a Victorian London Gentlemen’s Club (dark oak panels, old Hogarth prints, etc). It will have a fabulous menu consisting of the freshest from the sea, pasture and allotment.”
“Our very small gourmet pizza restaurant.”
Mr Bensley describes the hotel rooms planned in phase two as similar to an old-fashioned motel but "very desirable".