There are few places that appeal to the British imagination as much as those that offer a combination of imposing architectural gravitas, antiquated (and invariably stuffy) customs, a strong (almost overbearing) sense of the past, and the social exclusivity of a private members club. Such places may be a bit like a public school for adults, but they are also one that most have only dreamt of being part of. Situated within Nuwara Eliya – still affectionately (and non-ironically) referred to as “Little England” – The Hill Club is one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent quenchers of such a distinctly British thirst.
The Club is located along the pine-lined Grand Hotel Road. It’s flanked on one side by The Grand Hotel, on another by Queen’s Cottage (official country residence of el Presidente, Mahinda Rajapakse), and on another by the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club. And if that wasn’t enough, it is set away from the road, amongst its scrupulously maintained private gardens. To say the setting is picturesque is an understatement.
Established as a club for British males in 1876, The Hill Club has evolved into one of the country’s most exclusive memberships. It is primarily patronised by a Colombo-based Sri Lankan elite, but a steady trickle of tourist traffic helps to make up the numbers. Visitors can acquire a temporary membership at a cost of LKR 100 per day (about SGD 1.00 – fair), for which they can use the Club’s facilities. This extends to the dining and reading rooms, bars, and tennis courts. Accommodation is also available for those who want the fully immersive experience. We settled for dinner.
Greeting us at the entrance was no less than the Club dog. That’s right, the Club dog. We named him William. Proud and well-trained, he grumbled not about the cold, nor about us entering his turf unannounced. He didn’t even bat an eyelid when I tickled his tummy and called him a dachshund. Now that’s not the sort of restraint you see on a day-by-day basis. Impressive.
And here he is in close-up. A picture of stoicism.
The Club famously offers a five course set dinner for USD 24.00, but there is also an a la carte menu that includes a small selection of vegetarian dishes. The dress code is notoriously strict, and a source of great hilarity amongst temporary members. Blokes must wear a jacket and tie and, as most visitors to Lanka neglect to bring such formal accoutrements with them, there is a wardrobe of “extras” that visiting menfolk can borrow (FOC). The Club tie was, I admit, rather tasteful, but the jacket was a horrendously oversized and generally quite ridiculous tweed affair (although the best of a bad bunch, I might add).
The dining room itself is magnificently grand. Really, I couldn’t help but be impressed by such good taste and fidelity to old-school British style. At one end of the dining room are sofas and an open log fire – a perfect setting to escape the cold of the hills, and to chow down on some delightfully dubious grub. The music deserves a special mention – what started with the gentle tinkling of classical piano morphed seamlessly into a time-warped medley of 90s pop. I was, unfortunately, too busy being on my best behaviour to take heed of Boyzone’s pleas for me to love them for a reason, and for that reason to be love. Indeed, combined with the large table of velour-clad mainland Chinese tourists sitting adjacent to us, the music only added to the Club’s misplaced and irreverent charm. Goes without saying that I felt right at home.
As a starter, we had the duo of toast parisienne (LKR 500), which basically consisted of creamy mushrooms on toast, accompanied by a side salad. The sauce was promised to be some sort of creamy white wine affair, and was a good – if canned – imitation that was strongly accented with cheese and salt. Or maybe just salt. That said, taste was very much a secondary consideration as the biggest excitement was provided by the boomerang-shaped piece of toast (charred along one edge) sticking out of the plate. Now if that’s not a sign of culinary flair, I’m not quite sure what is.
One of the mains we tried was the tomato au gratin (LKR 625), which was supposed to be diced veggies stuffed inside two hollowed out tomatoes, and then smothered with hollandaise and parmesan. All this atop a “herb buttered spaghetti”. The stuffed tomatoes were rather wan (evident in spite of the lighting), and the contents (diced courgette, carrot, onion, olive, and parsley) were very watery. The strongest punch came from the garlic-infused tomato sauce that lay under the toms. Eating this with a knife and fork was an exercise in slobbery, sauce-flying-everywhere humiliation, believe me.
The other main was the vegetable lasagne (LKR 625), which was fairly self-explanatory, and came with assorted roasted vegetables. The lasagne was drowning under an avalanche of parmesan, the taste of which overpowered just about everything else. The inside was more watery than creamy, although the flavours of celery and courgette should be applauded for putting up a valiant fight against the parmesan. Bravo!
For desert, we shared a zabaglione di port (LKR 575), which is basically a sort of hot egg custard flavoured with port. It certainly had the light frothiness of egg custard, but with every bite I couldn’t help but think that I was eating butterscotch Angel Delight. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, of course. If port was actually used (I have my doubts), it added a slightly fermented taste to the dish. Next time I will stick to port alone.
All in all, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the magic of The Hill Club. It’s a lot like the Churchill Room in Singapore’s Tanglin Club, but with worse food and a much, much more convivial and enchanting atmosphere. A trip to Nuwara Eliya wouldn’t be the same without a visit. It’s ace.
The Hill Club
29 Grand Hotel Road, Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka
+(94) 0522 222 653
Lonely Planet’s review