I’m partial to a McDonald’s on the road. That insatiable hunger when I’ve been driving for hours can only be satiated by some salty chips, a sloppy Big Mac and a syrupy Coke. It’s as if the calories don’t count, such is the anonymity of a service station. As soon as I see those golden arches on the side of the road you can bet that I’m indicating left at the first countdown marker.
There is to be a new set of arches gracing the British motorway – but instead of luminous yellow, they’re neon red and more square in design. Say hello to Mollie’s Motel and Diner, the first in what will be a series of roadside and city-centre inns across the country. So far, so pedestrian. But the clincher? It’s run by Soho House & Co, the cosmopolitan group that counts private members’ clubs and hotels from Shoreditch to Chicago, Mumbai to Malibu among its portfolio.
They’re all beloved by the A to Z list of celebritydom: Hollywood’s finest to reality TV’s latest. The much-hyped Soho Farmhouse (a 45-minute drive away from Mollie’s), where one-bedroom cabins start from £330, is allegedly where the Duchess of Sussex spent her hen do, while last autumn, she went, with the Duke of Sussex, for a break at Soho House Amsterdam. The Ned in London, known for its bouji brunches, has 92 original African verdite columns designed by Edwin Lutyens (for whom the hotel is named) in its lobby. Mollie’s, located on the single-track A420, in between Swindon and Oxford, counts a BP garage with an M&S Simply Food as its only neighbour.
It’s a break from their usual dealings. Why the roadside inn? “I’ve wanted a go at reinventing the roadside experience for a long time,” said Nick Jones, founder and CEO of the Soho House group. “Creating something affordable, stylish and using technology to make things better. The roads are busier than ever, but the roadside hasn’t really changed. I drive along the A420 regularly: there are 24,000 cars that pass along it every day,” he added. It’s a notable swerve in direction from the group’s early days of exclusivity. Soho House still maintains a starry pull though: at the recent launch party the likes of Paloma Faith, Declan Donnelly and Jeremy Clarkson sipped margaritas and tucked into mac ’n’ cheese while a brass band played the theme tune to Happy Days.
There’s no point comparing Mollie’s to the group’s more illustrious properties. The brand is squarely aiming for the budget market. “I like looking at how we can change the way things are done and improve them,” Jones tells me. “The idea with Mollie’s is to have all the things I think are most important if you’re stopping on the roadside or passing through with family, at good value.” It’s not their first dalliance with the high street: the company also own (under sister company Quentin) restaurants including Pizza East, Dirty Burger and Chicken Shop (often described as a posh Nandos). They have been mainly contained to London until now – menu items from the latter two restaurants appear at Mollie’s.
The large menu is pure American diner littered with retro classics: chicken nuggets with BBQ sauce, loaded nachos, crinkle-cut fries, hand-spun milkshakes and Bloody Marys – alongside appropriate all-day “Dirty Deals” and “Bargain Baps”. The bacon and egg bap – complete with a doorstop-sized hunk of bacon – is the platonic ideal of a McMuffin and, with a hot or soft drink, is only £6 (I suggest you add a croquette-like hash brown for extra). There are also healthier options, including grilled aubergine with quinoa, rotisserie chicken (sourced from a Somerset farm and marinated for 24 hours in a “secret” sauce), salads, soups, grain bowls and cold-pressed juices. There’s a smaller version of the full menu for takeaways and drive-through.
The interiors are as on-point as the menu. Though from the outside the red neon and black paintwork has something about the Angus Steakhouse about it, inside it’s an elevated Fifties diner: less Frosty Palace, the much-frequented date-spot in Grease, and more Fifties by way of boutique hotel. “I’ve always imagined Mollie as the owner of a diner in Fifties America, so we’ve tried to create that feel in a contemporary way,” says Jones of the design. Rows of racing green leather booths run the length of the light-filled space. Globe-shaped lamps hang from the sloped ceiling, while silver-rimmed tables holding kitsch tomato-shaped ketchup dispensers are overseen by bright and helpful staff, many of them local teenagers. It’s a refreshing break from the often aloof and sometimes too-cool-to-serve-you attitude at some of the group’s clubs.
A separate building, across the car park – which includes a few bays designated for those waiting for drive-through orders – holds the motel. Guests enter through the “General Store”, the makeshift lobby where an old-fashioned glass-encased counter offers mints, sweets and electronics. Across from it is a living area with plants in concrete pots, Vitra-style shelving adorned with trinkets and books, and a big table in the centre, a communal workspace.
Though there’ll always be a member of staff positioned here, check-in is done via the designated app. You can only reserve rooms on the app or website. Bedrooms, located across three floors, are simple but detailed in design, with more of a Scandi-cabin style than a motel: grey-blue walls with fluted wooden panelling, more globe lighting and a dusty pink armchair. Beds are dressed in white Egyptian cotton, and mattresses are Hypnos (a tactic already employed by the Premier Inn group, and a good one at that). Bunk and interconnecting rooms are also available.
They’re well thought-out, with lots of hanging space and mirrors, plus dimmers for the bedrooms and bathroom lighting. Each floor has, helpfully, a cold water tap in the corridor (though no loud ice machine, surely a feature of every American motel). Bathrooms have polished concrete floors, power showers and Cowshed products – though not the abundance of choice you get at their other hotels, just a shower gel, hand cream and potentially the only real budget thing about the place: two-for-one shampoo.
The budget market in general is upping its game: last year Premier Inn announced its latest brand Zip, which will have pod-style rooms (designed by the same firm who create first-class aeroplane cabins) for £19 a night, while Travelodge Plus will offer better technology and beds than their current line. But the fact is Mollie’s will trump them, if not in quantity and availability across the country, in quality. The last time I stayed at a Travelodge, off a motorway in Wales the night before a friend’s wedding, I ate a very depressing stuffed-crust pizza, probably cooked from frozen, in a near-empty lobby.
But who will come to Mollie’s? Probably not the fashionable clientele the group has long fought so hard to curate, or the bloggers who were at the launch party posting pictures of their breakfast on Instagram – rather teenagers from Swindon and Oxford who follow them and want a slice of their lifestyle. I suspect it will be a motley crew of people, including some who have never even heard of the group. It’s a good base for the nearby Bicester Village fashion outlet (where the group have a Farmshop café) or for prospective students visiting Oxford University (both a 30-minute drive away). Or, perhaps, for those attending weddings in the north Cotswolds. Jones asserts that: “Mollie’s is for everyone.”
The next confirmed openings are earmarked for Cribbs Causeway, a retail park next to the M5 in Bristol, Manchester city centre (reportedly with a rooftop pool), and, if all goes to plan, a further 10 locations. Beyond that, members’ clubs in Hong Kong and downtown Los Angeles are opening this year, followed by one in Brighton in 2020. I won’t be able to say goodbye to my naughty McDonald’s motorway habit entirely just yet. But if I find myself driving along the A420 anytime soon you’ll find me in one of those bays demolishing an egg and bacon bap.
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