Across the U.S., the restaurants of high-end
hotels are replacing their stuffy, often boring,
images with new and exciting concepts.
Once merely a perfunctory and often mediocre function of its host institution, the hotel restaurant has come a long way. The reinvention of the hotel restaurant—the shedding of its stodgy, boring image—is a trend that can be seen across the spectrum of hotels in the U.S. market, but especially in those institutions at the higher end of the hospitality industry. The idea of late has been to reinvent the hotel restaurant in such a way that it will not only help to keep hotel guests on premises for dinner, but even more importantly, attract a loyal customer base among locals as well.
For some hotels, this has meant leasing space to independent restaurateurs. But more often, hotels are simply employing "independent restaurant" thinking and ideas, or even going so far as to hire top-notch independent restaurant talent to invent and operate on-site concepts.
In Philadelphia, David Benton, G.M. at the Rittenhouse Hotel, where noted chef Jean-Marie Lacroix operates the hotel’s new restaurant, explains why once-perfectly adequate operations no longer cut it: "With customers now looking for a different experience, and with people coming from the suburbs and looking for something special, we needed to offer anything but that typical hotel experience. We needed to offer a great food experience."
In Miami, where the celebrated chef Michelle Bernstein was recently recruited to oversee the operation of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s chic Azul restaurant, F&B director Albert Mertz talks about a shifting perspective among hoteliers: "The hotel restaurant is seen as less of an amenity to be offered to the guests, and more of a revenue center and a unique selling point for a hotel. As a result, there is more of an independent restaurant approach going into these restaurants. For us, this meant finding a person with an independent background—an entrepreneurial restaurateur."
Bernstein herself adds, "They’re seeing the value of bringing in well-known chefs—people who didn’t work in hotels and who have a reputation on their own—rather than limiting themselves to their own ideas. The feeling of these new restaurants is so independent, and hotels aren’t afraid of that because the restaurant’s reputation is something they can use to their advantage."
In short, what hoteliers are realizing is that keeping guests onsite and creating a local clientele requires shedding that stuffy, dated hotel restaurant vibe and following the lead of successful independents: That is, becoming more stylish and on-trend in their menu and design elements, rotating their menus for renewed excitement, and paying closer attention to quality.
HOTEL DINING VANGUARD
No discussion of hotel dining would be complete without mentioning the contributions of San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group. In 1983, its founder, the late William Kimpton, created a brand new niche in the hotel market and recreated the idea of the hotel restaurant. Seeking to offer a "boutique" alternative to the big hotel chains, the company began taking over historic, often neglected properties, turning them into small, stylish lodgings. The goal was elegance, comfort, and above all, warmth, so that travelers, particularly business travelers, felt less lonely away from home.
Integral to Kimpton’s vision of the boutique hotel was finding the right restaurant to complement it. Bill Kimpton decided that his restaurants were to be adjacent to the hotels, rather than inside them. The reason? "Hotel" restaurants, he realized, would almost always be seen as run by hoteliers, not restaurateurs, a perception Kimpton wanted to avoid. He knew that drawing discerning locals and travelers required being seen as chef-driven independent, not as a function of a hotel, no matter how chic that hotel might be. And this, in fact, is the way Kimpton restaurants are run. From the top down, the restaurants operate as separate entities, with separate cultures, separate management, separate staffs. It’s based on the theory that hotels serve a function, whereas restaurants, Bill Kimpton once said, "were theater."
With this in mind, on the following pages, you’ll find some of the best shows in the country.
Miami’s Oceanfront Gem
The Place: Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Miami.
The Vibe: Named one of Conde Nast Traveler’s Best New Hotels, 2001, the $100 million Mandarin Oriental is one of Miami’s premiere properties.
The Restaurant: Azul, opened in Dec. 2000, is a 120-seat fine dining operation that, say many, is one of the few to do justice to fusion. In the words of author and Restaurant Hospitality and Esquire contributor John Mariani, "(Chef Michelle) Bernstein’s amalgam of Florida, Caribbean, French and Asian shows how misguided other chefs who toy with fusion are."
The Strategy: The Mandarin Oriental’s F & B Director Albert Mertz says, "The restaurant itself has been successful, but it has also stimulated lodging business, and it is a unique selling point for the hotel. The restaurant has certainly helped in terms of public relations." He adds that local marketing and PR efforts "play up Michelle—who she is, and what she’s doing." What works in this "new age" of hotel dining? "I think that what works is allowing the talent you bring into the kitchen to do what they are best at. What doesn’t work is trying to impose upon them what they shouldn’t do or should do. If you want the ‘independent restaurant’ scenario to work, you have to allow them their freedom."
The Deal: Though many know chef Bernstein from her stint on the Food Network’s "Melting Pot," she was also chef and co-owner of The Strand, one of Miami’s top restaurants. Her resume also includes time at Red Fish Grill and Christy’s, both in Coral Gables, and Tantra, Miami Beach. "Getting Michelle to come here involved showing her how things have changed in hotels, highlighting the support system we can give her," Mertz says. "In the structure of a hotel, she has a larger body of chefs to assist her, more purchasing power, more marketing dollars and other benefits not always present at an independent restaurant." Bernstein reports directly to Mertz, not to the hotel’s executive chef. What sold her on the job? "I’m not a ‘corporate girl,’ but the Mandarin is one of the most upscale, most elegant chains, and that is the reason I chose to go into hotel the industry," she says. Moreover, she adds, "Mandarin wanted my creativity, wanted me to teach them about what Miami wanted. They were open minded, more so than I thought any hotel chain could be."
The Decor: New York City-based designer Tony Chi (NoMI, Chicago: Aqua, Las Vegas) created the restaurant’s design, which includes a marble raw bar and a footbridge. The expansive, yet understated interior allows the stunning views of Biscayne Bay and downtown Miami’s skyline to be the visual stars at Azul. The restaurant is a two-story, copper clad structure with its own entrance, establishing the restaurant as a separate destination. Eighty percent of its clientele are non-lodging guests.
The Menu: Keeping locals loyal "is always about reinventing and making it exciting to them," says Bernstein. Her most recent menu, replete with multi-cultural influences, includes: Sweetbreads "A La Parilla," Heirloom Tomato Salad, Crispy Yuca, Chimichurri; Crispy Snapper, Boneless, Nuoc Nam, Fresh Mango, Kim Chee Vegetables, Noodles in Peanut Sauce; Ahi Tuna Poached Rare in Green Tea, Tempura Tofu, Baby Bok Choy, Pickled Watermelon.
What the Critics Say: "Michelle Bernstein, who trained with Jean-Louis Palladin, creates Eurasian-Latino dishes: Honey-lavender grilled quail; bouillabaisse with sofrito, lime and cilantro. It’s hot, sexy food in a cool, sexy room."—Food & Wine
"That she has provided Miami with the most definitive statement of modern Floridian cuisine within the walls of a hotel—the Mandarin Oriental—is more than a local phenomenon. Azul is a summation of everything twenty-first-century gastronomy can be at its best." —John Mariani, Esquire
Paris Lands in D.C.
The Place: Sofitel Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C.
The Vibe: Opened in June, the 237-room hotel is housed in a 19th century landmark building at the corner of Lafayette Square. Its neighbors include the White House, the Smithsonian, major landmarks, Embassy Row, the city’s convention center and several government agencies. With an eye toward luxury, French interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon created an Art Deco feel and utilized warm jewel tones and sumptuous fabrics, gold leaf accents and rich mahogany furnishings.
The Restaurant: Michelin three-star chef Antoine Westerman, owner of Restaurant Buerehiesel in Strasbourg, France created the
hotel’s new restaurant, Cafe 15. Westerman describes its approach as contemporary French. Roughly two-thirds of Café 15’s guests are non-lodging guests.
The Strategy: To reposition its new and existing hotels to a more upscale market, the growing (18 properties have opened worldwide in the past two years) Sofitel chain is using new restaurants as part of its re-imaging effort.
The Deal: For Sofitel’s new restaurants, the company is utilizing a strategy to hire, as consultants, two- and three-star Michelin chefs, whose roles have been to design the new concepts and their menus, to train the staffs and to provide ongoing direction to their respective projects. At Sofitel Lafayette Square, executing Westermann’s vision is executive chef Philippe Piel. Piel was trained prior to Cafe 15’s opening by Westerman and is assisted by Westerman’s own sous chef from Restaurant Buerehiesel, Antony Clemot.
The Decor: Rochon created a sophisticated Parisian-inspired dining room with jewel-tone fabrics, window garden boxes and Art Deco style tables.
The Menu: Offerings include a braised breast of farm-raised guinea hen stuffed with herbs, served with peas and chanterelle mushrooms, and a steamed turbot with a "barigoule" of lemon and coriander flavored summer vegetables. A selection of French cheeses is offered with a homemade hazelnut and walnut bread. Dessert? Try the fondant bitter chocolate tart with candied orange sauce. Dinners start at $30, with a five-course tasting menu starting at $95.
What the Critics Say: "Has Cafe 15 brought a halt to the recent Washington misfortune of new million-dollar restaurants that look better than they taste? It certainly appears that way. An early dinner prepared by executive chef Philippe Piel revealed much to admire: An amuse bouche of sweet pea soup floating atop a gelee of bacon followed by herbed sauteed frogs legs served with light-as-air onion ravioli, and steamed turbot arranged with a garden of summery vegetables flecked with coriander and lemon...With the arrival of Cafe 15, Paris feels closer to Washington than it has in years."—Tom Sietsema, The Washington Post.
The Last Word: Piel says, "(Independents) don’t have to worry about breakfast or banquets, but the rest is the same as operating an independent restaurant." GM Sebastian Carre adds that the upscaling of hotel restaurants "reflects what guests expect now. Our clientele is upscale, accustomed to travel. They are people who are curious and appreciate food and have very high standards, so it is important for a hotel brand to communicate that level of quality."
Silicon Valley Getaway
The Place: Cypress Hotel, Cupertino, Calif.
The Vibe: The last place you might expect a posh little getaway is in Northern California’s bustling Silicon Valley. But the Kimpton Group’s Cypress Hotel, just the second Kimpton property to be built from the ground up, is a hot destination not just for business travelers, but for vacationers as well. The 224-room hotel is just a short distance from the Santa Cruz Mountains and the charming towns of Saratoga and Los Gatos. Cypress’ locale also provides easy access to the 50-plus wineries of the San Jose area, as well as to the region’s spas and golf courses. An Italian-style loggia and a guestroom tower evoke Tuscany and the Mediterranean Renaissance. Floor-to ceiling French doors bathe the hotel in light, and rich colors, sensual textures, and bowls of luscious fruit transport guests to the Italian countryside.
The Restaurant: Named for the Greek god of the Sun, the 186-seat Helios is reflective of both Tuscany and the Cypress Hotel’s Northern California surroundings in that, says the Kimpton Group, the menu at this "global brasserie" is centered on "cuisines of the sun." A 52-seat private dining area is located adjacent to the restaurant.
The Deal: Executive Chef Patricia Tracey, a Johnson and Wales grad who most recently opened MoMo’s in San Francisco, was sold on working for Kimpton at Helios because of the opportunity to do a "global" menu. "It couldn’t have been a better fit for me," she says, adding that Kimpton’s quality of product also was a selling point. "I was with independents for a long time and I don’t know if I’d have explored the possibility of going to a hotel if it weren’t a Kimpton property. They allow for creativity and aren’t afraid to put themselves out there."
The Strategy: With most Kimpton properties, the restaurants are located next to their host hotels, not inside them. Helios is the lone exception, with Helios accessible from the hotel lobby. However, the hotel and restaurant look and operate like separate entities. "The restaurants are designed for local consumption," says Tom LaTour, Kimpton’s chairman and c.e.o. "You cannot survive on the hotel guests alone, so if you’re not someplace for locals, you’ll never make it." That’s not to say the businesses don’t drive each other: "The buzz for the restaurant supports the hotel’s goals, and the ‘hard-to-get-into’ aspect of some of the restaurants provide the hotel with the opportunity to make guests feel exclusive. Because we have blocks of seats available for hotel guests, people have been known to stay at our hotels just to be assured a seat in one of our more exclusive restaurants."
The Decor: Designer Bob Puccini sought to create a high-energy setting for Helios. Off the restaurant’s main entry, Helios’ bar is furnished with overstuffed armchairs and couches, adorned with colorful throw pillows. Bar stools are upholstered in a rich Indian gold fabric, and mosaic-tiled, high-top tables from Morocco contribute to the Mediterranean feel. The dining room spans two levels that overlook the exhibition kitchen. Banquettes, settees and tables in a mixture of jewel and earth-tone fabrics create a warm atmosphere. French doors span an entire side of the dining room. They open to a heated veranda that has an open fire pit and natural teak armchairs and tables.
The Menu: Patricia Tracey’s menu takes advantage of her location’s access to the artisanal products and wine of rural Northern California. Regional items featured on the menu include Asparagus Ravioli with Laura Chenel Fromage Blanc and Parmigiano-Reggiano; and Iceberg Lettuce Wedge with Point Reyes Blue Cheese Dressing and Pumpernickel Croutons.
What the Critics Say: "Upscale Helios, subtitled ‘global brasserie,’ already holds a lot of promise... Chef Trish Tracey does a fine job of interpreting modern American cuisine. The opening chef at MoMo’s, across from Pac Bell Park, Tracey uses excellent ingredients and restraint in presenting them."—Sheila Himmel, San Jose Mercury News
The last word: Kimpton’s Tom LaTour talks about the key to a successful hotel restaurant: "It starts with a talented and passionate chef who has a vision on a style and a preparation method that is outstanding. Then you back that up with a strong ambiance and a strong service program, and you’ll have a winner."
The Place: The Rittenhouse Hotel, Philadelphia.
The Vibe: This 98-room luxury hotel has won AAA Five Diamond and Mobil Four Star awards and boasts a prestigious address across the street from the city’s prettiest park, Rittenhouse Square.
The Restaurant: Lacroix at the Rittenhouse, which opened last month.
The Stragegy: How does a hotel package its restaurant to resemble a chef-driven independent? How about by naming it after the well-known chef hired to create and oversee the concept? Jean-Marie Lacroix was lured out of retirement by the Rittenhouse by the opportunity to create a namesake restaurant. By naming the restaurant for him, the hotel gets to capitalize on Lacroix’s well-known pedigree, both nationally among foodies and even more so among high-end restaurant-goers in Philadelphia, where he headed up operations at the celebrated Four Seasons Hotel. Rittenhouse general manager David Benton says that an exceptional restaurant can help a small, independent hotel separate itself from the pack: "Chef Lacroix gives us an enormous amount of prestige and helps differentiate us from the luxury brands in town. He will take our position even higher." It’s expected that this James Beard winner’s star power, as much as his prowess in the kitchen, will serve to draw both Philadelphians (expected to be 65% of the customer base) and guests of the Rittenhouse and neighboring hotels.
The Deal: Although Lacroix is not a financial partner in the operation, the chef has complete control of his namesake, as he would an independent. "Our job has been to give him the support systems, the space and the funding to develop what he wanted to develop," says Benton. It was this opportunity, says Lacroix, "to design my own kitchen and restaurant," that lured him back to the kitchen.
Out With the Old: The Lacroix concept replaces the Rittenhouse’s self-operated Treetops restaurant. Compared to newer hotel restaurants, once perfectly acceptable hotel ops like Treetops are now "relatively vanilla," says Benton. "Treetops wasn’t meeting customers’ needs. You need a chef who thinks independently, who thinks of it as his own, and then you let him develop the approach."
The Decor: High-end restaurant design specialist Marguerite Rodgers (Philadelphia) worked with Jean-Marie Lacroix to design the restaurant’s dining room. The space is elegant but simple and comfortable, employing green, yellow and red tones. The space takes advantage of the hotel’s view of Rittenhouse Square: Guests enter the restaurant through an elegant garden across from a park that’s adorned with stone pathways and wrought iron gates. The dining room makes use of natural elements, including a horizontal waterfall that runs along the windowsills and single candles at each table that create the illusion of dining by moonlight.
The Menu: Lacroix’s menu will rotate seasonally and utilize local ingredients. Offerings are simple, yet contemporary, says the chef. "It is simple cooking, not too many ingredients—often three ingredients maximium. The flavor and freshness are what’s there." To accomplish this, Lacroix is re-teaming with the local suppliers of produce, meats, cheese, breads, coffee and teas he befriended while at the Four Seasons.
The Last Word: "There is no difference," says Lacroix, between his approach to the hotel op and an independent restaurant. "I do my work every day like it is my own restaurant. I compete with the best in the city. I run it as if it were an independent, as if I am the owner, because it all has to do with the person at the top."
A Food-Lover’s Hotel
The Place: Hotel Healdsburg, Healdsburg, Calif.
The Vibe: Located in picturesque Sonoma wine country, the intimate 55-room Hotel Healdsburg is truly a foodie’s destination. This is because one of its four founding partners is a chef. And not just any chef. Two-time James Beard honoree Charlie Palmer, of NYC’s famed Aureole, is part of the group that has created the town of Healdsburg’s first luxury lodging institution. Its simple design includes tranquil gardens visible from French-doored balconies, Tibetan rugs and black teak furnishings.
The Restaurant: Dry Creek Kitchen. The 88-seat (20 are outside) operation overlooks the 140-year old Healdsburg Town Plaza. The concept was created by Palmer and operates under the day-to-day direction of executive chef Mark Purdy, who worked at Palmer’s New York and Las Vegas Aureole restaurants.
The Strategy: Palmer says he aimed "to create a market-driven, highly seasonal menu that would represent Sonoma and present it all in a very comfortable wine country setting with sophisticated style." He adds that the restaurant hotel is an integral part of the hotel experience: "In a situation like this with 55 rooms, the restaurant, spa, and various other public spaces, each aspect has to gel with the others and provide the guests with a total experience. I’d like to think what we’re doing is like entering a big house where you come down for lunch or dinner and relax in the back yard."
The Deal: The region’s attributes were enough to lure Palmer to the Hotel Healdsburg project. "Northern Sonoma is very special and it has a bounty of great products and wines," Palmer says. "There are very few places in the world with all these products—cheeses, poultry, lamb, incredible produce, world-class wines—and literally 20 miles from the coast," he says.
The Decor: Created by Frost Tsuji Architects, San Francisco (credits include NYC’s the Lenox Room and Aqua in San Francisco), Dry Creek Kitchen features vaulted ceilings, a frosted glass wall that separates the kitchen and the dining room, dramatic floral arrangements, and an outdoor live-fire grill. The designers sought to fuse sleek, contemporary elegance with rustic wine country charm by marrying items like Rosenthal china and Spieglau crystal with forged stainless steel flatware.
The Menu: The menu takes advantage of Sonoma-produced ingredients, including produce, meats and cheese, as well as the Northern coast’s accessibility to fresh oysters, salmon and Dungeness crab. Menus are printed daily in the kitchen and feature items like: A Pine Fall Salad of Artichokes with Arugula and a Red Wine Mustard Vinaigrette; Pomegranate Glazed Liberty Farm Duck with Runner Bean Succotash and Sage Jus; and Pan Seared Steelhead Salmon with Wildcress Risotto and Dijon Sauce.
Sonoma-centric: Guests looking for a favorite Napa varietal won’t find it here. Dry Creek Kitchen stocks only Sonoma wines. But the list is likely to please nearly anyone. With more than 60 wineries inside a 10-minute drive of Healdsburg, Dry Creek Kitchen offers a lineup of 350-plus selections from an inventory of 4,000 bottles.
What the Critics Say: "Palmer has brought a slice of urbanity to Healdsburg, which has long been overshadowed by Napa as a Wine Country destination. Sonoma County is waiting to flourish, and Palmer’s presence in the Healdsburg Hotel is one of the most visible indications that the area is about to arrive...It’s not the French Laundry—and that’s not what the restaurant wants to be—but it does bring a culinary high note to the other side of the Mayacamas Mountains."—Michael Bauer, The San Francisco Chronicle
The Last Word: "I’d like to think that everything we do is not only professional, but special," says Palmer. Dry Creek and the Hotel Healdsburg are also very special at a personal level. So taken was the Palmer family with the town that they’ve moved to Healdsburg, just a short jaunt from the hotel. "The fact that I’m going to live five or six miles up the road obviously makes it very personal," he says.