When it comes to hotel restaurants, it seems most of us have checked out.
Often considered not more than a pass-through for visitors and an almost certain no-go for locals, they are typecast as neutered, watered-down spaces. No specific market. No culinary focus. No thank you.
“Outside of cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – and increasingly others such as Portland and Denver, which have seen a resurgence in restaurants within boutique hotels – consumers have a perception that restaurants located within hotels are poor quality, catering just to business travelers that don’t have time to seek out someplace more ‘local,’” says Garron Gore, creative director of Hospitality Ventures Management Group, an Atlanta-based hospitality management firm with both boutique and branded hotel and restaurant properties in eight states.
These challenged spots have started breaking past the buffet and are beginning to fight the stigma of being vanilla in an often flavorful culinary scene. You might say being a trendy restaurant located in a hotel is the inn thing to be.
“Hotels used to care more about the banquets and corporate meetings,” Gore continues, “but now they see potential in something more than a standard three meal-a-day restaurant – a market-specific restaurant with a story.”
“There’s no exact formula for how restaurants can be seen as standalone destinations,” says Allison Page, co-founder of SevenRooms, a management platform that helps restaurant partners create unique identities on a hotel property, “but there are a few different things a team can do to make the restaurant stand out on its own.”
You Do You
Gore doesn’t position his projects as “hotel” restaurants, but restaurants in their own rights, from naming and branding, to picking the perfect service ware, to HR, management and beyond. And it’s working. Hearth & Dram, a project Gore recently created in Denver, has won numerous awards for being a top restaurant and bar in the Mile High City.
“It’s crucial to look at the restaurant as its own unique entity, separate from the hotel,” agrees Page. “This could be from restaurant design to cuisine to its social media presence. The hotels we have seen be most successful are ones that also bring in local flavors and design elements authentic to the destination. For example, offering a seasonal menu that showcases local produce, or a design aesthetic that’s unique to the city or neighborhood.”
It’s this exact concept that has allowed Henley in midtown Nashville its own place on the dining horizon without leaning on its location in the Kimpton Aerson Hotel. With an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” stance, this modern brasserie attracts hotel guests with the best of the city, while reminding locals why they love it in the first place.
“If locals are in our space, then hotel guests will feel like they’re getting a unique, special experience.” -James Garrido
“We set ourselves apart from hotel restaurants of yore by being genuine to our city and region,” says general manager James Garrido of the restaurant’s locally sourced produce, whiskey, and cured meats. “Our thought is that if we remain genuine to Nashville, locals will come as they would to a stand-alone spot. If locals are in our space, then hotel guests will feel like they’re getting a unique, special experience.”
Create a Buzz
“Another way we’ve seen hotels create standalone destinations is by partnering with a well-known local or national restaurant operator or celebrity chef to create buzz,” suggests Page. “Today’s travelers and locals alike are looking for experiences that offer something more, whether that’s an Instagrammable dessert, famous TV chef, or beloved restaurant brand. The ones that get it right are being lauded both nationally and internationally as go-to destinations.”
While it’s not easy to hit up Daniel Boulud a la Café Boulud at The Surrey in New York City or Bobby Flay of Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, it’s possible to create your own talk-about-town status.
In the case of Meritage Restaurant + Wine Bar, located in the Boston Harbor Hotel, the wine selection is the superstar. Meritage offers a list that has great depth, not only in the number of wineries represented, but also in the age of the wine. This has largely come from the relationships chef Daniel Bruce, a local culinary celebrity in his own right, has built with vintners from all over the world for the Boston Wine Festival over the past nearly 30 years. Locals and hotels guests seek out reservations for Meritage’s well-known and whimsical wine dinners – several-course voyages that take diners on experiential cultural journeys.
The look and feel of Meritage is designed to reflect this uniqueness. “We run it as if it is a free-standing restaurant that just happens to be in a hotel,” says Bruce. The restaurant is designed specifically by a different designer than the rest of the hotel for this reason, complete with rich wood paneling, graceful sculpted seating and an inviting color palette of wine-inspired hues. “The décor complements the wine-centric concept,” he adds.
Whatever path you’ve chosen to separate your restaurant, you still need to remember your audience – a combination of guests and locals who might have reservations about you. But you’ll show them.
“The biggest challenge a hotel restaurant must face is towing the line between being a destination where locals and travelers want to visit, while accommodating in-house guests that expect reliable dining on-property,” says Page. “The hotels that can successfully navigate these challenges are the brands that are creating winning hotel restaurant concepts today.”