The heart of hospitality11 September 2017
Despite much talk of select-service concepts and adventurous global nomads, the destination hotel restaurant might just be enjoying a renaissance, with hoteliers introducing carefully considered concepts and celebrity chef collaborations. Tina Nielsen investigates.
Georges Auguste Escoffier needs little introduction today. He left a powerful legacy in the culinary world, and is often credited with revolutionising the restaurant kitchen and bringing glamour to the dining room. He also introduced England to the hotel restaurant as an elevated concept. On his arrival in 1890, he partnered with the Swiss hotelier César Ritz and became head chef at the Savoy hotel, where he went on to create now famous dishes, including the peach melba in honour of the singer Dame Nellie Melba when she stayed in 1893.
When Tremont House opened in Boston in 1829, it was the first grand hotel in the US. Paul Freedman, a Yale University professor and the author of Ten Restaurants That Changed America, explains that to qualify as a ‘grand’ establishment it had to set itself apart and, in addition to being the first hotel to offer indoor plumbing, free soap to guests and locked rooms, the Tremont had a big banquet to celebrate its opening. Its extravagant food and pomp enabled it to stand out from other properties. “These days, a very fine hotel without a restaurant would be very strange,” says Freedman.
From Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at the Mandarin Oriental in London to the famous Raffles Grill at Singapore’s colonial gem, Raffles, hotel restaurants have undergone huge changes since those early days. Lobbies have become more like lounge areas, with food and beverage thoroughly integrated, and an increasing number of hotel restaurants have become destinations headed up by celebrity chefs – some don’t feel much like they are part of the hotel – and quality hotel F&B menu programming includes regional and local sourcing, up-to-date cooking methods and craft beverages.
Foodservice Consultants Society International (FCSI) professional member Ken Schwartz, who worked on the iconic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, sums up this evolution neatly. “There appears to be a shift in hotel foodservice,” he says. “What was once viewed as a full-service amenity evolved into limited service with mediocre offerings, only to shift back to a more full-service, chefcurated offering of amazing dishes with a beverage programme, such as wine, cocktails or craft beer, also curated for the discerning guest palate.”
New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells describes hotel restaurants as: “On the whole, better today than even ten years ago”. He says it’s a consequence of so many of them being run by restaurateurs rather than hotel companies.
“What I think has been lost is a kind of luxury hotel restaurant that used to be fairly common – places that would aim high and bring prestige to the hotel,” he explains. “These do still exist, for example, Jean-Georges in New York, and some of Alain Ducasse’s restaurants in London and France. Much more common these days is a more populist approach; places with lots of seats, a casual atmosphere and prices to match.
“In the past, hotel restaurants were either very grand or very mediocre. Now everything has moved towards the middle, which is a trend in restaurants generally.”
A separate business
According to Patricia Mateo, CEO of Spain-based marketing agency Mateo & Co, hoteliers who treat the foodservice function as part of the hotel business are making a mistake. “Hotels and restaurants are two totally different businesses,” she says. “Historically and generally speaking, hoteliers haven’t been good restaurateurs – they have different priorities and the customers feel this as soon as they enter a restaurant managed by hotel staff.”
It seems hoteliers have started to figure this out for themselves. “While hotels used to manage restaurants, and many still do, experience has shown that contracting with a chef or a restaurant group leads to more popular, profitable and longer-running restaurants,” says Wells. “The concept seems to be less important than the name attached to the project; some of these chefs have opened places with very run-of-the-mill concepts and still done very well.”
No matter the brand or service level, the function of a hotel is still first and foremost to be hospitable, says David Chislett FCSI from Ricca Design Studios. Think of inviting someone to your home for an overnight stay.
“The first thing after making sure sheets are clean, beds are made and that rooms are tidy is the matter of food and beverage,” he says. “Thoughtful care in quality offerings, the vessels and the setting all say ‘welcome’ and ‘I genuinely care’. The same message is critical for any hotel.”
In London, chef James Durrant opened his restaurant, The Game Bird, inside the historic five-star Stafford London hotel this year. General manager Stuart Procter says that the foodservice offer in the hotel was vital. “This is hugely important. We have wonderful rooms, and offer exceptional services to our guests and our restaurant must reflect that too,” he explains. “All guests staying with us will dine, whether travelling for business or leisure so we need to ensure that the Game Bird offers dining options to suit all those requirements.”
As Wells also points out, successful hotel restaurants today have to do double duty as a stand-alone destination that attracts locals as well as an amenity for guests, providing room service and breakfast.
“Thoughtful, current food and beverage offerings provided by an attentive and genuine service team is more than an amenity among many options for focus, it is essential for reaching and retaining hotel guests and off-the-street restaurant guests,” says Chislett.
Hugo Rovira, the director general of NH Hotels for Spain, Portugal and Andorra, saw the opportunity in gastronomy more than four years ago and decided to invest in the restaurant concepts in the hotels.
The intention behind the reinvention of food in NH Hotels was to correct what an image problem. “Spanish hotel restaurants had a reputation for being bad, expensive and only for hotel guests, which meant they rarely brought in a lot of money,” he says. “Some Spanish hoteliers say hotel restaurants bring in 10% of the income and 90% of the problems. We wanted to do it differently.”
NH Hotels have eight Michelin stars, spread across the group’s hotels in Spain and another five internationally. Among them is DiverXO, the only restaurant in Madrid to hold three stars.
Chef David Muñoz moved his restaurant to NH Eurobuilding hotel in 2014. Another of their stable is the two- Michelin-starred Santceloni in the Hesperia Hotel. Rovira says this relationship is a genuine advantage to both parties when it works. “The chef might be doing very well in their restaurant, bringing in customers and money but many are still not able to invest further in the business and grow. We can help with that,” he explains.
Muñoz calls the move to NH “a win for us and a win for them”. Having cooked in a small kitchen since starting out, he was thrilled with the new surroundings.
“It is a restaurant that any chef would dream of. The kitchen is huge, and when I first came in here after years of suffering in a tiny kitchen with lots of heat, and sweating and running, I remember feeling happier than I ever had before,” he says.
Equally, the hotels can use the name of a big chef to its advantage, says Mateo. “Big-name chefs bring attention, publicity and brand awareness. You become a destination within the city and it is a statement of intent: we play in the big leagues,” she explains.
Plan for success
Planning a restaurant inside a hotel needs to be approached in a different way to a stand-alone eatery. “When you start planning a hotel, food service should be well thought out, considering its impact on revenue,” says Armando Pucci of Fast Food Consultoria e Projetos in Brazil. “Well-conceived food service programmes may become an attraction in themselves.”
So, if a restaurant wants to cater for hotel guests while also being a destination restaurant within the city, who is the target? “Food and beverage planning should first focus on hotel guests’ needs, but this can be expensive in labour and capital investment,” says Chislett. “Hotel restaurants that are not hospitable to off-the-street guests due to a design flaw in access, or that are nondescript or only appeal to some hotel guest profiles, are expensive to operate, show low margins and don’t appeal to a wide range of guests.”
Procter believes that it is important for The Game Bird to be seen as a standalone operation and destination in itself and not just a hotel restaurant. “We have a great concept, menu, service and location so there is no reason we cannot compete with other non-hotel restaurants in London,” he says.
When deciding on the appropriate restaurant concept, Mateo says there are many areas to consider. “You need to ask yourself, do you have a chef or a unique concept that can become a destination? Does the concept need a lot of traffic? Is our property inside the hotel, in a hidden space or do we have a big facade and street access? What is the goal? Do we need brand awareness, publicity, a partnership?”
As a sign of how NH has invested in gastronomy under the supervision of Rovira, last year and this year the chain’s NH Collection Eurobuilding hotel in Madrid has hosted international chef popups in a series titled In Residence. In 2017, Grant Achatz moved Alinea to the hotel for five weeks while his Chicago restaurant was being renovated. This year, the four best chefs in Colombia travelled to Madrid to cook in a series of residences.
“On occasion, a business hotel becomes a destination; this is not something that usually happens to four or five-star hotel chains,” says Mateo, who coordinated the pop-ups.
She adds that, for both events, half of the diners came from outside Spain and another 30% from outside Madrid. “Their destination was the hotel and what was happening there, which is very powerful for a brand,” she says.
Chislett says it is important to wear many hats when working with a hotel. “To be successful, I need to think and feel like a guest; think and feel like a competent chef, F&B director and GM; and think and feel like a great restaurant interior designer, all while thinking and feeling like a developer,” he explains.Pucci agrees – he believes the most important job is to get inside the mind of the operator: “It is useless to think about the most state-of-the-art projects if you don’t have the operator’s insights, insecurities, strengths and weaknesses in mind.”