Hotel Food Takes a Giant Leap Forward

Courtesy The Four Seasons

The relationship between hotels and restaurants is changing. The ubiquitous in-hotel restaurant became a target for cost cutting measures after the economic downturn began in 2008, which led to the rise in start up–fueled, money saving alternatives like Airbnb. Those factors, combined with price comparison sites like Expedia becoming invaluable to any traveler, came together like a perfect storm and created a lowering of hotel room prices; good for the consumer, but the hospitality industry had to do a quick and unexpected reassessment of what works, what kind of food they serve, and who they’re trying to serve it too. 

One solution for the luxury hotel dining market can be found at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago's Allium restaurant. Executive Chef Stephen Wambach started at the hotel nine months ago and immediately set out to make the restaurant a casual dining experience centered around non-typical menus and locally sourced organic food. 

"When the market is available — the Green City Market — I go there at least three or four times a week on my bicycle and bring back the best of what I can. We advertise it,"  Wambach said over the phone. "In 2008, everyone kind of freaked out and cut all their fine dining options to try and create more casual approach to things. Just because the atmosphere is casual doesn’t mean the food has to be. We always want to keep our guests in-house, but if they want to go out and experience the city, there's nothing you can really do about that. You try to have the best product you can."

The road to this kind of dining wasn't immediate. Wambach is an employee of the Four Seasons and had to work against a fine-dining tradition to change the way dining could be thought of at the luxury hotel. "When I first started, everyone kind of chimed in with what we should do and what direction we should go. I was coming into an established concept as well that they didn't want to change. Like with everything, when you start a new job you have to gain trust, and as soon as you can turn a profit and start to save some money and create a better project at the same time, you know, it starts to ease up a little bit."

Now the world of hotel restaurants, as far as Wambach is concerned, is different. "At a lot of hotels, you have your beef, your salmon, your chicken, and a filet. We have chicken on the menu, but it's not your hotel chicken with a couple spears of asparagus and a little piping of mashed potatoes. It's not like that. Yes, we have some of those hotel standards that people enjoy eating when they travel. But at the same time, we've kind of branched off into more adventurous things as well."

It’s true that Allium’s dinner menu contains the usual offerings of chicken and filet mignon, but these are kept alongside organic offerings like the local cauliflower risotto, kumquat and beet cured salmon, and a changing array of seasonal side dishes. 

Wambach saw that the role of the hotel restaurant could no longer afford to rely on hotel guests to justify its existence. Serving a local clientele alongside guests is possible and, as he saw it, necessary. "I think a lot of hotels neglect that aspect of it. They rely on the business travelers, and that’s why they don’t do as many covers a night. Being casual and at the same time still serving fine food simply prepared — it can be difficult for someone who lives in the neighborhood to go to the Four Seasons and have a meal they actually have to think about, nobody wants to to do that anymore." By diversifying menu options and creating an offering of dishes built on seasonal and organic ingredients, Wambach helped to make Allium into not-just-another-hotel-restaurant, but also to change its role in the Chicago dining scene. 

These seem to be the options hotel dining establishments are faced with: Commit to the fine-dining experience or stick with a more casual, less daunting menu. Either way, an emphasis on the fresh and organic is a must. At Hotel Americano's restaurant The Americano in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, Wambach's vision of fine-dining is already in full practice. The Americano's Chef Andres Grundy is serving a menu with offerings that reflect a modern French sensibility with a Latin flavor. The restaurant is a fully aligned cultural force of the Hotel Americano and is important to shaping the guests' experience. The restaurant's special is the Boîte Chaude, a $90 entree made up of gourmet assortment of cheese, meat, and potatoes. There's also, of course, a rotating seasonal menu consisting of locally sourced ingredients. The future that Grundy sees for The Americano is a further solidified reputation as one of New York's premiere boutique restaurants. 

On the West Coast, the Ace Hotel's downtown Los Angeles location and restaurant, L.A. Chapter, takes a more accessible route, but not in an unsophisticated way. Chef Judd Mongell came to the restaurant from Brooklyn's Five Leaves. "We feel our Brooklyn-born restaurant roots & aesthetic translates well to the creative vibe of the Ace Hotel, and suits the downtown neighborhood," he said in an email, "Ace Hotel definitely gave people an 'a-ha' moment by adding menu items worth lining up for in the lobby of their hotels." Beyond a menu with the words "locally-sourced" or "seasonal" on it, hotels are using branding — in this case, the allure of the highly recognizable "Brooklyn" feel — for their in-house dining options. In the end, great food isn’t quite enough. There needs to be the identity as well. The hotel restaurant is no longer just a dining option; it's part of the culture and identity of the hotel and needs to be regulated as such. If a restaurant doesn’t function as part of the ecology and is controlled in its hierarchy, it may no longer be integral to the experience.

Eric Tucker is co-owner and chef at Millennium, a restaurant known popularly as San Francisco's only Vegan fine-dining option, but recently announced it will be closing at the end of April. Millennium's menu boasts organic, locally sourced ingredients with a seasonal harvest menu and a raw tasting menu. The restaurant began its life adjoined with a small chain of hotels. The situation was not one that was actively sought out, but it worked. "Our landlord has always been the hotel…. There was definitely the synergy to having this restaurant being part of a hotel chain," Tucker said in a phone interview. The restaurant was singular in melding together Veganism and fine dining. "Up until recently, it wasn't really associated with fine dining. We were kind of pioneers in terms of doing the whole — you know, there are green [fine dining] restaurants, but not a lot. There’s plenty of other spots that have come and gone throughout the country and globally that have done Veganism in a more upscale fashion. We were definitely, you know, a little ahead of the curve."

Trouble began when Millennium rented a new space joined with the Hotel California, which was managed by Best Western. "Unfortunately, there was no real synergy between us and this hotel. A smarter hotelier could have glommed on to what our concept was and promoted the fact that they had this hotel with vegan restaurant for travelers that are vegan, but that only happened to a very small extent."

After the hotel was sold in April of last year, Tucker thought there was a plan to renovate the restaurant space and keep them in the space. Then he was told that the concept had changed and they were no longer going to be included in the hotel’s future plans. Going forward, Tucker has no plans to partner with another hotel or even another space in San Francisco. 

"I'd honestly prefer not to be with a hotel unless a hotelier approached us and felt there could be some serious synergism, which I don't think there is and I don’t think there are any hotels in the Bay Area that would want to do that. We're looking for a free-standing space outside, ideally we’re looking outside of San Francisco, in the East Bay. That's where myself and the general manager, my other partner, live. We feel there’s a good target market out there, that’s where a lot of our regulars live."

While Eric Tucker and Millennium's fall from the world of fine-dining hotel restaurants seems to refute Stephen Wambach's assertion that fine-dining will see a resurgence, there is perhaps some middle ground to be struck. Just north on I-90 from Allium and the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago is Longman & Eagle, a self-described "modern take on the traditional Chicago neighborhood inn, one that seamlessly offers drinking, eating and sleeping options."

"We originally felt that these various components would reinforce and support each other, and this has definitely proven to be true," Peter Creig Tolson, an owner and partner at Longman & Eagle, said. "Overnight guests always visit the bar and restaurant below, often on multiple occasions, and then the reputation of the bar and restaurant offerings themselves compel a lot of folks to book overnight stays with us.  The very fact that we're offering such a unique experience across three separate areas — eating, drinking, sleeping — is definitely integral to our concept, and a large part of the overall appeal."

Longman & Eagle has a full bar, a restaurant that serves brunch and dinner, and six rooms for rent. The food and bar focus on locally-sourced offerings like "local cheese from Wisconsin, organic greens from a nearby farm, or a small batch bourbon from Kentucky."

"We don’t really consider ourselves as being in the traditional hotel or lodging categories, and then we’re not too similar to the way Airbnb functions either. I guess we’re in our own small 'micro-category'," Tiel said. This micro-catagory Longman & Eagle occupies, though, is a niche that makes it the closest direct alternative to services like Airbnb, the fast casual to Airbnb’s strictly fast food. It's closer to a bed and breakfast than a Holiday Inn and isn’t as intimidating as a luxury hotel like the Four Seasons.

Tiel admits that the idea has become an enticing option in the new economy of hotels and dining. "Since opening, we've seen a number of smaller 'multi-concept' projects launch that include sleeping options, anywhere from two to eight rooms. It's a fairly interesting and unique area in the marketplace, as the rooms generally need some other ‘component’ to support them — conceptually, financially or organizationally, and it's nice to see others finding creative workarounds."

Only time will tell what the future of the hotel restaurant will hold. Perhaps Stephen Wambach is right: Perhaps there will be a resurgence of higher-end restaurants, a strengthening of restaurants like The Americano, and the formal fine-dining for those who can afford to eat out. But with many restaurants around the country facing the same kind of shifting economic terrain that has lead to the Millennium leaving San Francisco, the future of figuring out where to sleep and eat and drink all in one place could very well find an answer in the kind of new neighborhood inn experience that Longman & Eagle offers. There seems to be no turning back from the rise in an emphasis on organic food, but how that food is offered and who it is offered to is taking on a variety of forms. 

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