I wrote some months ago about some of the challenges in operating a hotel restaurant and, judging from the response, this really struck a chord. Operating food and beverage in an accommodation-focused environment really IS a challenge and many talented brains have wrestled with the question of what to do ever since the time of Escoffier and Cesar Ritz!
So I wondered when was the last time you were excited about eating in a hotel restaurant? Not just tired, famished, stressed or jet lagged—but actually excited? For most people, the answer is probably never. A visit to a hotel restaurant is more likely to be an act of surrender than a culinary adventure. But there are growing numbers of exceptions. And by looking at some of the more remarkable hotel restaurants out there, we might be able to learn what’s missing in all of those “underrated” offerings in hotels across Australia and the world.
Last time I mentioned newer restaurants like New York’s Nomad, New Zealand’s Whare Kea Lodge and the Mandarin Oriental in London as places where they have got their act together, but this time around I wanted to look at some real institutions, places that have managed to maintain their reputation over many years and see what we can learn.
1888 Chop House—Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel
The exterior of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is more than enough to create soaring expectations. Aptly nicknamed the “Castle in the Rockies,” this iconic property carves a majestic shape into the pristine landscape of Canada’s Banff National Park. The history is equally expansive. British royalty, Hollywood legends and business moguls have all passed time in its storied halls.
That the owners recently had to do something about their flagging 1888 Chop House is testament to the challenge of creating good hotel restaurants. It’s not that the restaurant was lacking in service, or even cuisine—but something about the place was leaving a lot of tables empty. As has occurred throughout the hotel’s history, management recognised they needed to make a change and decided to scale back the image of a classic, refined chophouse in favor of a more casual dining experience. Focusing on three key areas of Farm Fresh, Locally Raised and Sustainable and by loosening its collar, the present day 1888 Chop House has seen a remarkable spike in interest, both from hotel guests and locals looking for an impeccable yet fun restaurant option.
Le Louis XV—Hotel de Paris Monte Carlo
Three Michelin stars doesn’t hurt…nor does a world renowned chef (Alain Ducasse) at the helm. Le Louix XV is a luxurious proposition, as it should be. The attached hotel is a five star property in the heart of Monte Carlo, and the way things are going, you aren’t likely to see this restaurant have an identity crisis any time soon. The question is, what makes Le Louis XV such a successful hotel restaurant, besides the star chef and world-class reviews? Is there anything that non-Le Louix XV hotel restaurants can learn?
Geography has a lot to do with it. Le Louis XV makes use of fresh, local produce and truffles from the green inland areas of France. Fresh fish comes locally from the water each day. People also make awestruck comments on the service at this restaurant, using words like “ballet” and “effortless dance” to describe it. The artwork and finishings are classic and rare. In short, the cooking, service and decor are all inspired and noticed by guests. Not every hotel restaurant can be a juggernaut like this, but creating an experience that centers around art, local culture and innovative food—that’s something any hotel restaurant can do in any number of ways.
El Motel, Figueres Spain
Located within an average looking motel on the edge of the town, this restaurant has been around for over 50 years and has regularly rated in the top hotel restaurants in the world.
If you read the online reviews, they regularly use phrases like “hidden gem”, “surpassing all expectations” and “superb craftsmanship”. The menu includes some items that have been listed for 40 years but is also considered by Michelin guide inspectors as a trailblazer in new Catalan gastronomy. It appears the chef has managed to respect and retain the old whilst embracing the new and also very importantly, he usually goes out to the dining area and speaks with his customers to explain his menu.
What about the rest of us?
I wrote some months ago that Australian hotels used to be the place to take special guests or clients. It doesn’t take a Michelin star though to make a hotel restaurant a success.
Becoming an “institution” may be a lofty goal, but word of mouth and social media are also powerful things. If there is something unique about your location or the city you operate in (and there certainly must be), take advantage of it and get creative. We can’t all have Banff Springs or 19th-century hotels but as we see from Spain, we don’t need them.
The key here is that there is no one magic bullet; it all depends on what you can do. Attracting or delivering to locals may be the key to making hotel restaurants bustle so consider boosting your take out and casual dining options. If you can make the space more unique, deliver culinary goodness (even if it’s not fancy), connect to local culture and subculture, and put a greater emphasis on service, word can spread quickly. Who knows? You might even get a call from TripAdvisor asking why your ratings just skyrocketed!
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