We’ve all seen it: A busy hotel with a quiet restaurant. A little too quiet, in fact. Every time you walk by, the Restaurant Supervisor seems lonely. The tables are uniformly set, but no one is using them. There might be one or two patrons watching sport at the bar, but there is no lively conversation, no clinking cutlery, no wait staff hurrying to keep up.
Where is everyone?
When I started off in the industry, the hotel restaurants were seen as glamorous and home to international chefs with names like Manfred or Dieter or Francois, chefs who prepared food that the ordinary person had not ever seen. Exotic foods like snails, frog legs, bombe Alaska, or Crepes Suzette were all available and those dining there could say they were hobnobbing. Since the explosion of the restaurant scene however, hotels have drifted off into vanilla territory, without making a mark on the local dining market and are now seen as boring and a last resort.
Hotel restaurants have battled this stigma for a long time. Part of it has to do with the association between travel and adventure. Most guests are in town from another city or country, and whether the trip is business or pleasure, dining is one of the main outlets for exploration. Will you stay within the comfortable confines of the hotel, eating acceptable food, or will you venture out in search of bright local flavour? Are you content to get the job done, or do you want something to Tweet home about?
In fact, the hotel restaurant seems forever reserved for the weary, the recently arrived, the professionally swamped or those wanting to keep it all on the hotel expense account. Once they’ve got their wits about them, most travelers head out in search of greener pastures, seeking to dine like the locals.
And yet, there are plenty of cases in which “dining like the locals” does mean heading for a hotel restaurant. This article by Traveller, a popular webzine for Australian travelers, explores some of the most poignant examples. The Nomad Hotel in New York is mentioned, as are the Mandarin-Oriental in London and Whare Key Lodge in New Zealand. If you look carefully, you’ll notice three characteristics shared by each and every property on the list.
1. Flavour and innovation rule supreme
You can read an article dating back to 1987, published in the Orlando Sentinel, titled Marriot’s New Menu Battles Reputation of Boring Hotel Food showing that the menu problem is nothing new. Hotel restaurants are notorious for serving up bland, familiar dishes—with the additional distinction of being overpriced.
Successful hotel restaurants have overcome this inertia by adhering to a very simple mandate: Actually being a very good restaurant. This means local specialities, vibrant flavours, seasonal dishes and menus that evoke a sense of place. At Las Balsas in Argentina you’ll find a crab strudel with apple and squid ink. At the Mandarin Hotel’s Man Wah Restaurant in Hong Kong, you’ll find local specialties such as steamed grouper with sauce of egg white, ginger and crabmeat. At Aubergine in Carmel, California, many of the dishes on the menu are punctuated with local seaweeds and beans that have been foraged from the nearby ocean. Even some hotel chains are catching on to this, ditching universal restaurant identities in favour of unique menus that match their localities. (Which is a nice change from the standardized menus created to allow reduction in their costs rather than creating an experience for their guests.)
Hotel restaurants must create a buzz and attract a following by stepping it up in terms of what goes on the plate. A hotel restaurant becomes a dining destination only when the food is worth the trip—whether it’s a trip across town or between continents.
2. Ambiance is a key ingredient
If the food is that good, you might get away with a bare bones atmosphere. Some establishments are famous for one or two specialities, and people flock there precisely because food is emphasised over flashy decor. This is the case at El Motel Restaurant, part of the Hotel Emporda in Figueres, Spain. People go there for delicious squid prepared with local ingredients, but the decor itself is nothing to write home about.
As a general rule, the ambiance of a hotel restaurant will prove every bit as important as the food. Rooftop restaurants and bistros can take advantage of a hotel’s height, offering unique views over the local landscape. Decorative concepts and flourishes can be teased out by studying the competition. If you were a restaurant and only a restaurant, how would you differentiate from the competition? Whether you’re building from scratch or renovating an existing operation, it’s important to focus on research and comparison. Gather information on what’s working for other restaurants, and how different local demographics are attracted by different design elements. Formulate your concept carefully from beginning to end. It’s very unlikely that a slipshod design based on limited research will result in a happy accident. Successful hotel restaurants are carefully designed to evoke the locality and blend seamlessly with the food.
3. The restaurant has a strong identity
It always helps to have a celebrity chef in the kitchen and a Michelin Star or two, but let’s face it: this isn’t going to happen for the vast majority of hotel restaurants. What every hotel restaurant can do is persistently and methodically build a following through excellent food and intelligent marketing. Use digital channels to tell the story of your food and the people who create it. Make the restaurant experience come alive for guests and locals. Sufficient effort and quality will eventually show up in local press and social media—and instead of a boring addendum, your restaurant will develop a worthy identity of its own.
Leaving mediocrity behind
I suppose there will always be a place for the drab, mediocre hotel restaurant. It’s there when you need it, and after a long journey, you might even feel like the emptiness of the place is rather peaceful. But for any restaurant competing for relevance in the local food scene, this is not the ideal state of affairs—nor is it the inevitable result of being a part of a hotel. Your dining room can count itself amongst the liveliest and most successful in town—but only if you work carefully and creatively to make it happen. Bon Appetit!
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