Hotel Dining Delivers
Operators and marquee chefs alike continue evolving hospitality enhanced by gastronomy.
Before the pandemic, hotel restaurants were attracting celebrity chefs, restaurant groups were investing in properties and hotel groups relied on destination dining. A year into social distancing and contactless service, the food-driven accommodations trend continues.
Hotel restaurants have become a big part of culinary or gastronomic travel. Caesars Palace Las Vegas has a Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill and Gordon Ramsay Hell’s Kitchen. The Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills has an upscale restaurant by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Nobu Matsuhisa’s Japanese eatery at the Eden Roc Hotel Miami has been one of the hottest nightspots in South Beach for years.
“Whether for Instagram or the common foodie, food is a part of destination decisions,” said Director of Culinary Research and Development Barry Tonkinson, who launched his career at prominent hotels in the UK. “Twenty years ago travelers needed the sun, the sea and the sand, but now people need good restaurants and the hippest places to go out.”
Travelers love to share their culinary experiences, he continued. “It’s a conversation point and what everyone builds their travel on. Hotels drive decisions based on that consumer trend.”
The latest trend is changing practices to safely serve and deliver food amid smaller staffs and pared-down menus.
“Our biggest challenge is bringing people back into our hotels and getting our heads around moving into our new world,” said Brett Patterson, senior vice president of food and beverage for Accor North America, Central America and Caribbean. “We’ve limited items without compromising the integrity of the concepts or quality of the food. However, we remain seasonal, relevant and high-quality.”
Accor hotel restaurants have also gone more digital and touch-free with QR codes and guest room TVs featuring menus.
To continue serving people in creative ways while indoor dining has been on pause, Accor hotels have offered outdoor dining, picnicking, holiday packages, tents, and bubbles or igloos. The restaurants have stayed in contact with customers through social media and emails to keep them engaged and more willing to return when they reopen.
Christopher DeRamo, director of Global Crowne Plaza Food and Beverage and Global Upscale Brands Food and Beverage at Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), says many hotel restaurants have reopened with menus limited to a dozen items, especially because many are operating with a smaller staff.
“We don’t want the guest sitting in the restaurant waiting 30 minutes for salmon,” he said. “It’s a very balanced menu that can be executed very quickly.”
Prior to the pandemic, hotels were adding more vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free dishes, moving towards more plant-based menus that may include products like the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat. Those efforts will continue, he said.
"In the hotel food world you tend to see food trends immersed in the environment far before restaurants do because the hotel is always trying to capture customers’ wants and needs," explained Chef Barry, who gained experience at the five-star Lanesborough hotel in London. "They look at the wider food trends to incorporate into the experience while restaurants are trying to execute their own concept and ideas first."
"Modern guests know what they want and what they like. They want to know where their products come from, the quality of the ingredients and about the ingredients used,” said ICE alum Maria Tampakis (Culinary, '09), executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown. “When we are looking at in-room dining in these times, we wonder what our guests truly want. Are they looking for an exceptional, over-the-top experience or some level of comfort during their travels?"
IHG’s DeRamo said those hotels that do offer room service have implemented new measures to minimize contact. They offer options for how room service is delivered. The employee can knock on the door and leave the food in biodegradable, eco-friendly, disposable containers.
Mike Tindal, director of Food and Beverage at the Radisson Blu Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, said the indoor dining shutdown forced the FireLake Grill House and Cocktail Bar to offer an even more “robust in-room dining service” saying, “it became more important than ever to bring the elevated experience our guests receive in the restaurant into the guest rooms."
The hotel cuts paper usage with in-room dining menus featured on the guest room TV. Room service is contactless, as the employee never enters the room, and the restaurant staff comes up with creative ways to keep serving food during the dining room shutdown. The team hosts cooking and mixology demos on Instagram. For the holidays, they offered a Carside To-Go program, allowing customers to pre-pay for their meals through the reservations system. Last Thanksgiving, the holiday meal sold out, feeding 400 people.
The restaurant has also seen an uptick in online ordering through its website for pick up. “This is a very safe way for us to provide a quality food and beverage experience for guests who are still hesitant to return to indoor restaurant and bar dining,” Tindal said.
Damion Henry, executive chef for The Langham, Chicago hotel, said in-room dining has been the main source of food revenue while its restaurant Travelle at The Langham and the afternoon tea lounge, Pavilion, were shut down, and then reopened with limited capacity.
“We incorporated the restaurant and in-room dining menus to offer guests a more elevated experience,” he said. “Social distancing restricted offering personalized service, and I had to look at the menus from a different angle. I had to simplify some dishes while maintaining their flavors and quality profile.”
Restaurant menus were adjusted as the hotel pivoted to takeout options. Cooks and other restaurant employees followed all recommended safety protocols, which sometimes posed challenges. Chefs are used to tasting their dishes to make sure they are seasoned correctly, for example.
“When we started to wear masks, we had to relearn that part of it and we did that through testing our dishes more and encouraging our cooks to make sure we taste all the time,” she said.
The newly renovated Sheraton Phoenix Downtown offers mobile dining, which allows guests to order from anywhere in the lobby and have the food delivered to them. They can also order on mobile from their rooms, then pick up the order.
Hilton’s hotels have been constantly reevaluating restaurant menus during the pandemic, said Adam Crocini, global head and vice president of food and beverage brands at Hilton.
“What has continued to be at the forefront of the food and beverage offerings, especially at our luxury and lifestyle brand hotels, is the focus on the hyper-local approach to our menus, all inspired by the seasons and celebrating what the particular region has to offer,” he said. “That has never changed. While we have had to alter the presentation of our offerings, we've taken these challenges and turned them into opportunities.”
Since cities shutdown in 2020, restaurants have offered high-end to-go cocktails, expanded grab-and-go markets and personalized plating.
Crocini predicts that pre-made cocktails could start appearing within grab-and-go markets, to-go drinks could be found within bars, and pre-made bottled Negronis served in fancy glasses with ice could be delivered to tables for guests to pour themselves. At the same time, menus are becoming healthier with fresh, organic, locally farmed and locally sourced products.
“COVID-19 has opened many people’s eyes to the fact that they should be living a healthier lifestyle,” he said. “Healthier foods are becoming even more interesting now, whereas in past years it was not as exciting, not as flavorful and not as enjoyable.”
Chef Barry said, "acting upon the healthy, fast-casual trend" is another way hotels are becoming more aligned with consumer trends. Properties are "making fermented food and beverages more popular, providing nutrition information on room service menus, and actively trying to be sustainable and reduce waste."
There are signs that marquee chefs are still giving hotel restaurants a chance. TV personality Bobby Flay has closed his Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace Las Vegas to make way for his Italian concept, Amalfi by Bobby Flay. Mario Carbone’s Major Food Group hasn’t let the pandemic slow it down, opening four restaurants this year. The New York-based group has more restaurants in the pipeline, including Contessa in new Boston hotel Newbury.
Michael Mina’s The Handle Bar has stayed busy at the Four Seasons Jackson Hole in Wyoming. ICE alum Charles Shure (Culinary, '21) launched his career in the destination kitchen and said the restaurant is still not at full capacity but has been doing 500-700 covers a day between lunch and dinner.
“I think people are really desperate to get out,” he said. “I think there’s a craving for resorts towns and outdoors and national parks where there’s all this open space.”
Accor’s Patterson said hotel restaurants have advantages over freestanding restaurants. For one thing, hotels have extra space to accommodate social distancing.
“Although we all want to support small businesses and our neighboring restaurants, bars and cafes, diners have strong confidence in the standards we keep in hotels,” he said. “It will continue to be the center gathering point.”
Charles recommends hotel kitchens to aspiring chefs as properties are hiring for the busy summer season and can offer a truly international experience. He's learning from cooks who gained experience around the world through hotel dining.
"Hotel restaurants offer structure and resources," Chef Barry explained. "A hotel has a wider pool that it relies upon for the guest experience that the restaurant is just one part of whereas a restaurant bears the brunt of the ebbs and flows of business."
He offers additional advantages. "The experience as a cook working in hotels is really important because you have to collaborate with so many different departments. In a restaurant you have front of house and back of house, that’s it. In the hotel industry, the doorman or concierge may have a special request," Chef Barry explained. "Hotel dining offers a dynamic experience to work with a broad range of clientele and expectations. We had to send Nicole Kidman something to eat in the park, a totally off-menu experience. Michael Jackon told us the things that he liked and I had to come up with something myself. Based on the clientele, those requests can be crazy. The chance to be a little more creative with challenges outside of the menu are there."
Likewise, gastronomy can enhance hospitality, even for professionals pursuing those other departments. "The quality of coffee the guest has access to in the morning is important," Chef Barry continued. "The best water, amazing cookies and fruit all indicate that the hotel knows what it’s doing and has culinary credibility so the guest is more willing to spend on dining in the hotel."
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