Chefs and restaurateurs continue to up the ante in hotel F&B, making the once tired category a formidable competitor in attracting hotel guests and local diners.

Hotel restaurants haven’t always enjoyed the best reputation. Although chefs have been elevating those on-site concepts for more than a decade, a prevailing bias still lingers. And it’s no surprise why. For a long time, hotel restaurants were static and pricey at best and perfunctory afterthoughts at worst, leading savvy hotel guests to venture off-site for their meals.

“The foodie people, they go out and find freestanding restaurants. They think hotel [restaurants] are old-school, where it’s a three-meal-a-day café where you just get a club sandwich and a burger,” says Ewart Wardhaugh, executive chef at the Epicurean Hotel Atlanta, which opened last fall as part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. “But now, the food and beverage within a lot of hotels is just as good as a freestanding restaurant, if not better because they have better support.”

The Epicurean Hotel, which also includes a sister property in Tampa, Florida, has F&B baked into its DNA. In addition to its name and branding (“Atlanta’s Food Focused Hotel”), the hotel includes two chef-led restaurants, a craft bar, and a culinary theater. It even bills its rooms as “culinary inspired” since it incorporates materials like butcher’s block, stone, and brushed metal into the design.

For Wardhaugh, who’s spent the vast majority of his 30-year career in hotels, details like this can help permanently shift consumers’ opinions of on-site restaurants for the better.

“Before, it was just an avenue to feed the guests and keep them on property, whereas now it’s about dining and the experience,” he says.

The path to a successful hotel restaurant will vary from business to business, but incorporating any of the following building blocks can help hotel concepts go head to head with standalone establishments.

Focus on locals

The first step in creating a modern hotel restaurant is going after local diners. Resorts, isolated locations, and properties rooted exclusively in tourism are among the few exceptions, but the vast majority have to curry favor with people who will never appear in the hotel’s guestbook—simply because they live nearby.

“I think reaching out to the locals is the most important thing on any project, whether it’s a standalone or in a hotel,” says Cullen Wyatt, restaurant development director for The Indigo Road Hospitality Group. Based in Charleston, South Carolina, the group comprises more than 35 properties, primarily in the Southeast and mid-Atlantic. Up until a few years ago, Indigo Road worked exclusively in the restaurant space. This foundation is proving especially valuable now that the group has expanded into the hotel sector.

Wing Ho Courtesy Of Rand Tower Hotel And DDP Restaurant Group

Rand Tower tapped chef Daniel Del Prado for its trio of on-site restaurants.

And as Wyatt points out, if a restaurant attracts patrons from the surrounding neighborhoods, business wouldn’t slow to a crawl every time guests check out. He adds that it would be a “dream scenario” to have a hotel that’s always busy because the restaurant, in turn, would always be busy. But that’s clearly an unobtainable goal.

“The good news about a restaurant being in a hotel is that you should have more foot traffic on a regular basis than a standalone restaurant,” Wyatt says. “That being said, it’s 100 percent the most important thing to us to be a restaurant that the community surrounding it wants to dine at on a regular basis. If we rely strictly on hotel guests, it wouldn’t work.”

Covid made that point abundantly clear when reservations plummeted. On-site concepts with a strong local following could buoy their hotels, even if it were through takeout or al fresco dining. On the flip side, restaurants that were as vacant as their hotels became extra deadweight—and that can be the case in non-pandemic times, too.

“If you’re just sitting around a sparsely populated hotel dining room, that’s just not going to have the same spirit,” says Robert Thompson, CEO of hospitality company Angevin & Co. “The locals make a hotel restaurant feel like a local restaurant, like the great restaurants you go to in your hometown.”

Get the word out

Bringing in area residents often boils down to creating a location-specific dining experience (more on that later), as well as getting the word out.

“It’s our job to educate the [hotel] guests as well as the local guests so they know who we are and what we do and what we stand for,” Wardhaugh says. “Visibility is a huge thing; it’s letting people know what you’re doing.”

To this end, the Epicurean offers a variety of events including live musical performances, weekly yoga sessions with complimentary libations, and more. Its on-site culinary theater can also host 60 people for cooking demos or about 16 for hands-on classes.

Another way for restaurants to reach beyond their four walls is to engage with the local community. Celebrated Minneapolis chef and restaurateur Daniel del Prado recently expanded into the other side of hospitality when he teamed up with the city’s historic Rand Tower to create a trio of F&B concepts. Although del Prado owns and operates more than a half dozen independent restaurants, he says the hotel space brought its share of learning opportunities. At the same time, the Twin Cities has lately proved a challenging market for any new business.

“I don’t know if there is any other city in the world as challenging as Minneapolis downtown right now. For sure, it will take some time to get back to where it was, but I have no doubt that it will. This city has always been resilient,” del Prado says.

And likely the new restaurants—Bar Rufus, Blondette, and Miaou Miaou—will benefit from the chef’s strong ties to the surrounding community and his established reputation.

Oak Steakhouse Has Multiple Locations, Including One At Skyline Lodge In North Carolina

Oak Steakhouse has multiple locations, including one at Skyline Lodge in North Carolina.

Go with the daypart flow

Among the more stark differences between a classic restaurant and one inside a hotel is the expectation of around-the-clock service with multiple options. As Wyatt points out, a guest arriving at noon might be ready for a beer and a meal rather than waiting until the 5 o’clock dinner bell.

“You have guests coming and leaving 24/7, and that’s totally different from a restaurant on its own,” he says. “So [it’s about] trying to navigate and see what makes sense from an activation and a revenue point of view. We don’t want to open two competing restaurants right next to each other in a hotel. You have to think through which one is going to service which hours, what clientele, what experience, and all of those are different questions.”

For example, Skyline Lodge, a 40-room property nestled in Highlands, North Carolina, has a dual operation to cover its lunch, dinner, and bar business. In addition to housing one of Indigo Road’s most popular concepts, Oak Steakhouse, the hotel also boasts a spin-off version, Butler’s, for weekday walk-in-only lunches like sandwiches, salads, and shared plates. Oak Steakhouse then handles dinner, late-night drinks, and weekend brunch. As for the early hours and in-between snacks, Skyline Lodge has a coffee bar that serves made-daily breakfast sandwiches, a variety of coffee drinks, water bottles, snacks, and merchandise.

“To me, a hotel is an experience,” Wyatt says. “They want to be able to enjoy a good meal, a late-night snack, and breakfast in the morning.”

Differentiate from within

Time of day isn’t the only way of drawing borders between multiple restaurants within a single hotel. Differentiating through cuisine, atmosphere, and occasion can also maximize business simply by turning a single dining experience into a smorgasbord.

The Epicurean Atlanta comprises three in-house dining concepts: Reverence, a fine-dining restaurant featuring local ingredients; Aerial Kitchen & Bar, an elevated Mexican cantina; and The Office Bar, which features craft beer, cocktails, wine, and an extensive collection of bourbon and whiskey.

“We try and do something different to keep the guests on property and give the outside guests something [so] they want to come to us. They can come to us for lunch and grab a burger at the bourbon bar. And if they have a birthday party or something, they can come dine in the fine-dining restaurant,” Wardhaugh says.

The newly opened W Toronto has separated its three restaurants not only in terms of menu offerings, but also physical location. Coffeehouse/bar Public House is on the ground floor, bringing in downtown passers-by, while tapas restaurant Living Room is on the sixth floor and Mediterranean-inspired bar/restaurant Skylight is on the rooftop.

Executive chef Keith Pears says the multi-level layout creates a natural progression both in terms of aesthetics and dining experience.

“When you enter the hotel, you kind of go through different stages, like the ground floor is completely different from the middle floor, and those two are both different from our rooftop bar,” Pears says. “There isn’t much around that would be comparable to us.”

1 Kitchen Nashville

1 Kitchen Nashville.

Celebrate your city

For properties like W Toronto and Epicurean that are part of much larger hospitality brands, tailoring each hotel to its respective location saves it from cookie-cutter standardizations. 1 Hotel has half a dozen domestic locations and even more in the pipeline.

Director of culinary and executive chef Chris Crary first opened 1 Kitchen within 1 Hotel West Hollywood in 2019, and now he’s bringing the same concept and ethos to 1 Hotel Nashville, which  debuted in Tennessee in July. Because the new 1 Kitchen holds true to the original’s zero-waste, locally sourced tenet, its menu looks quite different.

“We try to do a small percentage, like 25–30 percent of items, that are similar at each [location]. But then we really take that 70 percent to heart by working with the local farmers,” Crary says.

The new 1 Kitchen plus casual café Neighbors and Harriet’s Rooftop have also afforded Crary the opportunity to explore Southern fare. The chef’s grandmother, who taught him to cook, was originally from Tennessee, so when the Nashville project first came up, he immediately volunteered, citing it as a way to get back to his culinary roots.

“Southern cuisine is historically known for being heavier,” Crary says. “So it’s about how we take these beautiful ingredients and keep them light and fresh and airy but something that people still recognize.”

Local fare looks very different in Canada’s largest city (the population of Toronto is about quadruple that of Nashville). Besides sourcing local coffees, nut butters, honey, maple syrup, and other ingredients, Pears showcases Toronto’s multicultural makeup through his menus, especially at the Living Room. Neighborhoods like Danforth (known for Greek influence), Kensington Market (known for Latin American cuisine), and Little Italy are all on display through different small plates.

“We got really granular with our lobby bar; the whole theme is Toronto tapas. Each dish has its own neighborhood,” Pears says.

Three Saints Revival

Three Saints Revival.

Step up your sips

Craft drinks are at the heart of the F&B strategy at Angevin & Co. In Denver, its all-day, beverage-forward restaurant Three Saints Revival specializes in old and new world wines, as well as craft cocktails. Thompson is also bringing more attention to the libations at the historic Frenchmen Hotel in New Orleans, which he purchased in summer 2021.

“We opened it more as a live music venue and a bar, but it’s kind of a tough business and so what I want to do is take it more into a tiki concept, which I think can be a destination that pulls locals in,” Thompson says.

In January, Thompson acquired The Whitney Hotel (also in New Orleans) and is currently rebranding it as the Fiona Hotel. Everything from the design and decor to the food and beverage options will revolve around the tale of an 18th century Irish immigrant who opened a flower shop in the Garden District.

“We tell her story in the hotel and the bar, which is called Belladonna,” he says. Naming the bar after a poisonous nightshade is a playful nod to the fact that alcohol can be a noxious substance. “So there will be a lot of flower and medicinal themes in Belladonna that all ties back to the hotel theme,” Thompson adds.

At the W Toronto, the beverage program varies from concept to concept. On the lower levels, some popular mixed drinks are made in batches ahead of time, while a selection of beer and wine are on tap. Pears says they’re also experimenting with putting cocktails on tap.

It’s an entirely different game, however, at Skylight.

“Our rooftop bar is where we really focus on our cocktail programming. That’s where we have all our mixologists working. The rest are bartenders, but they still [make] very cocktail-forward cocktails with fresh juices, made-in-house syrups—all that kind of stuff,” Pears says. “We set up a little mixology lab in one of our rooms where we have some really unique, cool tools and toys for clarifications, for freeze-drying, and that’s up on the top floor for the rooftop.”

Think inside the box

Pears’ cocktail lab in the W Toronto speaks to a crucial advantage hotel restaurants have over their freestanding competitors: resources. Whether it’s operating with higher budgets, optimizing staffing schedules, or simply having the space and tools to try more ambitious projects, being part of something larger can work in a restaurant’s favor.

“It’s not a different animal in terms of what our core purpose and everything else is, but it’s almost like, with a restaurant, you’re operating inside a box,” Indigo Road’s Wyatt says. “With a hotel, you’re operating inside a box that’s inside of another box with its own set of rules, practices, and ideas.”

So while the setup requires restaurants to figure out how to offer round-the-clock service, it also opens the door to new possibilities. For example, 1 Hotel locations have on-site gardens, which give executive chefs like Crary greater control over sourcing.

Standardized operations and administration also free Crary up to concentrate on running the restaurants.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure with hotels that really helps creative people, like myself, who aren’t always the most organized with spreadsheets and things,” he says.

And while far from glamorous, on-site maintenance is also a godsend for many chefs and restaurateurs. Recently, Wardhaugh was faced with a broken freezer on a Friday afternoon—a situation that could spell doom for an independent restaurateur. But for the Epicurean chef, all he had to do was call the engineering department.

“If you’re a freestanding restaurant and your freezer breaks down, you’ve got to find a third party to come in and look at it,” he says. “Not many third-party vendors will be able to come out on a weekend to fix a freezer or stove or dishwasher.”

Elevate and evolve

Although Wardhaugh will be the first to admit hotel restaurants haven’t fully shaken their dated reputation, he recognizes that it’s an entirely different landscape today.

Wardaugh worked in Las Vegas in the late ’90s through the mid-2000s and was even part of the opening team at the Bellagio. During that period, he witnessed the start of the city’s culinary renaissance.

“Vegas was the city of $9.99 buffets,” Wardhaugh says. “When we opened up the Bellagio, that completely changed the face of Las Vegas. You look at it now, and it’s all the ‘Top Chef’ [competitors], and it’s all food-focused. Food and beverage is a moneymaker now, whereas back then, it was an amenity to keep the guest in the casino.”

He adds that those mega properties have the resources to nab Michelin-starred chefs. To that end, the competition is especially fierce—not unlike the broader restaurant industry. And the old hotel-dining model is no longer enough.

But given how much foodservice embraces, and even celebrates, change and innovation, there’s little doubt that hotel chefs and restaurant leaders are up to the task.

“It’s still an ever-changing field and none of [the openings] ever feel the same. We’re always evolving and doing something new,” Crary says. “So although I’ve done it before, it feels like everyday, it’s new, which is really fun.”

Bar Management, Beverage, Chef Profiles, Feature, Hotel & Lodging, Menu Innovations