Usually reserved for large hotels, exotic resorts, and party markets like Las Vegas and Miami, poolside restaurants have begun popping up in any number of locations—with increasingly sophisticated menus in tow. Thing bright and fresh, seasonal, and simple grilling.
Located in the luxury, seaside town of Alys Beach, Florida, Caliza Restaurant serves an upscale menu of Gulf Coast favorites to guests dining poolside. At lunch, lighter fare like fish tacos, whipped feta cheese, and burrata sourdough toast anchor the menu, while dinner boasts a menu that refreshes almost daily with dishes like charred Spanish octopus and a whole Gulf fish. “You’re eating outside, so it’s not heavy food,” says Executive Chef Drew Dzejak.
At Dallas-based Circo—Le Cirque’s sister concept slated to open this summer—coastal Italian cuisine prepared tableside sets the tone for its daytime menu at the concept’s two pools.
“When people think Italian food, especially in America, they think of everything being covered in sauce and mozzarella cheese and it’s very heavy. It’s not very pool-friendly cuisine,” says Lauren Santagati, CEO of WhiteROC Hospitality Group. “But we do it Mediterranean-style, where things are simply grilled.”
Downstairs, Circo's upscale-dining restaurant is also accessible by the pool’s guests, with Le Cirque–inspired dishes like Lobster Salad, Trofie Pasta al Pesto, and a $129 tasting menu—all created by longtime Le Cirque Chef Alfio Longo. Santagati says Circo is a restaurant first, just with a pool as an amenity.
Even boutique hotels are finding their way into poolside restaurants, with Austin, Texas–based Hotel Van Zandt boasting a rooftop pool and restaurant. At Geraldine’s, shared plates and bold flavors reign inside the popular dining spot, which opens out to a patio and pool overlooking the southern city. Dishes include items like Chicken Fried Egg, Shrimp Hushpuppies, Goat Tartare, and Bourbon Glazed Cauliflower.
“But when you’re sitting out on the pool deck, a lot of times you’re like, ‘I just want a salad with some chicken on it or some tacos,’” says Tobias Peach, director of food and beverage. That’s why Hotel Van Zandt created a pool-specific, lighter-bites menu coming out of Geraldine’s kitchen. “The expectation of a guest who’s in a cabana or sitting poolside is different than in our dining room,” he says. “You have to play to your crowd in that respect.”
Many poolside restaurants—especially those at hotels—must also take into account the needs of their highest-paying guests first. That’s why Hotel Van Zandt reserves its pool for hotel guests only until swimming hours are over, opening it up to the general public and Geraldine’s diners after the sun goes down. Similarly, Caliza only allows community homeowners and renters into its pool and restaurant during the day, allowing outside diners to join them for dinner at 5:30.
At Circo, only members—who pay upward of $250 each month for access to the concept’s pools, member’s lounge, restaurant, wine tastings, and other exclusive events—are allowed to use the pool, though outside guests and diners can purchase a $35 day pass to enjoy the pool and its amenities.
Controlling the guest count isn’t the only problem posed by poolside restaurants: Keeping them somewhat separated from non-pool-going diners is a challenge, too. “When you’re running this nice restaurant and you have these people dripping wet in their swimsuits, they’re coming in off the pool deck and walking into a dining room that’s filled with diners,” Peach says. “It takes a little bit of managing, but in the end, it’s a benefit.”
Seasonality can also put some pressure on a poolside business. “The weather is beautiful here,” says Hugues Le Berre, director of food and beverage for Alys Beach, whose collection of restaurants includes Caliza. “But if you have three days of thunderstorms and really bad weather, that can hurt you.”
Many concepts shut down poolside service by the end of November through at least the start of March, although Circo already has a plan for making use of its pool space in the off-season. “We put an acrylic floor over it for when we have private events for our members or a wedding reception,” Santagati says. “So you can literally be walking and eating on water.”