In April, Zagat, the publisher of best-selling restaurant guides, listed the top 100 hotel restaurants in the US – based on quality of food, decor and service – in a survey published in USA Today. It had no trouble coming up with candidates for the listing:in the past decade, hotel restaurants have gone from being places to which business travellers resorted when it was raining outside to desirable eateries that are destinations in their own right.
“It used to be that hotel food was like English food – and that was not a great compliment,” says Tim Zagat, co-founder and chief executive of Zagat. “Since then food in England has gone through a revolution, and the same is true for hotels.”
Part of the reason behind the change is the tremendous interest in cuisine that has swept across the globe in recent decades, from the plethora of cookery books and television shows emerging to meet demand from a new generation of foodies to the organic movement and the success of supermarket chains such as the US’s Whole Foods Market. And with obesity riding up the agenda, demand for healthy food is increasing.
In this new, food-conscious environment, business travellers are also becoming more fussy about what they eat. “People have a higher expectation of what they’re looking for,” says Brad Nelson, corporate chef at Marriott International, the hotel chain. “And what’s changed is that diners and guests are much more inclined to give us immediate feedback than in the past.”
Hotels are catering to these higher expectations with healthy food programmes. Hyatt has a low-fat and low-calorie “Cuisine Naturelle” menu and offers low-carbohydrate menus in many of its properties. Marriott International’s “Fit for You” menu is designed for those on low-carbohydrate, low-cholesterol or low-fat regimes.
And as guests spend more time in their rooms – glued to their computers and BlackBerries or to one of the hundreds of television channels now available in big hotels – even the room service has improved. While once this meal might have consisted of a tired looking piece of chicken in a congealed sauce accompanied by some limp lettuce and a half bottle of wine, hotels are starting to offer lighter, healthier options. Warm salads are becoming popular and, in the morning, fruit, yogurts and juices prevail, rather than the traditional cooked breakfast.
As well as offering healthy food to guests, both in the room and outside it, an entirely different breed of hotel restaurant has emerged in recent years – one that is stylish, opulent and often has a well-known chef running the kitchen.
Gone are the days when, particularly in the US, in-hotel dining meant sitting in a room decorated with heavy, red velvet drapes and choosing from a menu specialising in “everything from beef to dinosaur meat”, as Paul McManus, president and chief executive of The Leading Hotels of the World, puts it.
Today, some of the world’s great chefs are behind the menus in hotel restaurants. Prominent examples include the Toni Robertson and Nori Sugie team at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel’s Asiate in New York. In London, Maze at the Marriott Hotel on Grosvenor Square, one of Gordon Ramsay’s recently opened restaurants, has attracted attention, while Jeffrey Chodorow has establishments such as Asia de Cuba at Morgans Hotel in New York, and restaurants at hotels that include the Sanderson in London and the Delano in Miami.
To illustrate the change, Mr McManus points to the Merrion Hotel in Dublin. “Who would have thought you would be looking at a hotel restaurant as one of the top restaurants in the city?” he says. “It’s a complete change of attitude.”
However, it is not only trends in food and design that are behind the new generation of hotel restaurants. For industry planners, the restaurant has become a powerful tool in the branding of what is essentially a large piece of real estate.
As a result, hotel chains are prepared to invest more money in creating a lavish dining experience than individual restaurateurs could. “The hotel is looking at the restaurant as a way to sell the entire hotel,” explains Mr Zagat. “And if the restaurant is good it means the rooms upstairs, which comprise the majority of the hotel’s floor space, will be selling at a higher price, so it’s a different equation than for the average standalone restaurant.”
With money to spend, hotels can also create conditions that are sufficiently attractive to bring in top chefs, providing them with facilities that are bigger and better than their own restaurant might be. “They make it incredibly appealing,” says Mr Zagat. “Some of these deals are almost impossible for the chefs to turn down.”
Such is the transformation in the hotel restaurant landscape that Mr Zagat suggests the investment in securing top-class cuisine and a stylishly designed interior is no longer an option. “You’re really not regarded as a first-class hotel now unless you have a first-class restaurant,” he says.