CHICAGO — As dusk falls outside, things are buzzing in the lobby of the Pendry, a luxury hotel that opened last year in the iconic 1929 Carbide and Carbon Building.
There’s a lot to lure visitors and locals to this space, besides just shelter from the chill. The Art Deco building itself is supposedly modeled on a bottle of champagne, complete with foil-wrapped cork at the peak; inside is a wealth of Belgian marble and crafted bronze. Beyond the check-in desk hums a lively bar that one afternoon a week offers “boozy tea.”
But director of operations Nick Kowalski wants to show off another throwback feature to which a stream of guests and others is finding its way: one of the city’s newest high-end restaurants, a French brasserie called Venteux, helmed by one of Chicago’s hottest young chefs.
Long a punch line, the hotel restaurant is back, transforming from last resort to destination dining. Luxury hotels in particular are adding high-concept, high-quality restaurants under noteworthy chefs in response to guest expectations, new competition, and the need to diversify their revenues beyond guest rooms.
“These are experiential brands,” Kowalski said, gesturing around his hotel, which is one of only 10 that Pendry runs. “If you stand here in the lobby and look at the details and you take that and you apply it to every area, that’s what travelers want now.”
Including in the food. Hotels once had the best or even the only restaurants in town, until competition from standalone restaurants peeled away their business in the late 20th century, the same period the hotel industry came to be dominated by limited-service chains that didn’t offer much more than make-your-own waffles.
Now, however, to stand out in an increasingly crowded market, said Kowalski, “you’re finding more hotels that are looking for a name on the door.” These, he said, are restaurants that “are well branded, they’re well thought out, and you’re bringing in a celebrated chef.”
Like Whitney McMorris, who trained under Michelin-starred and “Top Chef”-proven veterans, and runs the Pendry’s restaurant, Venteux. James Beard Award-winning chefs Alon Shaya and Donald Link both have restaurants in the newly opened Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans; Michelin-starred chef Ludo Lefebvre, at the Thompson Denver, which opened in February; James Beard Award winner Nancy Silverton, at The Hollywood Roosevelt in Los Angeles; two-time winner of “Chopped” Vinson Petrillo, at Zero George in Charleston, S.C.; and James Beard Award winner Alex Stratta, at the Fairmont Phoenix, which is scheduled to open in 2025.
What’s in it for the chefs is that “you can capture everyone who’s staying in house, plus some revenue from outside,” said Steven Acosta, head chef of Mehzcla at the Balfour Hotel in Miami Beach’s South Beach.
Most new hotel restaurants also have street entrances to attract locals along with guests. “You have two revenue streams and two marketing streams where we can take advantage of both,” said James Beard nominee chef Niven Patel, who has been tapped to run the restaurants at THesis Hotel Miami in Coral Gables, Fla.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a hotel backing a new restaurant, especially as interest rates rise and the industry continues to recover from COVID-19.
As for the hotels’ motivation, a world-class chef or restaurant concept “now feels like the price of entry to be relevant in a marketplace,” said Karl McElligott, director of food and beverage for the Portland, Maine-based Olympia Companies, which manages 30 independently owned boutique hotels nationwide.
Hotels, too, were dealt a blow by the pandemic, and are still trying to make up for forgone revenue, which has translated into such less-welcome add-ons as early check-in and resort fees. They’re also fending off the likes of Airbnb and food delivery services. All of this has “highlighted the need to unlock fresh cash flow, and F&B represents huge potential,” said Christopher Walling, vice president of operations at Salamander Hotels & Resorts, using the industry shorthand for food and beverage.
That’s a change from recent decades, when some top hotels continued to operate top-rated restaurants, but many dumped them, said Arun Upneja, dean of the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration.
“Over time, as the hotels found fewer and fewer customers for their restaurants, they lost more interest” and invested less, Upneja said. “It was a self-perpetuating thing.”
The hotel restaurant descended into something “even chefs like myself stayed away from,” said McMorris, of Venteux.
Now, Upneja said, “the tide is turning. Instead of losing money, the hotels are going to break even or make money. These chefs are going to attract a lot of clientele.”
This is especially true in the luxury sector, where “there’s a lot of things hotels can do for their guests, because they’re willing to pay for it,” said Robert Mandelbaum, research director for CBRE Hotels Research. “The celebrity-driven restaurant is one of those things.”
Food and beverage today generates about $50 billion a year for hotels, according to the restaurant consulting firm Aaron Allen & Associates. That’s double the 2009 total.
Many hotels are tying their dining experiences to the destination. Mehzcla, in South Beach, for instance — “mixture” in Spanish — is Latin fusion. Chicago’s Hoxton hotel hired a chef to run its restaurant who was already well established in Chicago.
“It really integrates the hotel into the community,” said Jules Pearson, vice president of food and beverage development for Hoxton parent Ennismore. “That’s why people travel: to get a taste of local culture.”
The design is an increasingly important part of this equation. Venteux, for example, has a 40-foot glass wall facing Michigan Avenue through which pedestrians can see the café menu handwritten on a marbled mirror, and the gilded brasserie beyond.
“More and more hotels are shifting away from the standard hotel restaurant design,” said Michael Reginbogin, cofounder and principal of Knead Hospitality + Design, which helps them do this. “No guest is going to want to spend money in a restaurant that feels like their room.”
Hotels are devising new models for these partnerships Some, like Olympia, are building their own restaurants and hiring the culinary teams. Others are renting space to suitable restaurant tenants. Still others have been teaming up with restaurant groups, including the many being started by chefs.
Patel, for example, has created his own food group to enter into future ventures like the one he has with THesis. Thompson Buckhead, which opened in Atlanta last year, hired Rye Restaurants, part-owned by James Beard semifinalist Todd Ginsberg, to design and run its restaurant. James Beard finalist Brad Kilgore shares ownership of MaryGold’s at the new Arlo Wynwood in Miami with the hotel and another company.
Also in Chicago, the St. Regis, which will open next year, is collaborating on its restaurant with the Lettuce Entertain You group. Tao Group Hospitality runs nine of the restaurants at Moxy hotels. And hotel company Sage Hospitality Group has spun off a restaurant arm that runs restaurants and bars in hotels, including Per L’Ora in Los Angeles’s new Hotel Per La.
There’s even a new hotel brand focused entirely on the marriage of hotels and food. Appellation, founded by Michelin- and James Beard Award-winning chef Charlie Palmer and hotel industry veteran Christopher Hunsberger, will emphasize fine dining using local ingredients at hotels that will open beginning next year. They’re reversing the traditional “hotel first, restaurant second” approach, to re-establish the hotel restaurant as “the place where you went for something that was more elevated, with the culinary team that had the most experience,” Hunsberger said.
All of this is meant to differentiate hotels from one another, said Lou Carrier, president of Natick-based hotel management and consulting company Distinctive Hospitality Group.
Today’s guests have become “more and more savvy and particular about what they eat,” Carrier said. “So the business strategy is to satisfy the consumer who’s visiting your hotel — to give them another reason to come and stay.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at email@example.com.