The dining rooms of hotels were the most sophisticated places to eat in our grandparents' day, but from the 1970s onwards hotel restaurants, particularly in the midmarket, got a reputation for being dull, pompous and mediocre.
Why? Because with increasing competition from independent restaurants, hoteliers started to view their dining rooms as an encumbrance and distraction from their core business. The hotel was obliged to provide a restaurant for its residents, but unlike an individually owned restaurant, it didn't live or die by its popularity.
If the hotel restaurant was unpopular, it wouldn't lead to closure, so the incentive to excel wasn't as strong as for an independent operator. Only a handful of hotel restaurants had great chefs or Michelin stars.
For a long time hotel restaurants plodded along in their bland, old-fashioned way with no chance of attracting a young, fashionable or famous clientele.
Of course, all that changed in 1997 with the arrival of Nobu at London's Metropolitan hotel. Nobu kicked off a vogue for top-end Asian cuisine in the capital and helped relaunch a trend for the chef-led hotel restaurant. Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's, Brian Turner at the Millennium Mayfair, and David Thompson at Nahm in the Halkin all followed.
Putting a name chef in your hotel is a sure-fire way of making your hotel restaurant a destination in its own right. But famous chefs don't grow on trees, so another solution is to create a concept restaurant to compete head-on with the trendiest restaurants in town.
The first Asia de Cuba opened in Ian Schrager's first hotel, Morgans in New York, in 1997 and came to St Martin's Lane, London, in 1999. It was the brainchild of restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, who had the idea of combining two continents - Asia and South America - in one restaurant, thus claiming to be the original "fusion" concept restaurant.
Clearly, both Nobu and Asia de Cuba offered London's diners new and exciting cuisine and surroundings.
An important consideration when setting up your hotel restaurant is whether, and if so how, you are going to provide the hotel's conference and banqueting, room service and breakfast. Nobu provides nothing for the hotel. It is run as a separate company, although Christina Ong, owner of the Met, is a partner in the restaurant. Apart from the lease, the only thing Nobu shares with the hotel is its breakfast room, which doubles as a private dining room.
Outsourced In contrast, at St Martin's Lane, the hotel's entire food and beverage operation is outsourced to Chodorow's company, China Grill Management. Executive chef Owen Stewart and his team don't just look after Asia de Cuba but also the hotel's events, room service, breakfast, afternoon tea and all-day snacks. There is a separate area in the kitchen for events, but everything is cooked from the same kitchen.
When Raphael Shaul and Yossi Elyahoo were hired by Park Plaza Hotels to dream up a restaurant concept for the hotel chain, they looked very closely at the Asia de Cuba model.
Chino Latino, the concept they came up with, describes itself as a fusion Far East and modern Japanese restaurant with a Latino bar. The first opened in the Park Plaza Nottingham in 2002 and a second followed in Leeds a year later. Both received positive reviews and were praised for bringing something new to the cities' dining-out scenes.
Originally, the duo were tempted to follow the Asia de Cuba model to the letter and outsource F&B along with the restaurants, but they changed their minds. Wayne Androliakos, general manager of the Park Plaza Leeds, is glad they did. He reckons that if you split ownership of your hotel down the middle, the guest suffers.
"If the guest wants to complain about their meal, they'll usually go to the hotel's front desk," he explains. "The duty manager will then say, ‘You're complaining about something that has nothing to do with me,' or ‘I don't have the authority to offer a refund because it's not our revenue.'"
In the end, despite Shaul and Elyahoo having no experience of hotel conference and banqueting, they decided not to outsource any of the hotel's food service, but to let Chino Latino staff handle everything. At the same time they made sure the restaurant had its own identity and entrance.
Giving your hotel restaurant visibility from the street is important. Douglas McHugh, general manager of the Millennium hotel in London's Knightsbridge, admits it's a drawback that its restaurant, Mju, does not have its own entrance. Still, 80% of Mju diners are not hotel guests.
In Leeds, Chino Latino's street visibility means that most locals don't realise the restaurant is part of a hotel. It has its own entrance from the street and also through the hotel. Some customers hand their coats in at the hotel front desk, mistaking it for the cloakroom.
Up the stairs and into the restaurant's sleek black interior, with floor-to-ceiling windows and lacquered red and black tableware, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the heart of Tokyo rather than Yorkshire.
Androliakos admits that being responsible for the hotel's food service has its challenges. "When the restaurant is really busy and our Asian chefs are geared up for cooking this type of food, it's difficult for them to break off and do a hamburger and chips for room service."
The hotel has had to provide a room service menu of Western dishes for guests, but it includes some items from the Chino Latino menu. Luckily, the Leeds hotel found the space for a second, smaller kitchen, which now handles the majority of room service.
On the conference and banqueting front, the hotel is using the Chino Latino menu as a selling point for lunches, private hire and corporate entertaining.
Serving breakfast in the restaurant is not ideal. The same guest who spent an exciting evening drinking cocktails and dancing - the bar is licensed until 2am at weekends - would probably prefer not to return to the same venue for bacon and eggs at 7am.
But being part of a 186-bedroom hotel has clear advantages. Gillian Pearson, director of sales, says: "Our corporate clients keep the restaurant busy from Monday to Friday when Chino Latino's competition is struggling on those quieter nights of the week."
From Monday to Wednesday 80% of Chino Latino diners are hotel guests, 50% on Thursdays, and 30% at weekends when the restaurant attracts the Leeds in-crowd.
Chino Latino continues to be a success in Nottingham and Leeds but will not be rolled out to the new Park Plaza hotels that open in Cardiff and London in February and April respectively. Androliakos says: "This concept came together five years ago, and I think London, especially, has had the fusion Asian concept a long time. All our hotels move on."
Park Plaza is developing new restaurant concepts for both hotels. With 394 bedrooms and 66 suites, the £120m Riverbank Park Plaza at Vauxhall will be the largest new-build in London for many years. Competitors will be waiting to see how Park Plaza meets the challenge of creating a new London hotel restaurant concept. Chef-restaurateur Pat McDonald and ex-Harvey Nichols food and retail director Dominic Ford are behind the project. Watch this space in April for more details.
A successful hotel restaurant: check list - Think about signage and entrance. If you want to appeal to the general public rather than just hotel guests, it pays to give your restaurant its own entrance and identity.
- Decide who you want to own and manage the restaurant. As a hotelier, it may be tempting to wash your hands completely of food and beverage, but how will this affect customer service?
- Think about the concept of the restaurant. Do you want to create something complementary or distinct from the hotel? Make sure your restaurant concept and menu is as original as possible to your location.
- Are kitchen staff going to provide conference and banqueting, room service and breakfast? Think about how to organise space and job specifications for these hotel services.
- Will your restaurant make a suitable venue for serving breakfast to hotel guests? If not, can the hotel afford space for a breakfast room?
- Think about how the hotel and the restaurant can both market each other.
What the experts say
Nigel Massey, managing director of PR firm the Massey Partnership "With Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, Gary Rhodes and Jean-Christophe Novelli setting the pace, the need for hotel owners to have their own stand-alone signature restaurant grew.
Apart from Nobu there are many other examples of stand-alone restaurants succeeding, and Gordon Ramsay must take credit for the success of Angela Hartnett (the Connaught), Pétrus (the Berkeley) and his own restaurant at Claridge's.
Outside London, the bistros in the Hotel du Vin group and brasseries of Malmaison hotels are successful in attracting local diners as well as hotel guests. They provide good value, a distinctive menu, and contemporary look that keep pace with the aspirations of their markets.
It would be wrong, however, to say that if a restaurant does not have a distinct stand-alone operation it has failed. This is unfair, because hotel restaurants have had to gear up to compete and in many cases can give fashionable local restaurants a real run for their money. Good examples of this are the Vermillion at the Scotsman, Edinburgh; the Abbey hotel restaurant, Penzance; and the Lygon Room at the Lygon Arms in the Cotswolds."
Matthew Fort, restaurant critic (formerly of the Guardian) "I'm not sure the popularity of hotel restaurants ever went away. You can trace the origin of chef-led hotel dining rooms back to C‚sar Ritz and Escoffier. In the 1970s the Capital always had high-profile chefs, with Richard Shepherd and Brian Turner, and it's not just confined to London. The country house hotel circuit has always turned out successful chefs. Don't forget Gary Rhodes started out at the Castle hotel in Taunton. I would call the emergence of Nobu and Asia-fusion concepts just another stage in the extremely competitive business of marketing hotels to busy international travellers. It also gives the international public a sense of security. If they enjoyed a meal at Nobu in LA, say, they can do the same in London."
Pearl Renaissance Chancery Court hotel
252 High Holborn, London WC1
Tel: 020 7829 7000
Park Plaza hotels
Boar Lane, City Square, Leeds LS1 5NS
Tel: 0113 380 4080
41 Maid Marian Way, Nottingham NG1 6GD
Tel: 0115 947 7200
Asia de Cuba St Martin's Lane hotel
45 St Martin's Lane, London WC2
Tel: 020 7300 5588
Nobu Metropolitan hotel
19 Old Park Lane, London W1
Tel: 020 7447 4747
Mju Millennium Knightsbridge hotel
17 Sloane Street, London SW1
Tel: 020 7201 6330
Pearl is one hotel restaurant that hasn't been part of the trend for Asian cuisine, instead sticking to top-end French dining. Formerly the QC restaurant, it reopened in June last year after a lavish and opulent redesign.
Head chef Jun Tanaka creates dishes largely based on classical French combinations with great attention to contrasting textures and temperatures, and modern presentation. An impressive wine list includes nearly 50 wines available by the glass.
The Pearl concept was taken from the history of the building, which used to be the main banking hall of Pearl Assurance. Strings of shimmering pearls hang from the 70-seat restaurant's light fittings and are used to create partitions in the 52-seat bar area. Other features include white leather seats and soft, pink, under-table lighting.
The hotel and restaurant are both owned by Hotel Property Investors and managed by Marriott division Renaissance. But Pearl has its own street entrance and is treated as an individual brand and outlet. This is reflected in the 80% local and 20% hotel guest mix of clientele.