Picture it. A massive dining room with rows of banquet tables, each one identical to the next  — a sea of white tablecloths before you, ornate chandeliers dangling from the ceiling perfectly positioned over every table, cutlery placed exactly straight. This is where symmetry was invented. Along comes the waiter, he looks like someone out of a Coen brothers movie; slicked-back hair, pencil moustache, black bow tie, jacket with epaulettes, glossy black, brogues and tight-fitting, white, cotton gloves. Cradling a stainless steel cloche, he reveals your order. A slice of pâté encased in aspic. It wobbles like jelly at a children’s party as he slides the plate in front of you.

The scene is different today with hotels hosting savvy customers who like cutting-edge design augmented by approachable food. Now it’s restaurateurs rather than hotel GMs making decisions and creating destination dining. “Hotels are no longer places to go and sleep and then go out in the city,” explains Rob Gentile, executive chef of Toronto’s Buca Osteria and Enoteca, who’s launching a second Buca adjacent to the Four Seasons Hotel, in Toronto. “People want to come to a hotel and be entertained in the hotel, eat in the hotel, drink in the hotel. It’s become more of an entertainment complex.” It’s a delicate business, but these days, it’s about keeping guests on your premises and giving them a top-notch culinary experience. Hotelier talked with four restaurant operators to learn about the world of hotel restaurants.

* Café Boulud and Bar, Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto

“There’s nothing more terrible than a hotel restaurant,” begins Daniel Boulud of the N.Y.-based Dinex Group. “Some of them do have charm, as long as the food is still exciting and the clientele is renewed — because there is nothing worse than to see a hotel that’s 60 years old and the clientele is 90 years old.”

Boulud knows about successful restaurants; he has several around the world and just unwrapped Maison Boulud at the famed Ritz-Carlton, Montreal. It borrows style, decor and ambiance from the chef’s American restos. “It’s a restaurant in a hotel run and managed by a chef like me. We are in partnership to fully manage our brand — the employees are employees of the hotel, of course,” the chef explains.

Boulud believes today’s guests are looking for a hotel restaurant with something different, yet classical. “They want a restaurant with a DNA — doesn’t matter if it’s Italian, Japanese, French, American or Canadian, the DNA today comes from the chef, from the cuisine, from a style of cooking and a style of service — an expectation,” says Boulud, whose culinary genes are evident in his classy, modern French food. The new 200-seat Café Boulud and Bar at the Four Seasons will feature the chef’s four signature menus: la tradition, classic French cuisine; la saison, seasonal delicacies; le potager, the vegetable garden menu, and le voyage, named after various world cuisines.

The business deal with Four Seasons — set to open in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood in October — is a hybrid arrangement, with the hotel providing financial backing. “We are in business with the hotel and the hotel is the investor and the operator on a day-to-day [basis],” Boulud explains. “And we are co-managing with them. We are lending management as well, and we are making sure the staff is trained by us, supervised by us, but at the same time we work together with the hotel to make sure we provide the service the hotel needs.”

Carrying on with tradition in a contemporary way is Boulud’s secret to success. “It’s not casual-dining, but it’s not fine-dining. It’s in between … it’s fun dining,” he says. “That’s how the hotel approaches their brand. They want to show vitality and that it’s really with its time,” he says. The entrepreneur is confident the relationship will be prosperous. “[It’s] a seamless fit, they want excellence in service, in fine-dining and they want to make sure the service is appropriate to what [guests] expect at a hotel today.” And, that’s something Boulud can deliver.

* La Coupole Restaurant, Le Crystal Hôtel and Spa, Montreal

“The concept is [said] to be the only one in North America,” says Gino Mourin of his resto inside Le Crystal Hôtel & Spa, Montreal, which is based on the deluxe brasseries found in Paris, France.

Fusing Italian and French, the Coupole menu is light. “There’s not too much butter and bacon — it’s more olive oil refined with different spices and flavours,” Mourin says. The restaurant features a prix-fixe, discovery menu ($40), with dishes such as balsamic-caramelized Cornish hen with vegetables and Israeli couscous as well as shredded duck with leeks, grapes, spinach and parsnip with a black cherry sauce. “[Introducing] discovery, becoming more humble … that brought success,” he says, of the restaurant that’s pulling in $500,000 per month in sales.

The grassroots marketer, who calls himself a “peddler,” says 95 per cent of his business is walk-ins. “That’s the average. I’m outperforming say, 30 per cent of some restaurants, but I’m outperformed by big restaurants,” he adds, referring to his neighbour The Queue de Cheval Steak House and Bar. “He is doing $9 million a year. That’s enormous. But, according to my pricing, I’m doing very well. According to his pricing, four times my average check, he’s doing basically the same.”

That success is clear to see at the 155-seat, 6,700-square-foot, two-storey restaurant, which usually sits one-and-half seatings at lunch and one at night. Such an accomplishment is partly due to the partnerhsip with Le Crystal management. “When they help me, they’re quite amazing … we have a great relationship.” The property leases space to the entrepreneur, and business is conducted as a combined effort. Together they attract corporate Montrealers, luring 10 per cent of hotel guests daily and 25 per cent on weekends, but there’s more to it than that. “The property is a condo-hotel, so it’s owned by condo [owners]. The building belongs to the condo, and we became renters of the hotel space and the restaurant,” Mourin explains. The hotel promotes me “because I do an event every month, like a winemaker’s dinner.”

The relationship hasn’t diluted Mourin’s mission. “I’m making my own decisions, but the hotel will participate in the marketing. It’s a joint effort to promote, but they let me [direct] my concept. It’s a very happy and peaceful harmony.”

* Hawksworth Restaurant, Rosewood Hotel Georgia, Vancouver

David Hawksworth dreamed of Hawksworth Restaurant years before he thought of opening in Vancouver’s Rosewood Hotel Georgia. “I was here before the hotel, and it just funnily worked out that way,” says the 42-year-old chef of the 7,200-square-foot business. “The world went in a weird direction, and we did the deal to put my restaurant in the hotel.”

While there was no mandate from the hotel management in terms of how to work together, the chef had his own ideas. “I wanted to build a restaurant where people would feel comfortable coming a couple times a week, [where] the prices weren’t outrageous,” he says, of the 80-seat eatery.

Working under a separate lease, but within the confines of the hotel, Hawksworth’s cuisine is unique. “It’s modern contemporary Canadian cuisine,” says the European-trained chef. “It’s an ever-evolving menu; it’s very seasonal. Right now we have the 48-hour short-rib, with compressed melon and black-pepper jam ($17); the roasted sablefish with a tom yum broth and crispy rice ($26, lunch; $34, dinner); and, at lunchtime, we have a great little spaghetti with jalapeños, arugula and Dungeness crab ($19, appetizer/$26 entrée).”

Partnering with Rosewood Hotel Georgia has proven successful with guests coming from across the city. “It’s all over the map; we have lots of people who used to come to the hotel 50 years ago and want to have a look.” Strategically located in the epicentre of the business district, Hawksworth Restaurant attracts suited execs and hockey fans. “Whatever business gets done in Vancouver is [within] a 15-minute radius of here,” says the chef.

The restaurant and bar’s casual yet upscale atmosphere — featuring artwork by Damien Hirst and Rodney Graham — suits the hotel and marries well with the chef’s artistic food. “Our bar is very unique. It’s really cocktail-orientated, there’s no coffee machine, there’s no draft beer or anything like that — it’s primarily focused on phenomenal cocktails. So we have people who come and only eat in the bar, and have never sat in the restaurant, and they’ve been here maybe 50 times.”

Whether running a standalone restaurant or a hotel-restaurant, it’s clear change is a key driver of success. “Having a great-looking restaurant is really important, otherwise you’re done, it’s not going work,” says Hawksworth.

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