Top toques are giving the hotel restaurant a new lease on life

It’s almost as if things are coming full circle. Escoffier, the grand master chef, restaurateur and hotelier, who developed and standardized the kitchen brigade system, reigned in an era when hotel restaurants, like his Savoy, dished out extravagant haute cuisine through impeccable service. They were the ‘it’ places, their chefs, the ‘in’ people. 

Then something happened. Quietly, hotel restaurants developed a stodgy reputation. Blasé and cookie cutter became catchall descriptors of the menus and dinner guests dwindled to the transient overnighters. As Scott de Savoye, the general manager of Toronto’s new Hazelton hotel points out, “It wasn’t really that long ago that people avoided hotel restaurants like the plague. It was assumed they were over-priced and underdeveloped.”

But that’s changing with the reinvigoration of hotel restaurants — minus the pomp of dining à l’Escoffier. Some of Canada’s hottest homegrown chefs are checking in to hotels, running them like free-standing restaurants and courting a different clientele.

In 1999, U.S. foodservice industry publications noticed more and more hotels were partnering with independent operators to run their restaurants. Then, in 2006 the trend really took off. New York and Las Vegas were, and still are, at the epicentre of the phenomenon, and now almost every brand-name chef — Thomas Keller, Joel Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay and Emeril Lagasse to name a few — runs at least one hotel restaurant. So it’s no surprise that Canadian chefs and hoteliers have  started exploring this avenue.

“The trend will probably persist,” says Mark McEwan, the well-known Toronto chef and owner of North 44 and Bymark, who just opened his first hotel restaurant, One, in The Hazelton last month. “I think hotels will certainly look to what’s happening across the border. But you’ll probably never see it on the scale of Vegas.”

Françios Blais, an up-and-coming 33-year-old chef who has been running Panache restaurant in the Auberge Saint-Antoine in Quebec City since 2004, agrees. “They spend $10 million on a restaurant in New York, or maybe more in Las Vegas. If you do that in Canada, you’re broke — you won’t survive.”

But even without the grandiosity, Canadian chefs are adopting elements of the trend. McEwan, Blais and Tony de Luca, who has been running Restaurant Tony de Luca at the Oban Inn in Niagara-on-the-Lake since 2006, are exemplary chefs changing the face of hotel dining rooms.

One aspect of the new style is street-front entrances; so passing through the hotel isn’t a deterrent to walk-ins. “Often hotel restaurants get buried away inside the hotels,” says McEwan, noting One has huge windows looking over Yorkville and a patio right on the street. Even more important is recognizing the role locals play. Remarkably, Panache draws 65 per cent of its diners from outside the hotel, and McEwan is aiming for 80 per cent at One. “You have to gain the respect of the local clientele. It’s the neighbourhood and business community that will support your restaurant,” McEwan says. 

Of course, food and service are still the most important factors. “It’s not automatic, right?” says Celia Liu, manager of operations at the Oban Inn. “Just because they’re staying here doesn’t mean they’ll dine here.”

With a kitchen staff of 18, de Luca makes sure they do at his 72-seat restaurant. The chef offers only a prix fixe menu, with mains like Quebec squab stuffed with foie gras, and Cumbrae Farms dry-aged beef rib-eye with morels, or an eight- to 10-course tasting menu where he prepares and presents each dish. And like top freestanding restaurants, his passion is for everything local. “We’re developing relationships with growers to provide us with the goods we need at a price we can afford.”

For de Luca, an additional challenge was the Oban’s previous restaurant. “We had to distance ourselves from the culinary reputation of the Oban Inn, in the sense that the last couple of years the food wasn’t great.” He also speculates many hotels have developed a bad reputation for food because they make their money in rooms. “I have to be competitive with every other restaurant in the area. I can’t give people crap and say, ‘Here we are. This is Niagara.’” He says, “Let the hotel run the rooms, the spa and the things they do very well, and let the chefs run the restaurants.”

Both Blais and McEwan did that from the start — the 84-seat Panache was built into the Saint-Antoine in 2004 during renovations to the auberge, with Blais’ vision guiding the process, and both the Hazelton Hotel and One were built earlier this year. From day one, Blais strived for Panache to be anything but a dated hotel restaurant. With a kitchen staff of around 30, he serves traditional French cuisine with a modern twist, like shepherd’s pie made with Cerf de Boileau venison or sweetbread stew. And almost shocking in comparison to hotel restaurants of the past is his attitude toward storage. “I don’t have any freezers so I use only the freshest produce available,” he says. Blais also gets much of his product from the Marché du Vieux Port nearby, and from a plot of land that’s farmed exclusively for the restaurant, which belongs to Saint-Antoine’s owners, the Price family. Both the hotel and Blais rent their space separately from an outside company and run their operations independently.

McEwan sets the 250-seat One apart with “ingredient-driven” cuisine — all the components of a meal are ordered separately and the language is straightforward. “I actually have a chicken noodle soup on my menu and call it chicken noodle soup. It’s one hell of a good bowl of chicken noodle soup.”

Hoteliers and chefs agree the trend is mutually beneficial. Of the McEwan-Hazelton partnership, de Savoye says, “He wanted to be associated with an upscale hotel and we needed a celebrity restaurateur…to complement the hotel. So Mark, who’s also a very astute business man…may very well do a better job than we would have.” McEwan rents the space for a flat fee and is responsible for operating costs. The hotel focuses strictly on guest services, confident that customers will receive the same care in the restaurant, and not even know that they’re separate entities.

The Oban wanted the same security. “We were looking for a chef of the calibre that would complement the new structure of the inn — a chef who was well-known in the Niagara region,” Liu says. De Luca rents the space for a flat fee but the hotel and the restaurant share operating costs.

For Blais, one of the most important perks to leasing space is that the hotel supplies customers. But it’s a symbiotic relationship. Mounteer says Panache brings guests to the hotel, and Liu says she’s noticed an increased interest in the Oban since de Luca took over the restaurant. In June, for example, 17 per cent of guests had booked dining packages. Liu estimates that guests staying for two nights typically dine at de Luca’s one night and elsewhere the other.

Clearly, Panache and de Luca do enough covers in both high and low seasons to suggest they’re doing something right. No doubt McEwan’s One will prove the same. And, according to Mounteer, they may be just the first of many more to follow. “I think the hotel restaurant is coming of age…they’ve learned that they can’t just sort of ride — they have to be as innovative and entrepreneurial as stand-alone restaurants.”                                                


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