Strong concepts, not invasive themes, elevate the design of the hottest hotel restaurants

On a cold evening in February, guests squeeze into Toronto’s Eight Wine Bar for its opening party. Polished Bay-street suits and Queen-west hipsters mingle with food and drink writers, vintners and local celebrities such as Kevin Brauch, the Food Network’s Thirsty Traveller, and superstar sommelier Zoltan Szabo, who stands behind the bar pouring wine and waxing eloquent on fermented grapes. If it weren’t for the lobby entrance you’d never guess you were in a hotel restaurant.

There’s no doubt free-flowing booze and exclusive invites played a role in the launch’s roaring success, but if all goes as planned the Cosmopolitan Hotel’s wine bar will pulse with a similar crowd every night. No longer just venues reserved for the feeding and watering of overnight guests, hotel restaurants are going after local clientele, striving to be comfortable neighbourhood hangouts, or happening it-spots. And that goal is fuelling a new approach to design, from decor to the menu.

“I think what we’re seeing globally are simple ideas executed in a refreshing manner,” says Jody Pennette, the CEO of cb5, a Connecticut-based consulting group specializing in hotel restaurant design. “We believe in key design elements instead of decorating every square inch. If it’s an Asian restaurant you don’t need a 40-foot Buddha, dragons and gongs. In really great design subtlety is what allows [a space] to breathe and burn over a long period of time.”

Mike Duggan, president of Boutique Hotels and Resorts of BC (BHRBC), a relatively new development company, had this philosophy in mind when he started the Nita Lake Lodge project in Whistler six years ago. “Early on we realized we needed to create a destination,” says Duggan, who is also GM of the $85-million lodge, which finally opened in January. But when the local municipality insisted it incorporate the reception area of a newly built train station, they had to figure out how to marry that into the design concept.

After BHRBC decided on Jordan’s Crossing, an 80-seat, fine-dining restaurant (the lodge is also home to two lounges serving food and drinks: Lakeside and The Library), they hired a consulting company to create a dining experience Duggan calls “a throwback to a time when there was fine dining on the railways.” Jordan’s classic Caesar ($14), for example, is mixed on a train-style guerdon cart in front of guests. Other dishes, such as grilled wild West Coast salmon ($32) and brandy-flamed Alberta beef tenderloin ($40), are modernized, upscale classics and “reflect what’s available locally,” Duggan says. To entice local diners he set competitive prices with restaurants of similar calibre in Whistler.

Jordan’s interior was designed by BBA Design Consultants Inc., in a style Sharon Bortolotto, the firm’s founder, dubs “modern-mountain.” Duggan describes it as “upscale Ralph Lauren” with a “subtle use of the railway theme.” There are further nods to locomotive travel in wine racks and doors made from iron railway spikes welded together, and even in the restaurant’s materials such as fir, mahogany and blue stone, and the leather on a panelled wall. “Somebody asked why there aren’t pictures of trains in the restaurant,” says Bortolotto. “And we said, ‘Because there aren’t.’”

A hotel’s restaurant can be a great marketing tool if it’s done right, especially when it comes to garnering local support, Pennette says. “Once people began checking into the Mondrian hotel in L.A. just so they could have access to the Skybar, the whole industry was set on edge. All of a sudden, the hotel wasn’t [only] a place to sleep, it was a destination,” he says, referring to Ian Schrager’s boutique property. He notes that hotel restaurants need to possess an independent spirit and energy. “There needs to be synergy with the hotel, but it’s really good if it can stand up on its own with personality.”

The owners of the Hotel Nelligan in Montreal had that in mind when they launched Méchant Boeuf, a new bar and brasserie, as part of an $8-million expansion last June. Dimitri Antonopoulos, vice-president of Marketing for the Antonopoulos Group, which also owns Le Place d’Armes Hotel & Suites and the Auberge du Vieux-Port, spearheaded Méchant Boeuf’s design concept. While the restaurant had to “work with the Nelligan,” he says his goal was to create a unique destination — different than the hotel’s other restaurant and bar, Verses (Old World charm and contemporary French cuisine) — that would attract at least a 60 per cent local crowd.

A loud English gastropub-cum-French bistro, Méchant Boeuf (which translated in English is “mean beef”) has 10 beers on tap and a DJ spinning ’80s classic rock from Thursday to Saturday. Although one of the most popular dishes is beer can chicken ($24), “Beef takes centre stage on the menu,” Antonopoulos says. Besides the Méchant burger ($16), there’s beef carpaccio ($14) and tartar ($12), grilled hanger steak ($22), New York steak ($22), smoked, spice-rubbed rib steak ($30) and smoked baby back ribs ($27).

But Antonopoulos didn’t ram the bull motif home. “We could have put bull horns everywhere,” he says, laughing. Instead he used a cherry red finish, red fabric and a single piece of art — a commissioned painting called Minotaurus, by Montrealer Jean-Daniel Rohre — to evoke matadors and their adversaries. Together the menu, service and decor convey a point of view which, Pennette says, is crucial for superior hotel restaurant design. “It should all speak from the same voice. I hate the word theme because that’s when it gets heavy-handed.”

The idea is to pick a strong concept rather than a theme. When cb5 begins a new project, Pennette says it sizes up the property, the team, the market, the brand and the design aesthetic before developing one. Then it asks, “What do we have to work with? Is it a low-ceiling space, is it on the beach?” Once the concept is chosen, all the other layers — uniform, music, silverware — fall into place.

When the Cosmopolitan decided to take over its own restaurant space and open Eight Wine Bar (the hotel had been renting it out to an independent party), the biggest challenge for Michael Kaye, the hotel’s in-house designer, was warming up the room. “It’s not an easy space to work with. There are a lot of elements we can’t change, like concrete walls,” says Kaye, who’s also the food, beverage and creative director. With a half-million dollar budget, his solution was to use accents in burnt orange, fire-engine red, burgundy and chocolate brown, with comfy couches and hand-crafted, coloured glass panels on the walls fitted over lights for a softening effect. He also incorporated a few wine barrels and a painting of a wine cellar.

Interior design is certainly a draw at Eight, but Kaye’s food and beverage program lends weight to the wine bar concept. All of the wines — and there are more than 30 red and white options — are available by the glass in three-, five- or eight-ounce portions. Consulting sommelier Zoltan Szabo will change the list every few weeks. Kaye also plans to offer winemakers’ dinners and educational seminars. Fittingly, “The food is all stuff that goes well with wine,” Kaye says. There are dishes meant for sharing, such as the signature duck shepherd’s pie ($21), retro blinis ($12), and Eight’s three mini burgers ($15), as well as traditional starters and mains.

While Pennette acknowledges it can be difficult to imbue hotel restaurants with an independent spirit — the environment by nature dilutes it — it is possible. Pennette suggests picking three or four things to state who you are and letting other nuances reinforce that statement. “A lot of hotel restaurants have taken a clumsy look at style. They gather all these buzz ideas for the year, but if they’re not handled correctly they’re meaningless.”                             


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