It used to be that hotel restaurants served food that was underwhelming and overpriced. But in recent years, renowned chefs have been attaching themselves to the dining choices at similarly renowned hotels. Now, hotels new and old are cooking up ways to get a known name in the galley.
For instance, local celebrity chef Mike Isabella will open Arroz next year at the Marriott Marquis — the first hotel venture for the prolific restaurateur and author, who has appeared on Bravo’s “Top Chef” television series.
“We’re an amenity for the hotel, we feel,” Isabella said. “They have a bar there, they have a diner in there and they have a sports bar, [but] there’s no real full-service restaurant … that offers the food that we offer.”
That food will be southern Spanish with influences from Morocco and Portugal, albeit heavy on the former, incorporating dishes from Tangier along with other North African cuisine. The menu will feature many egg dishes, paellas and soupy rices (Arroz is Spanish for rice). Cart service will be available with tapas-like bites that are not on the menu and change daily. Arroz is also one of the 10 concepts planned for Isabella Eatery opening in Virginia’s Tysons Galleria later in 2017.
Isabella, named the 2016 Restaurateur of the Year by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington (RAMW), is no stranger to food with international flavor. He also owns Graffiato (inspired by Italian small plates), Kapnos (Greek-based), Pepita (a Mexican cantina), Yona (Japanese noodle bar) and Requin (French Mediterranean). He chose a Spanish concept because it doesn’t duplicate eateries that have already been done or are nearby, he said.
“Spaniards have strong regional identity and it shows in their food culture. You can enjoy paella in Valencia, then drive down the coast a bit and experience completely different flavors and ingredients. Not many U.S. restaurateurs focus on southern Spain, Northern Africa and Portugal. Those regions of the world heavily influence each other’s art, architecture and food, and those unique flavors are exactly what we are aiming to capture at Arroz,” he explained.
Isabella leases the space from Marriott and operates it as his own, but he did get the OK from hotel executives before moving ahead with Arroz.
“It’s a lease like a restaurant. It’s not a management deal where I work for Marriott,” he told us. “I pretty much have full control over everything. Obviously, they needed to approve my concept — if that’s what they wanted in their hotel.”
The Marriott space, which will seat 185 in the dining room and 65 outside, appealed to Isabella because the hotel offers an automatic clientele base.
“It is the biggest hotel in the city and across the street from the Convention Center, so they already are maybe the busiest hotel in the city, and so it’s kind of a win-win situation,” he said. “We’re going to hit a lot of new people, and that’s really what we want to do.”
Marriott Marquis General Manager Dan Nadeau said the brand shares Isabella’s excitement about Arroz.
“In addition to diversifying our culinary offerings for our guests, we hope Arroz will be a dining destination in Washington, D.C., and a place for our neighbors to socialize and celebrate,” Nadeau said. “We’ve been searching for just the right culinary talent to partner with since we opened in May 2014, and we are looking forward to welcoming visitors and locals alike to Arroz in 2017.”
Quality in Sea of Quantity
The trend toward hiring a notable chef to run the hotel kitchen gathered momentum locally with James Beard Award-winning Michael Mina, whose Bourbon Steak sits in Georgetown’s Four Seasons and was named the 2012 Fine Dining Restaurant of the Year by RAMW. (Before that, the late Michel Richard’s acclaimed Citronelle in the now-defunct Lathan Hotel was a high-end dining mainstay.)
“For a long time, the restaurant or the food service operation inside a hotel was viewed as an amenity, whereas now I think it’s becoming viable real estate that can be profitable,” said Steve Uhr, director of operations for chef Michael Schlow, who has restaurants in two Kimpton Hotels properties: the Carlyle and Glover Park Hotel. “Hotels are not necessarily great at running restaurants. It’s a different mentality, and I think that hoteliers said, ‘You know what, there’s no reason why we should break even in this space. We should make money, and if we’re not great at it, let’s hire somebody that is.’”
It turns out that the relationship between a hotel and a restaurant is mutually beneficial. “We kind of scratch each other’s back,” said Thomas Fraher, general manager of the Carlyle, home to the Riggsby, which Schlow opened July 2015 with a European-influenced continental menu. Fraher is also temporarily overseeing the Glover Park Hotel, where Schlow’s Casolare opened in July to serve coastal Italian fare.
Well-known chefs such as Schlow — who was named Best Chef in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation and has appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” as well as the Food Network — attract diners to their restaurants for obvious reasons, and it turns out that a well-known restaurant can be equally enticing to prospective hotel guests. “If there is a good food and beverage operation, it makes the hotel more attractive,” Uhr said.
For instance, a business meeting or room service at the Carlyle means the Riggsby will cater. “It’s a great bragging point so the meeting planners know they’re not just getting run-of-the-mill banquet kitchen food,” Fraher said.
From the restaurant’s perspective, the hotel provides built-in customers. The hotel, on the other hand, improves its image in a city where competition for overnight guests is fierce. The District is home to more than 30,000 hotel rooms, with another 5,075 in the construction pipeline, according to Destination DC, which promotes tourism to the nation’s capital.
Of course, restaurant competition is also fierce here, with more than 2,100 restaurants, 81 of which have Zagat food scores of at least 25 out of 30, according to the organization. The Washington Post named D.C. one of the top 10 food cities in America in 2015. If that seems like too much of a pat on the back, Zagat gave the District the number-three spot on its list of the top 17 food cities the same year.
“Washington, D.C., is experiencing a dining renaissance and the world is taking notice,” said Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, noting that there is $9.6 billion in development underway in the city. “Bon Appétit Magazine named D.C. its ‘restaurant city of the year’ and a D.C.-dedicated Michelin restaurant guide launches Oct. 13, 2016. These accolades not only resonate with sophisticated domestic and international travelers, but savvy restaurateurs too who understand the value joining D.C.’s hospitality landscape.
Hotel managers are also realizing that guests shouldn’t have to go elsewhere to find quality or gourmet cuisine.
“We’d like to keep as many people at property and dining at our restaurant as we can,” said Peter Laufer, who took over as executive chef at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel on July 1. “There are so many options around. We have to make sure we wow them from the beginning.”
Nicolas Legret, who took over as executive chef for the Lafayette, Off The Record, Top of the Hay and in-room dining and banquet facilities at the Hay-Adams hotel in May, agrees.
“Hotels now put much more thought in their restaurant,” Legret said. “It used to be a hotel and then people are going outside [to eat], but I guess over the years people realize, ‘We have customers in there. Why lose them?’”
Challenges of Being a Hotel Chef
For Legret, the differences between being the chef of a freestanding restaurant and running the kitchen at a hotel are marked.
“When you’ve got your own place, you can just offer one thing that you want. Here, you’ve got to be flexible and open-minded,” Legret said.
Although he has plans for changes to the menus, Legret said he can’t start over from scratch. “We have regulars who are here every other day,” he said. “You cannot just cross out everything. We have the Cobb salad, we have the chicken salad that must stay because we tried to remove them and it was like a revolution. Those people have been here for years and years, or maybe a decade.”
Instead, he plans to overhaul about 60 percent of the menu every three months, relying heavily on local producers and seasonal favorites.
Catering to a wide audience can be a challenge, the Willard’s Laufer added.
“From a culinary side, not only have you got travelers and dignitaries and executives of the industry coming, but you also have people who are coming to see the sights and sounds of Washington, D.C., so you have a great blend of audience you have to cater to,” he said. “You have the travelers who like to experience comfort food with a local flair, and you have the local patrons who like to experience themed cuisine as we have with our French bistro [Café du Parc]…. You can be sitting in the bistro and you have dignitaries from all over the world and then you have a small family on a family vacation sitting right beside them.”
Besides the patrons, Laufer also has to please the hotel managers. “I make my proposal on the menu and I make my presentation to the food and beverage director and the GM to get them involved because they need to be supportive as well,” he said. “It’s not just my ideas, it’s our ideas. We need to make sure we cross-promote.”
He holds tastings and educational seminars with hotel staff so that they are up to date on what’s available to guests. “It’s a team effort,” Laufer added.
Other Notable New Pairings
The Trump International Hotel, which opened in September, was looking to fill a space that chef José Andrés (think: minibar, Jaleo, Zaytinya) abandoned after Donald Trump’s controversial comments about immigrants last year. In May, it was announced that “Top Chef Masters” alum David Burke will dish up the hotel’s restaurant, BLT Prime, which serves steaks, seafood and salad at a Trump property in Miami and in New York City.
The Omni Shoreham Hotel recently hired Steve Haughie as executive chef. As regional executive chef for Sportservice, he organized and coordinated with the culinary teams for the 2013 Super Bowl. And to make a story come full circle, Haughie worked as executive chef at Arcadia, a Michael Mina restaurant in San Jose.
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.