Hotel restaurants

The most successful hotel restaurants make you feel like you’re not in a hotel at all | Food

OOn May 4, London’s Claridge’s Hotel posted a photo of the main restaurant on its Instagram account, celebrating Star Wars Day. It featured some of their restaurant staff, who fed NHS workers housed there during the current crisis, dressed as socially distanced stormtroopers, with a sign that read ‘May the force be with you’. It made me smile. Indeed, I was struck by the fact that, although I had eaten at this dining room many times during its various incarnations, it was the most fun I had ever seen.

Ah, the hotel restaurant: the hotel version of the casino slot machine. You never know if it will work, but you keep pulling the handle with any luck. Do not mistake yourself. I ate very good things in restaurants located in hotels. Earlier this year, I gave a lengthy eulogy for a dish served in this very space of Claridge, which is currently Davies and Brook, from chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park in New York. He brought with him his matured duck breast with a blood-enriched sweet and sour sauce. It was love at first lick.

A year ago, at the Gridiron, inside the stylish Metropolitan Hotel just off Park Lane, I was delighted by a cast iron pot of silken mashed potatoes spiked with pokey Tunworth cheese, trotter juice and pork crackers. (No, you have I was charmed by Heston Blumenthal’s wacky ‘meat fruit’ sleight of hand, the sweetest of chicken liver parfaits shaped to look like a tangerine because it was on the dinner menu at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Knightsbridge. There was the lip-smacking dish of beef cheek prepared for me by James Martin on a memorable night at the Talbot Hotel in Malton, Yorkshire, and the indecently tumescent raspberry soufflé au Pompadour by Galvin at inside the old Caledonian Hotel, Edinburgh.

But great food, delivered by servers doing their best, is not the same as a restaurant comfortable with itself. Too often they look like those too-tight, crotchless jeans worn by your 60-year-old school principal on weekends: a terrible fit. One of my first experiences of a hotel restaurant in this job was at the Connaught Hotel in 2001 when it was a glowing, deep-varnished museum piece overseen by the chef Frenchman with an impeccable Michel Bourdin hat. I remember a terrine in rubbery jelly flavored with cloves, and atrociously made (made all the more by my companion, a powerful English novelist, ordering with pomp champagne for the whole table without bothering to check with the person handling the bill, i.e. me, it all didn’t cost a lot.) It served the kind of food that former boarders like: vol-au-vent with mushrooms and quail eggs, veal liver and bacon, roast lamb, etc. Waiters came in stiff-necked waves. At Connaught, you were never alone.

Pie Heaven: The Holborn Dining Room. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

In 2001 Gordon Ramsay announced that he was taking over the dining room at Claridge. This was the start of a fierce land grab. He placed his leaders at the Savoy and the Berkeley, the Marriott and, of course, the Connaught. Bourdin’s disciples rose as quickly as their knees would allow, and I laughed. It was, I decided, what London needed. In many ways, it really was. The interior designers arrive with their mood boards and their color charts. It was an exciting moment.

But quickly I realized that these restaurants inside the hotels didn’t quite live up to their billing. Instead of joy, you got stiff service, a puff of tightly managed fireworks, and a really big bill. Ramsay wanted his Claridge’s outpost to be a three-star companion to his flagship in Chelsea. It ended up looking like his own act of tribute. In too many cases, the creation of what is supposed to be a stand-alone restaurant with a separate identity from the hotel ends up in a desperate act of architectural misdirection; an attempt to convince you that the space was always meant to be that, and not the resonant grand ballroom to the left of the lobby that they didn’t really have a use for.

“I was delighted”: Tunworth mash at Gridiron.
“I was delighted”: Tunworth mash at Gridiron. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Scanning the space occupied by the Soak at the Grosvenor Hotel in Victoria, I concluded that everything could be packed up and moved, flattened again, in half a day. A blind experience of terrible tapas at the Ecclestone Square Hotel was ruined by the lack of effort. They started vacuuming the carpets in the middle of lunch, then tested the fire alarm.

But there is one element that sums up this problem more than any other: access to peatlands. They should be three steps away, through a door from the dining room. Mostly in hotels, they are four hallways, up two flights of stairs, in an annex, near the spa. I loved Grazing by Mark Greenaway’s kitchen at the Waldorf Astoria in Edinburgh. But going to pee took literally 10 minutes. My companion thought I had made a runner. It could have been worse and it was. In really fancy hotels, waiters, apparently embarrassed by the torturous expedition, will take care of escorting you. Oh my God. What are you supposed to say to a stranger when rushing to the urinal? This is the definition of an inconvenience.

Still, such things are worth enduring if you find a restaurant you really like. The problem is that most are run on a contractual basis. It takes off, then the hotel changes its priorities and bang, here we go. Farewell Chavot Brewery at the Westbury. Your soft shell crabs were delicious while they lasted.

“I concluded that the whole place could be tidied up and moved in half a day”: Soak. Photography: Sophia Evans/The Observer

But I said at the beginning that, for now, this column will accentuate the positive, so let me highlight the successful ones. I once cheered for the Game Bird at the Stafford Hotel and will do it again. It works, I think, because they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are: a restaurant that happens to be located in the hotel lounges. Plus they have a smoked salmon cart and crunchy beef suet pudding.

The Holborn Dining Rooms, with Chef Calum Franklin’s monumental pie action, makes it feel like it’s right next door, rather than part of the Rosewood Hotel. Did I mention the pies? And there’s Min Jiang, the glamorous Chinese with quality Peking Duck, on the top floor of the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington. It works because when you enter the elevator, you feel like you’re not in a hotel. And it is exactly what you would expect from a hotel restaurant.

News

Chef Carl Clarke of quality fried chicken group Chick ‘N’ Sours has launched a £50,000 crowdfunder to raise money for the launch of Future Noodles, a nutritionally complete plant-based instant noodle pot that won’t make you not hate you. “Working long hours in the kitchen, my late-night snack was always Japanese instant noodles and no matter how striking they tasted, I knew they weren’t good for me,” Clarke said. These are his response. For every pot purchased when they arrive at the market, another will be donated to a good cause.

Quality meat supplier Northfield Farm, well known for its stand at London’s Borough Market, has extended its delivery options. As well as a UK-wide courier service and London delivery, customers within five miles of their farmhouse in Rutland can now get free delivery. Those within five to 15 miles get free delivery on orders over £45.

And now, a quick overview of the signs of life on the main streets. Wagamama reopens 67 branches for take-out and delivery. Coffee and bakery chain Paul has introduced click and collect in 12 stores in London. Honest Burgers is reopening the majority of its 38 branches nationwide for delivery. And in Copenhagen, chef Rene Redzepi’s famous Noma has temporarily reinvented itself as a take-out burger bar.

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