Fine Dining? Just Across The Lobby

Some of the best new restaurants are popping up in hotels.

At Trio in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Ill., the food is eclectic, to say the least. On any particular night, chef Grant Achatz' menu might include surprises such as Chinese "bubble tea" made with cucumber, crème fraîche, and salmon roe; or Pacific sea urchin with frozen banana, puffed rice, and parsnip milk. Another surprise: The restaurant is in the Homestead, a 90-room hotel.

Today, some of the toughest tables to get are located in hotels. Unlike the stuffy, overpriced hotel restaurants of yesteryear, the new dining options can stand up to the best epicurean eateries. Hoteliers from Las Vegas to New York have lured brand-name chefs and up-and-coming talent to create "destination restaurants." Says Tim Zagat, co-founder of the Zagat Survey: "Having a hot restaurant downstairs makes the rooms upstairs more valuable." He cites Jean Georges, the gastronomic temple of Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York's Trump International Hotel, as an example.

FRESH FROM THE FARM

Whether French, New American, or California Eclectic, the fare being served up at hotels these days is fresh -- often bought at local farmer's markets -- and prepared in innovative ways. Just don't call it hotel food. "That says to me chicken cordon bleu, veal Oscar...what used to be called Continental cuisine," says chef Todd English, whose company, Olive Group, has opened seven hotel restaurants since 1998, including Olives at the W in New York and the Bellagio in Las Vegas. In both of these restaurants, English takes his inspiration from Mediterranean cuisine.

The changes reflect the demands of a more food-savvy clientele. "They want something unique," says Peter Koehler, general manager of the Hotel Palomar in San Francisco. They certainly get that at the Palomar's restaurant, the Fifth Floor. With its zebra-striped decor, this purveyor of "modern French" food is among the Bay Area's top-rated restaurants; its chef, Laurent Gras, graced the October cover of Gourmet magazine.

The boom in boutique hotels during the past decade has also fueled the trend. Hip boutiques, such as Starwood's W chain, have set a new standard with creative menus and artful decor. Now, big hotels are spending millions to hire celebrity chefs and make over their dining spaces. Ritz-Carlton, for example, is moving away from its tradition of generically named dining rooms (The Restaurant or The Grill) with such relative newcomers such as Atélier in New York and Maestro in Washington.

Most of these establishments have a street entrance as well as lobby access. When diners are coming in through both doors, the food must be good.

By Amy Cortese

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