Hotel Dining Is Suddenly Hip in New York
Pushed by skyrocketing rents and swelling labor costs, marquee restaurateurs like Tom Colicchio, Wolfgang Puck and Keith McNally are opening ambitious hotspots that serve up stars, a scene and a lot more than room service.
New York's financial district used to embody the very definition of "sleepy after sunset," but now walk into the area's new Four Seasons or Beekman hotels, both of which opened in September, and the lobby bars pulse with two of the city's buzziest scenes. At the Four Seasons (99 Church St.), the crowd spills over from Cut, an outpost of Wolfgang Puck's power steak house — and his first proper restaurant in NYC. Like its West Coast sibling, it's a magnet for Hollywood: Leonardo DiCaprio recently visited with buddy Mark Ruffalo; a few nights later, Kate Winslet dropped in. The soaring Beekman hotel (123 Nassau St.), originally built in the 19th century, also is luring names with two hot new restaurants: Fowler & Wells, a gilded American spot from Top Chef host Tom Colicchio; and Augustine, a brasserie from restaurant impresario Keith McNally that serves tweaked Gallic classics like cassoulet ($25) and duck a l'orange ($33) and has already drawn Anna Wintour and Sienna Miller. Also downtown: Le Coucou, chef Daniel Rose's French fine dining temple in the 11 Howard hotel, which opened in June and has since hosted Brad Pitt, Kanye West and Lorne Michaels.
These hotspots are part of a burgeoning trend across New York City in which top restaurateurs partner with a hotel to defray the cost and risk of launching an ambitious eatery. The upside for visitors? They don't have to leave their lodging — or even their room — to sample the city's most coveted food.
McNally has been a trailblazer ever since he opened the Odeon in Tribeca in 1980, followed by, among others, Pastis (which closed in 2014), Balthazar and Minetta Tavern. With his proven ability to create heat, McNally had been offered hotel projects in the past, but he'd always turned them down. The same is true for Colicchio. Like many chefs and restaurant owners, McNally and Colicchio are faced with rising costs, from higher rents (even in off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods) to an increased minimum wage (the state will have a $15 floor by 2018), that eat into the bottom line. McNally says the percentage of his income going to rent has doubled since 2010. And opening a restaurant on one's own is an increasingly daunting process these days, says Don Evans, who produces NYC food events New Taste of the Upper West Side and Art of Food. "To open a nice two-star restaurant used to cost $1 million. Now [restaurateurs] might have to spend over $3 million," he says. "People don't want to put in their own money anymore. Why should they have to go to a bank and spend months trying to raise capital from hedge fund guys if all these hotels are looking for accomplished chefs?"
Partnering with a hotel group allows chefs to create the kind of places they can no longer subsidize by themselves. "I couldn't have built this restaurant on my own; it would have cost millions," says Colicchio of Fowler & Wells. "I looked at the atrium and I thought, 'Jeez, this is unreal! I will be so upset if I walk by and someone else has it.' " Now that he has it, guests like Sarah Jessica Parker flock to his ornate dining room for hearty fare and a tasting menu of updated 19th century classics including lobster thermidor ($155).
Danny Meyer, who famously relocated his legendary Union Square Cafe two blocks north, to 101 E. 19th St., as rents tripled, also enjoys the benefits of this new business model. He owns Maialino, a high-end Roman trattoria in the Gramercy Park Hotel (2 Lexington Ave.), and Marta, a lively spot in the Redbury Hotel (29 E. 29th St.) known for its super-thin pizzas ($18 to $25). "Union Square Hospitality Group would not have been able to operate a restaurant in an iconic location like Gramercy Park, or market to the international clientele that the hotel reaches," he says.
Such arrangements have had a big upside for hotels, too, as their dining rooms morph from formal afterthoughts to some of New York's most compelling destinations. "We are all trying to appeal to a millennial demographic that doesn't want to see the old-style stuffiness of a fine dining restaurant," says Puck, who's hitting the mark, hosting designer Marc Jacobs and photographers Steven Klein and Steven Meisel for dinner, and rock band Kings of Leon for breakfast, with beer.
Colicchio concurs that his symbiotic partnership with the Beekman works well. "Hotel operators have realized that they don't do a great job operating restaurants; their dining wasn't that exciting. They are willing to pick up building costs, and we can afford the labor because we are also doing banquets. It's a different relationship than with a landlord; with a hotel you can pay percentage rents [based on sales]," he says. Meyer adds: "In the past, many hotel restaurants were meant to satisfy hotel guests and were operated as a necessary, loss-leading amenity," he notes. "Now hotel restaurants are most often used to activate a space, advance the brand and attract non-hotel guests."
Bruce Bromberg, who opened the first of multiple Blue Ribbon restaurants in 1992, and is readying a Blue Ribbon Federal Grill in FiDi's upcoming AKA, says the first time he was offered a hotel restaurant — Blue Ribbon Sushi in 6 Columbus Hotel (308 W. 58th St.) in 2006 — he couldn't believe his luck. "There was nothing more exciting than someone offering to do a build-out after financing ourselves for so many years," he says. At that point, hotel restaurants weren't the trendy destinations they are now. "It was much riskier; we had so much stress about entering through a lobby because it wasn't hip then, but now people love hanging out in hotels."
Restaurateur John McDonald, who has five New York hotspots including SoHo's Lure Fishbar, which Meghan Trainor recently dubbed "the greatest restaurant of all time," and the East Village's Bowery Meat Company, a favorite of couple Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, says that bold-faced restaurants like his bring PR opportunities to hotels. He opened Italian eatery Sessanta in the Sixty SoHo hotel (60 Thompson St.) last year, and already has brought in George Clooney, Jeremy Piven and Dakota Fanning. Says McDonald, "Having a restaurant that attracts celebrities gives the hotel a reason to be in the press on a regular basis."
That clearly is the case with Tim and Nancy Cushman, who opened two spots in the Park South Hotel (124 E. 28th St.) this summer: Mediterranean eatery Corvina and sushi spot O Ya, where an 18-course omakase menu runs $185. After Jennifer Lawrence and Martha Stewart popped in, and Blake Lively hosted a 40th birthday party (including a Deadpool-themed cake) for husband Ryan Reynolds — complete with an Instagram captioned, "We stay in love at your restaurant in NY!" — the hotel received massive attention. Says Lee Jacobs, director of sales and marketing at the NoMo SoHo (9 Crosby St.), where NoMo Kitchen's awe-inspiring glass atrium is a focal point: "Hotel bookings absolutely increased as a result of having a prime restaurant."
Of course, not all hotels are a good fit for in-demand restaurateurs. McDonald says he turned down many offers before partnering with Sixty SoHo. "I had so many hotels asking me to do projects, and it's very attractive if your aesthetic and style are in sync," he says. "But if you are not in a premium hotel and the location isn't great, it could be horrible." Charles Masson, who ran his family's opulent La Grenouille for 40 years, serving everyone from Frank Sinatra to Mick Jagger, exited to open a French restaurant in midtown's luxurious Baccarat Hotel (28 W. 53rd St.) last year; the marriage lasted one month. But that hasn't soured him on the perks of partnering with a hotel, and he'll soon open an upscale, Moroccan-influenced outpost called Majorelle in the Lowell hotel (28 E. 63rd St.).
Even in the best hotel partnerships, chefs must make adjustments. "Room service was a pretty big shock to us," sighs Bromberg. "Guests are stumbling into the kitchen and asking for things at all hours. We've had requests for a kilo of caviar at 4 a.m., which is a tough thing to hold in your fridge." Andrew Carmellini, the chef-partner at Robert De Niro's Greenwich Hotel, who just opened the Southern Italian spot Leuca in Brooklyn's William Vale (111 N. 12th St.), says these partnerships take compromise. "At my regular restaurants like The Dutch, there is more of my vision," he says. "With a hotel, you can't say you won't change your dish for a guest." Last year, when Carmellini presented an elegant New Year's Eve feast, a couple staying upstairs arrived at their table in bathrobes. "I didn't love it," sighs Carmellini, "but they were paying $1,000 a night for their room and we wanted them to be happy."
This story first appeared in the Dec. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.