Farewell big bland room, hotel restaurants up their game

Farewell big bland room, hotel restaurants up their game

ByNecia Wilden

The hottest new restaurant in Perth doesn’t have a celebrity chef. It’s not an indie joint with a menu full of foraged and pickled ingredients. It doesn’t have an achingly on-trend drinks list stuffed with natural wines.

The hottest new restaurant in Perth is in a luxury hotel.

Step into Santini, at the newQT Perthin the heart of the city, to see the paradox: if it weren’t for the (glamorous) hotel entrance, you’d swear you were in a standalone restaurant. High design, open kitchen with flickering wood oven, luxe lighting, retro soundtrack, strong service, unfailingly excellent, contemporary Italian/Mediterranean food – and nothing but glowing reviews since it opened in August.

Front of house manager Tina Bryan, at the Santini restaurant in Perth’s QT Hotel. Tony McDonough

On the other side of the country, at theOld Clare Hotel in Sydney’s Chippendale, the breakfast room is no boring buffet staffed by name tag-wearing personnel but the one-hatted hip eatery A1 Canteen, helmed by chef Clayton Wells and just across the laneway. Prefer breakfast in your room? A1 can sort that, too.

Welcome to the new hotel restaurant model. Across Australia, at high-end hotels grand and groovy, the old model – an anonymous “international” space where solo business travellers paid over the odds for a club sandwich or an indifferent steak – is dead or dying. In its place, a new breed of edgy, destination dining rooms aimed at luring locals and foodies as much as in-house guests.

“It’s all about developing a precinct, becoming part of the neighbourhood,” says chef Wells of The Old Clare’s three dining rooms;Automata – one of the restaurantsonthe AFR’s Top 100 Restaurants List– A1 and the newest kid on the block, Barzaari, set within the hotel proper.

“We are all separate, independent restaurants, but at the back end we’re intertwined with the hotel,” he says.

Whether it’s by collaborating with external partners or relaunching their in-house dining rooms, hotel groups from New York to Noosa are scrambling to differentiate themselves from the pack by investing in food and beverage.

“For years the ‘hotel restaurant’ moniker has been a turn-off,” says Betsy Pie of Betsy Pie International Communications, a PR group representing some of the world’s top hotels.

Santini: The hottest new restaurant in Perth is in a luxury hotel. Supplied

“Hotels have had to think outside the box to turn that notion around and gain relevance in a highly competitive and sophisticated dining scene,” she says. “Diners don’t want formal any more. They want fun.”

Big name, big party

A high-profile launch, often with name chef, is part of the strategy. Recent openings? In Brisbane, Hellenika at The Calile Hotel; Three Blue Ducks at The W; in Sydney, Mister Percy (executive chef Justin North) at Ovolo 1888, joining vegan restaurant Alibi at sister property Ovolo Woolloomooloo; in Melbourne, Matilda 159 Domain (chef Scott Pickett) at United Places Botanic Gardens; in Perth, Garum at the Westin, a collaboration with Melbourne’s Guy Grossi of Grossi Florentino; and Santini at QT Perth, joining Gowings Bar & Grill at QT Sydney (chef Grant King) and Pascale Bar & Grill at QT Melbourne.

A strong bar – such as the new Observatory Bar at Langham Sydney – with a high-profile manager is almost invariably part of the package. And coming soon is a big relaunch of the restaurant at Sofitel Darling Harbour, Atelier, just a year after it opened. In a move neatly illustrates the point, it will see the vast and rather characterless dining room transformed into a lively marketplace with theatrical open kitchens, a Josper oven and wood-fired grills.

“It will be classy, casual dining and it will be a la carte, not buffet,” says new chef Eric Costille.

Social Seen: The launch of Mister Percy restaurant in Pyrmont on Tuesday, August 7, 2018. James Ambrose

Dave Baswal, Ovolo Hotels COO and CFO, says the trend started in New York, where lifestyle hotel groups were quick to see the advantage in having a restaurant – and bar – that worked for the locals, too.

At Ovolo Woolloomooloo, this more inclusive, localised approach works both ways: hotel guests dining at nearby restaurants at Woolloomooloo Wharf such as Manta and China Doll can charge their bill back to their room.

“We’re not trying to compete with these restaurants but collaborate with them,” says Baswal.

“People want to vary their dining experiences – they might want Italian one night, seafood the next, vegetarian the next…

Pascale Bar & Grill at QT Melbourne. Simon Schluter

“That’s why we have a restaurant like Alibi at Ovolo W, because guests want different experiences.”

Smart operators realise the hotel dining room is no longer an ancillary offer, says Baswal.

“It must be unique and have its own story. We’re not trying to come up with one concept and then roll it out – that’s the old-school approach.”

Matilda 159 Domain in Melbourne. Tim Grey

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