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Luxury Hotels Fine-tuning Fine Dining as Nearly Two-thirds of Hotel Visitors
Want a Restaurant that's 'Comfortable and Relaxing'

By Kathy Bergen and Phil Vettel, Chicago TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 10, 2012--Just three months ago, Danny Grant, executive chef of RIA, the highly acclaimed restaurant inside the Waldorf Astoria Chicago, was the only Chicagoan to make Food & Wine magazine's list of the nation's top 10 new chefs. On July 27, the Gold Coast hotel will pull the plug on RIA.

RIA is the latest casualty in luxury hotel fine dining, as the toniest inns in the Windy City and across the nation shift gears. In many cases, hotels are trading in cut crystal, white tablecloths and prix fixe menus offering the likes of foie gras and chopped truffles for a more casual ambience and down-to-earth foods, from small-plate nibbles to platters of steaks.

Within the past year, the Peninsula Chicago closed its flagship restaurant Avenues, keeping three diverse dining offerings and starting construction on a junior ballroom; French-international NoMI at the Park Hyatt was reinvented as the less-formal, more American NoMI Kitchen; and the Four Seasons converted its elegant, wood-paneled Seasons into private event space with views of Lake Michigan and created Allium, with seasonal American fare.

The aim with Allium was for "something fun and approachable but driven by Chicago," said Kevin Hickey, the hotel's executive chef.

Nationwide, the hotel restaurant market's growth lies with 25- to 35-year-old diners, whose interests are "more bistro, small plates and tapas bars," said Dick Williams, president of HVS Food & Beverage Services. Meanwhile, the 45- to 55-year-old group is gravitating toward steakhouses, several observers said, with known chefs and brands proving to be big draws.

Nearly two-thirds of hotel visitors want a restaurant that's "comfortable and relaxing," according to a study by Technomic, a Chicago-based restaurant consulting and research firm.

"Classically fine dining is terrific if you can find me classically fine diners, but I can't," said Laurence Geller, president and chief executive officer of Strategic Hotels & Resorts, a hotel investment firm that is moving dining offerings toward the newer trends.

Chef Michael Minas' Bourbon Steak, at Strategic's Four Seasons in Washington, is pulling in $10 million in annual revenue, compared with $3 million at the hotel's previous "fuddy-duddy restaurant," as Geller put it. And the Michael Jordan's Steak House that opened last year at the InterContinental Chicago is performing at twice expectations, he said.

There are those bucking the broader trend, even in the hypercompetitive Chicago restaurant market, including the reinvented Pump Room at Public Chicago, an Ian Schrager hotel. The reopened Pump Room turned the city's epitome of old-school leisurely dining on its head with a dramatically redesigned dining room and menu.

"The Pump Room has very cleverly taken the past and made it the present," said Doug Roth, development partner at 3 Sixty Dining Intelligence, a Chicago-based consulting firm. "And it's not inexpensive. It's a place people want to be and that people feel good in."

And Sixteen, a restaurant on the 16th floor of the Trump Hotel, with highly regarded chef Thomas Lents, French-inspired American cuisine and spectacular views of some architectural gems, "is a profitably successful" restaurant, said T. Colm O'Callaghan, managing director.

"I work for Donald Trump, and he doesn't want to hear not making money," O'Callaghan said.

The Waldorf Astoria said it is closing RIA as part of a repositioning of its food and beverage options. Its casual restaurant will remain open and new dining plans will be announced in coming months, it said, declining further comment.

Historically, hotels have had a difficult time making fine-dining offerings profitable, in part because they often must be kept open long hours, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And hotel employees often have better pay and benefits than workers at stand-alone restaurants. Usually, experts say, the tony establishments are subsidized by more highly profitable banquet operations.

The Peninsula, which operates The Lobby, Shanghai Terrace and Pierrot Gourmet, is converting the Avenues space to a junior ballroom, which is expected to open this fall.

"Honestly, when we looked at the finances, it made more sense," said Marc Anderson, director of marketing. "It has phenomenal views, it's private, and we still have three restaurants to meet all our customers' needs."

The Four Seasons reports strong interest in private event space with panache.

"Typically, these formal dining rooms all have a lot of character," said Michele Grosso, general manager.

But Schrager is resisting the trend, arguing that a great restaurant will do more over time to draw guests to a hotel.

"When you're in the hotel business, your promise to the guests is room and board," he said. "When you have a great restaurant, it helps the hotel, helps hotel occupancy and helps your rates."

kbergen@tribune.com

pvettel@tribune.com

twitter@kathy_bergen

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(c)2012 the Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services



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