For years experienced travelers have stayed away from hotel restaurants, preferring the local place “around the corner” or even, yuck, fast food. This unfortunate trend was started in the 50s when roadside motels became “hotels” thanks to innovations by Holiday Inn and other chains.
Before the ubiquitous chains came along, most cities had one or more Grand Hotels and a bunch of motels, guest houses and inns. Basically you had to pay a lot to have the assurance of a clean, safe room. Of course there was always a good restaurant on-site at the big hotel. If you could not afford the Grand, you accepted the risk of filthy rooms, bed bugs, etc. and food was the last of your concerns. When the chains expanded to fill this void, a restaurant in the lobby was a necessity, and the most common choice was, well, a coffee shop.
Fast forward to 1995. When Ian Shrager pioneered the boutique hotel (defined as an under 100-room luxury facility in a unique or intimate setting, and with high end service), one of the defining characteristics was to have a high-end, chic restaurant at the lobby, returning to the Grand Hotel tradition. Today, all the large chains have a boutique brand (like W, or Edition by Marriott) and they, too, have a nice restaurant serving their guests and the surrounding community. There are too many to count. Our local favorite is NINETHIRTY at the W Westwood, across the street from UCLA—go Bruins!
The dining room at NINETHIRTY at the W Westwood
Meanwhile in Europe, every decent country hotel has always had quality food on premises. After all, what’s the point of going to the countryside if you can’t relax, eat and drink? In France, particularly, many Michelin one- and two-star restaurants are within the premises of a small country hotel. One of my most memorable dinners ever was at the one-star La Bonne Etape in Chateaux Arnoux.
The dining room at La Bonne Etape
After eating at LBE I tried and failed to get reservations at Alain Ducasse’s legendary “La Bastide de Moustiers”… Still hoping to make it one of these days. Check the video here.
La Bastide de Moustiers
Another hotel restaurant worth a special trip is Trattoria Toscana (also Michelin one-star) at L’Andana, also by Ducasse but this time in Tuscany. Coincidentally, L’Andana, like Ponte Vineyard Inn, was also elected one of the top-ten vineyard hotels in the world by American Express.
Not sure what this is but I bet it’s…delicious. From Ducasse’s Trattoria Toscana
After that trip, I promised myself that Ponte Vineyard Inn had to have high end food. Bouquet is our version of what a first-class country hotel restaurant should be. First, it should be small and intimate, less than 60 seats. Second, the food should reflect the personality of the owner or the chef. Riccardo Cuccaro was born and raised in Positano, the crown jewel of the Amalfi coast in southern Italy. With due respect to the French, the Spaniards and the Japanese, I think southern Italians are the masters of seafood. Riccardo’s recipes, refined over generations, are perfect for our fresh ingredients, our fresh seafood and our weather. When I taste his seabass en-papillotte it brings tears to my eyes. Third, the service should be transparent. We hate restaurants where the help is so over the top that they become a distraction. Veronika, Mario and crew are efficient, friendly and helpful.
So the answer is, yes, a hotel restaurant can be not only good, it can be excellent! Too bad Michelin doesn’t rate restaurants in SoCal, or, who knows? Maybe a star?