After a quick nap on 400-count sheets, you catch the latest news on the 42-inch plasma TV, take a hot shower in the marble "bath environment," get dressed and head downstairs for a six-course tasting menu that's getting rave reviews—from the few that can score a table. Isn't it nice to have the hottest restaurant in town only an elevator ride away? These days, that's often the case.
Hotel dining has gotten a boost in the past few years, emerging from its stuffy, conservative past to become the foremost arena for innovative cuisine. Upscale hotel groups like the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton have implemented the formula of award-winning in-house restaurants for years, but now it seems like every new hotel ensures its status among foodies with a celebrity chef-helmed restaurant. Or three.
Food writer Steven A. Shaw, author of Turning the Tables, believes this trend actually recalls the hotel industry's earlier years. "Hotels and restaurants have gone hand in hand since the days of Escoffier and the Ritz. In the 1970s and 1980s, hotel dining took a nosedive and became largely generic, while the interesting new chefs and restaurants operated mostly outside the hotel arena."
Still, many of the country's most distinguished restaurants, like The French Laundry, are independent spaces, but the days of notable new standalones may be numbered. The Vice President of The James Beard Foundation, Mitchell Davis, laments the "rising operating costs of running a restaurant that sadly make freestanding, independent, fine-dining restaurants less and less viable as business enterprises." He points out that hotels can defray some of operating costs, and therefore can open bigger and better venues.
Although stalwart epicurean destinations like Jean-Georges at the have been around for ages, many of the most exciting new restaurants are opening within hotels. For instance, the 2006 opening of New York's London Hotel received a swarm of buzz from its restaurant, the first of Gordon Ramsay's empire to cross the pond. Also, Alain Ducasse's much-anticipated restaurant Adour, opening this summer, may breathe new life into the venerable New York, which kick-started the movement in the '90s with its celebrated restaurant, Lespinasse.
Albert Herrera, Vice President of Hotels and Resorts for Virtuoso, a collection of upscale travel agencies, said that many hotels are recruiting big-name chefs in order to ensure that guests are spending their time and money on the premises. "Fine hotel dining is a must to compete in the high-end arena," he said Mitchell Davis agrees that a hard-to-get table benefits the whole establishment: "They can attract visitors to the hotel, they help bring locals into the property, they command higher prices for banquets and special events, and they make the hotel a hot commodity in the style-making arena."
It's no coincidence that many of the top New York hotels house highly acclaimed restaurants. The city is, after all, a major travel destination and the nation's foremost food capital. But another legendary foodie scene, , with eateries like Ame at the St. Regis, is also making its mark. Then cities like and , with plenty of hungry tourists, are also becoming trendsetters in hotel dining. For example, and the , both in Miami, receive high marks for their restaurants. Meanwhile, Citronelle at in D.C. just won two James Beard awards.
So are the reputations of the restaurants themselves enough to book hotel reservations? After all, there are so many factors that go into choosing a place to stay, from location to price, but for some die-hard foodies, the preference that hotel guests receive when dining at the property's exclusive restaurant may be enough. As Washington Post food critic, Phyllis Richman, said, "If I want a reservation at an over-popular hotel restaurant, I might then book its hotel."
For instance, the Wynn Las Vegas , where the full-service casino model lends itself well to dramatic hotel dining. While many critics deride the celebrity chef craze, claiming that the chefs are never onsite, Herrera believes Steve Wynn contradicts the stereotype: "He has developed chefs to be the benchmark," he said. And with 11 recognizable names, from Daniel Boulud to Alessandro Strata, at the helm of its respectable restaurants, the Wynn is a foodie's paradise. Atlantic City (an unlikely location for gourmands to flock to) tries to employ the Vegas model, but only the Borgata succeeds. It has carefully cultivated its fine-dining repertoire by recruiting two one-time Iron Chefs, Wolfgang Puck and Bobby Flay; Flay's very first steakhouse is now the resort's mainstay.
After asking a panel of food and travel experts for their take on the top hotel dining, we noticed that while most of the picks were in cities and tourist spots, a few are in more unexpected places, like the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., in Memphis, and the Montage in Laguna Beach. These out-of-the-way properties have the cache of being destinations, adding to the travel experience as a whole. And of course a hotel stay can be made memorable by special details that include food. Richman warmly recalls the room service at Seattle's Inn at the Market: "I'd wake up to watch Pike Place Market open up, breakfasting on room service from the little health food cafe below."
Now that hotel restaurants are shrugging off their dowdy reputations, some travelers are still getting used to the idea of "staying in." Slashfood.com blogger Sarah Gim remembers an astonishing meal at San Francisco's Cortez when she stayed at Hotel Adagio: "We had just gotten in, and too tired to go anywhere else, we ate in the hotel restaurant. We were, obviously, surprised by it."
With picks from six food and travel experts, we've put together a list of 15 of the top foodie hotels—so you can anticipate an amazing meal in addition to a wonderful night's sleep.