Do hotel restaurants in Chicago stand a chance?
Will we ever see this dining room again?
On Saturday night,—the flagship restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel—will serve a final dinner before closing for an indeterminable amount of time. When the restaurant reopens, it will have a new chef (Curtis Duffy having moved on to his new restaurant in the West Loop), and possibly a new concept, new room...who knows, maybe a new name.
A few blocks south, another hotel restaurant is about to close. Eater breaks the news this morning that , the best restaurant in the Wit Hotel, will close on September 10th and might reemerge as a steakhouse. (At least, I think that's what the Wit has told Eater. The Wit's Scott Greenberg is pretty vague about the hotel's plans, saying only that he sees "a lot of opportunity," that he will "take advantage of these opportunities," and that he's "always weighing different opportunities." At the Wit, opportunity is apparently in high supply.)
I'm tempted to call two hotel restaurants reconcepting a coincidence, but the more I think about it, the more I think hotel restaurants climb an uphill battle in this town. Recentlywith relatively new chefs, and . At both restaurants, I encountered solid food and sparsely populated dining rooms. I felt particularly worried for Lockwood, where the seasonal food seems to go unhyped for no reason other than its location. Think about it: When is the last time you thought of the Palmer House Hilton as a dining destination?
For that matter, when's the last time you thought of any hotel that way? Hotel restuarants go one of two ways: They go the premium, upscale route, a road that, if the news coming out of Avenues andis any indication (NoMI just ), is not serving them well in TTET (These Tough Economic Times—didn't you know?). The other route is to go more midscale, an option that is hard to get Chicago diners excited about, because no matter how good the burgers/flatbreads/salads of , or , are, it still seems, at the end of the day, like safe food for tourists.
Other cities seem to have found a solution to this problem. They install known chefs in their restaurant spaces, and they keep the restaurants on the first floor (Avenues, NoMI, Cibo Matto—these are all on the second floor or higher). Here, you can see that formula in action at the James, where the Ace, or the Hotel San Jose, here—and few hotels like it on the horizon. Thus our hotel restaurants are already carved out in the big and pricey (or midscale and touristy) spaces we've become accustomed to. Accustomed to not visiting very often, that is., which was originally associated with David Burke (now most people know that Rick Gresh is the man in the house), enjoys some cachet. But Chicago has few hotels of the James' size—there's nothing here like
I look forward to what the Peninsula will come up with for Avenues. And I hope that Cibo Matto actually does turn into some sort of restaurant I can visit, because, and frankly, I can't stand the thought of having to go to State & Lake to get them. And in the wake of all this hotel restraurant news, I'm now more curious than ever about how will fare. Chicago let the iconic restaurant falter once already, despite the fact that , there was some really innovative food happening in that kitchen. Can an Ian Schrager makeover get people into that sleepy corner of the Gold Coast? It probably seems like a no-brainer to a tourist like Schrager. What he may not realize is that, in Chicago, hotel restaurants are harder than conventional wisdom would suggest.