Letting the Banquet End: Reclaiming Spaces in Modern Hotels

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
July 2014

 

Banquet halls have their place in hospitality. They provide grand, cavernous settings for weddings, quinceaneras, work-mandated motivational seminars, and the like. But in modern hotel culture, banquet halls—not to mention one-note lobbies and stodgy fine dining exclusivity—are going the way of the flip phone. This is not Conrad Hilton’s hospitality industry. Rents are rising, restaurant culture is becoming more casual, and the overall economic landscape is, at best, in flux. Even within the upscale culture of large hotels, luxury must mean something more creative and accessible than it has in the past—sometimes literally accessible.

“It’s hard to get anyone to a fifth floor restaurant,” says David Bazirgan, former executive chef of Fifth Floor at San Francisco’s Hotel Palomar  “There’s no visibility on the street. Being in a hotel and in our location, with no visibility, getting walk-ins was really a challenge. And being a fine-dining restaurant, you have to rely on reservations. It was a challenge filling seats.” Despite its location, Fifth Floor had a stellar run. However, when new owners came on board in October 2012, Bazirgan was ready for a change. “They started looking at the business model, the options and possibilities, working on concepts to get more people up to the fifth floor.”

 SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

 SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

 SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

 SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

 SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

SLS Beverly Hills – Los Angeles, CA

 

The new owners weren’t just solving one specific Fifth Floor problem. They were helping The Hotel Palomar usher in a new era of democratized dining options and to compete with economically appealing alternative lodging option such as Airbnb—an era where the grandeur of The Plaza Hotel could also be home to a bustling food hall for the masses. Modern hospitality doesn’t just set a bar and wait for guests and diners to jump. It curries favor, maneuvers around economic hardship, appeals to a wider audience who want more choices.

At the Manadarin Oriental in San Francisco, they reclaimed their former fine-dining space and transformed it into new spaces: the California Room and the Galleria. The kitchen was kept intact and continues to serve the more casual Brasserie S&P. In 2015, the Mandarin plan to offer "Forage and Feast" cooking classes with Executive Chef Adam Mali, incorporating visits to the Ferry Building Farmers Market.

The 6-year-old SLS in Beverly Hills, a mod-luxe hotel if ever there was one, is self-proclaimed as “challenging every tradition of luxury hospitality.” It’s Parisian designer, Philippe Starck, is a forerunner of the boutique hotel movement with a keen interest in “the democratization of design.” Starck’s concept for the Beverly Hills SLS was in line with the trend of redefinition and the upheaval within the hotel industry—or what he might call mutation—including a “dual” guest lobby concept that combined the traditional guest interface with a multifaceted public dining space. Both Tres by José Andrés and Saam offer multiple dining options. There's also a dessert bar in the lobby—easy access for sugar fiends and for satisfying that fleeting craving for something sweet.

On the same floor, but with a separate entrance, is another multifaceted project, The Bazaar by José Andrés (a chef who’s more than game to the creative demands of diversification). “Chef Andrés created an array of dining concepts within the space that anchor the restaurant,” says Anna Wilhelmson of BullFrog & Baum, referring to the space’s cocktail bar, pâtisserie, tapas restaurant, chef’s tasting room, and terrace bar (offering the full menu, tapas, and cigars). “While set in one space, areas are given their own color palette, vibe, and décor so dining experiences weave together.” Imagine opening a restaurant—or transforming an under-used hospitality space, say a lobby—and appealing to three of four kinds of diners instead of just one or two. That’s how the SLS works.

It’s also how Fifth Floor emerged as the new Dirty Habit, a diversification of the old format complete with a main dining area, bar and patio seating, and a private dining area with movable partitions. The patio alone had long been a goal for Bazirgan. “We had an outdoor area off the main dining room that was basically gravel and planters, our herb garden for cooking,” he says. “I’d been pitching it to the first owners, second owners, ‘We need to get seating in the patio, let’s make this happen!’” Now the patio’s not only populated—“a 50 to 60 seat patio, packed every night”—it’s part of a dining structure that allows maximum flexibility and maximum seating. A recent reception for 130 people took over the two back rooms. “That left us the bar area and front room to seat for regular dining. So we can do a reception for 130, but still have the restaurant open at the same time.”

Beyond the fiscal payoffs, “volume has [also] increased tremendously, with no real increase in cost or staff,” says Bazirgan. There are creative payoffs, as well. If traditional hotel dining fosters repetitions of luxury, modern hospitality trades on variety. The Plaza has its Food Hall’s 17 kiosks as well as the European-style Todd English Food Hall, a high-end food market with nine distinct stations and a private dining room. And SLS stacks variety on variety, with both Tres and The Bazaar, plus the many iterations of Andrés-esque creativity therein. At Dirty Habit, Bazirgan helms a more casual creativity ($40 check average, compared to Fifth Floor’s $110), with greater flexibility of menu, anchored on smaller plates, and an extensive drinks list.

“We’re cooking from the heart,” he says. “We’re just leaving out the seriousness of things like plating. Of course we still care about that, but we’re spending less time hovering over the plate.” That’s a major appeal for Bazirgan, especially in this stage of his career. “That was the biggest thing for me. I wanted a place that was a lot of fun.”

It might be fun, but it’s also a good blueprint for anyone looking to do the same. “It’s a better-structured business model,” says Bazirgan. “San Francisco’s a really hard place to do business. You have to be really careful about how you design your business here.” And while rent, food costs, and broader trends might dictate some of the market, a far more casual factor is at play in this kind of diversification. “What I’ve seen in the last year or two is people just wanna come in and have some drinks and share some food,” says Bazirgan. In the context of modern hotels and erstwhile banquet halls, the space that creatively caters to the most, wins.