Reflecting on Kimpton’s historic highlights and how they helped redefine hotel restaurants.
Alex Taylor, Kimpton’s senior VP of restaurants and bars, has been with the brand for just over two years, but he’s a longtime observer of Kimpton’s groundbreaking restaurant ventures and their impact on the hotel industry over the past 35 years. Before joining Kimpton, Taylor worked for more than a decade in Las Vegas and witnessed the culinary scene take off there in the early 2000s. Here, Taylor explains how Sin City’s gastronomic growth might have been different without the foundation laid by Kimpton, how hotels can shake the dreaded “amenity” tag plaguing many dining operations, and what’s next for Kimpton’s forward-thinking F&B.
Hotel F&B: What are some of Kimpton’s milestone restaurant moments, and how have they impacted the hotel industry?
Taylor: Our founder, Bill Kimpton, believed there should be a hard line between the hotel and restaurant in how it’s concepted, managed, and operated, right down to the financials. He thought the restaurant should focus on locals first, and be located whenever possible adjacent to the property with a separate entrance—just like an independent restaurant.
Those elements attracted creative culinary talent, and in 1983, Mr. Kimpton partnered with Chef Masa Kobayashi for the four-star Masa’s at the Hotel Vintage Court in San Francisco—a legendary restaurant in that city and the first notable Kimpton venture. Unfortunately Masa died tragically before he could enjoy any of that success, but the restaurant carried on at the highest level with Chef Julian Serrano, who we’ll come back to later.
Another milestone is when Chef George Morrone, who previously had a four-star restaurant in San Francisco called Aqua, opened Fifth Floor at Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar in San Francisco in 1999 and gained a four-star review from The San Francisco Chronicle. Morrone is the only chef to have four-star reviews for two different restaurants from the Chronicle, and today he’s Kimpton’s director of culinary development.
Kimpton was also the first hotel company to partner with a celebrity chef when Wolfgang Puck opened Postrio at the Prescott Hotel (San Francisco) in 1989. He was coming into his own as a superpower in the culinary world at the time with Spago and Chinois on Main and was the first real celebrity chef in a hotel—way before anything in Las Vegas, until Jean-Louis Palladin opened Napa at the Rio in 1997.
In 1998, Chef Serrano was wooed away from Masa’s by Steve Wynn to open Bellagio, and to me, that’s the most obvious and direct link of Las Vegas taking a page out of Kimpton’s book as far as hiring signature chefs to run incredible restaurants at a hotel. After Bellagio opened, all bets were off, and the culinary scene exploded in Vegas.
Hotel F&B: Kimpton pioneered the template for relevant, profitable restaurants in hotels as far back as the early ‘80s, yet much of the industry is still slow to embrace that model. Why?
Taylor: If you look at many of the best restaurants in hotels, they’re often created by third-party operators or F&B-focused management companies that are thinking, acting, and behaving like an independent restaurant company.
Sometimes, brand standards can interfere with that independent vision. It can be something as simple as requiring restaurant staff to wear nametags because the rest of the hotel wears them. It can be soul-crushing for a great chef or GM to not hire the talent they want because those candidates refuse to wear nametags. It might seem like an insignificant detail, but it matters.
When Kimpton talks about its restaurant competition, we’re talking about the Sam Fox Restaurant Group, or the Starr Restaurant Group, or Lettuce Entertain You Restaurants. We’re talking about the independent bars and restaurants surrounding each property. That’s the mentality you need, because if you’re thinking, “I want a better restaurant than ABC hotel brand down the street,” you’ve already lost.
Many hotel restaurants are behind the curve because they play it too safe. That’s when you end up with a menu of what we call “weary traveler” food. All the usual uninspired items you see on countless hotel menus.
Of course we have a hamburger on the menu, and we’ll offer a familiar breakfast dish such as two eggs, bacon, and potatoes, but those are exceptions. We’ll also have foie gras pancakes, and creative, seasonal takes on a quinoa breakfast bowl, or even our version of steel-cut oatmeal with ingredients you won’t see on any by-the-numbers breakfast menu.
Our inhouse guests expect to see about 80% locals in our bars and restaurants. They want to be in an exciting environment. That gives us license to be creative and take more risk than a typical hotel F&B operation, because we’re not shackled with a “weary traveler” menu.
Hotel F&B: Kimpton operates their restaurants independently from the hotel, yet they’re still part of a Kimpton property. What are the advantages to that?
Taylor: It always helps a restaurant when you have a few hundred rooms occupied above your head, as long as that restaurant is attractive to locals and therefore enticing to the guest. Otherwise, it’s crickets at dinner. If we do our job and create a relevant concept, and you give me a full hotel on top of it? Yes, I’ll take that over just a stand-alone restaurant without those resources.
Hotel F&B: What are Kimpton’s latest F&B initiatives?
Taylor: We’re emphasizing activated spaces more than ever. One example is Double Take at the Hotel Palomar in Beverly Hills. We have a gaming experience there with Skee-Ball, darts, pool, and more; amazing cocktails; and fun takes on bar food, in a cozy space that looks a bit like a Hollywood soundstage.
In Chicago we have our thriving rooftop bar Boleo at the Gray Hotel, with a retractable roof, Argentinian and Peruvian street food, and live music. And we have our first property outside the States in the Cayman Islands, Seafire Resort & Spa, where we have Avecita and a 12-seat chef’s counter with a two-month waiting list.
We believe the right music is crucial to activating any space, so we have a national director of music programming that oversees music for all our restaurants, bars, and public spaces in the hotels, as well as live music at places such as Geraldine’s in Austin at the Hotel Van Zandt. We also recently had a cookout and pop-up concert on the beach at Seafire Resort with Toots & the Maytals that drew more than 1,000 people.
Finally, going back to what we talked about initially, we’re still committed to creating an environment that attracts top culinary talent, which includes our new Aertson Hotel in Nashville, where James Beard Award-winning chef R. J. Cooper will run our restaurant Henley. And Sammy DeMarco—creator of the comfort food movement in the early ‘90s with his First restaurant in New York City—moved his whole family to Amsterdam to oversee our Wyers restaurant at the Kimpton DeWitt, our first European hotel.
What defines Kimpton, from when Bill opened our first restaurant more than 30 years ago to what we’re doing today, is our culture. We still focus on the local community and empower our chefs and GMs to make the same decisions that independent restaurants make every day.