Casual Creativity

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WITH DINERS DEMANDING HIGH-QUALITY FOOD AND DRINKS IN A FUN ATMOSPHERE, HOTELS ARE EXPERIMENTING WITH GASTROPUB-STYLE EATERIES.

When W Atlanta – Buckhead debuted Cook Hall last December, the “modern gastropub” — which promises an innovative bar program as well as a contemporary take on traditional American comfort food — set a rather lofty goal. “Cook Hall was designed to lead the way on the future of ‘social dining,’” proclaims James Gersten, president of New York City based Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group, the creative and strategic firm behind Cook Hall.

The outlet works to achieve its ambitious aim not only through menu items such as duck tacos and pimiento mac and cheese — not to mention handcrafted cocktails — but via a lighthearted tabletop approach featuring locally sourced vintage glassware, blue-and-white enamel plates created by artisans in California and a “Toolbox” at each table filled with all the utensils guests might need. “At its core, Cook Hall empowers the guest, allowing for fewer interruptions and more shared experiences,” Gersten says. “The Cook Hall concept is on the vanguard of a more innovative and less traditional approach to F&B.”

Indeed, while the gastropub concept is far from new, it is experiencing a renaissance of sorts across the dining landscape — presenting hoteliers with distinctive challenges and opportunities to use unique tabletop schemes to add to the ambience, not to mention drive revenue.

“People’s lifestyles have changed dramatically,” confirms Steven Kamali, principal at New York City-based consultancy Steven Kamali Hospitality. “Gastropubs allow you to have an incredible meal, but in a fun manner.”

“Diners are kind of tired of eating general restaurant-type food,” adds Thomas Haas, vice president of F&B for Noble House Hotels & Resorts, Seattle. “A gastropub is a more casual concept that has a lower check average, but it attracts a higher cover count in general, so you’re getting more butts into the seats and more traffic.”

MANY HATS

The hotel gastropub is much more than just a spot to grab a beer and a burger, as many such outlets are all-day dining venues serving everything from brews to breakfast. Accordingly, tabletops and the tables themselves must reflect this versatility.

The Brew at Kerry Hotel Pudong, Shanghai offers a mix of high bar tables, low seating and even cocktail tables made from old tree trunks, notes Director of Food & Beverage Michael Huang. “Our tables and tabletop items are easily moveable and combinable, which gives us the ability to cater to the particular request at hand,” Huang adds. “We even have the option of converting our billiard table into a buffet table when needed.”

Similarly, Cook Hall at W Atlanta – Buckhead can create a variety of configurations with its small tables, and the absence of table linens adds to the flexibility, says James Gersten, president of New York City-based Culinary Concepts Hospitality Group, the creative and strategic firm behind Cook Hall.

Sometimes adapting a gastropub from day to night is a relatively simple affair. Beacon Public House at the Commons Hotel Minneapolis serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but Thomas Haas, vice president of F&B for Seattle based Noble House Hotels & Resorts, which manages the hotel, explains a candleholder is the only piece that is added to tables in the evening. “There is no higher science behind that — it is so simple and basic,” Haas says.

Corey Nyman, director of operations at Las Vegas based consultancy The Nyman Group, agrees that simple accent pieces — a crock of jam at breakfast or a glass bottle with house-made pepper sauce for lunch and dinner, for example — often are the best means for transitioning the gastropub among meal periods. “These little tweaks help you know where you are and at the same time say, ‘Wait a minute — that’s a little different,’” Nyman says.

KEEPING IT SIMPLE

Tavern, the new gastropub at The Sky Lodge in Park City, Utah, knows what it is — and what it is not. Director of Food and Beverage Lawrence Acedo explains Tavern’s focus is on offering a high-quality menu to the après ski crowd, and the absence of elaborate centerpieces and table linens allows room for bulky ski gear and keeps diners’ attention where it belongs. “Our idea was a minimalist approach, so the focus is more on the experience than an overdone dining environment,” Acedo says.

Darby’s Bar at The Lodge at Doonbeg in County Clare, Ireland, also strives to convey a casual atmosphere through a similar tabletop approach. “Our tabletop items are made up of neutral color schemes with natural, rustic materials,” says Edward O’Dwyer, food and beverage operations manager at The Lodge at Doonbeg. “They were chosen to reflect the overall relaxed, calm atmosphere. We feel that what stands out is the quality of ware and cutlery used, which are simple and neutral, yet robust.”

Tabletops at Beacon Public House at the Commons Hotel Minneapolis follow the gastropub’s rustic overall theme. Elements include wood-top tables sans tablecloths, 100% cotton dishtowels in lieu of polyblend napkins, old-fashioned glass water bottles and simple candleholders. The broader approach, however, hearkens back to the origins of the hotel industry, according to Thomas Haas, vice president of F&B for Seattle-based Noble House Hotels & Resorts, which manages the hotel. “The idea was to be informal, approachable and familiar,” Haas says. “The whole gastropub theme is really a throwback to the origins of the hospitality business, where the innkeeper and his wife had a roadside inn to welcome travelers and locals.”

FOCUS ON FUN

Robert Wiedmaier, chef and owner of Mussel Bar & Grille at Revel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, had a very specific vision for the concept. Since the restaurant is part of a casino, he wanted it to exude fun in addition to reflecting his somewhat irreverent personality. Wiedmaier knew white tablecloths weren’t the ticket, so instead his tabletops incorporate art, such as a lion on the restaurant’s chef’s table. Sandwiches, charcuterie and cheeses are served on wooden or slate boards, and mussels are delivered to the table in a steaming cast-iron pan.

“The restaurant is loud,” Wiedmaier explains. “You’re basically sitting in the kitchen. So tableware is not about, ‘Did I pick up the right fork?’ It’s there to eat really well prepared food, have an engaging time with your friends and watch the culinary show.”

The Brew at Kerry Hotel Pudong, Shanghai also uses a variety of serving options to showcase individual dishes, such as pizzas delivered on heavy cast-iron plates. Given the outlet’s name, it’s not surprising glassware is another point of emphasis. The gastropub uses double walled, custom-made glasses in seven shapes and sizes designed to keep beer cold without condensation during the warmer months.

Cook Hall at W Atlanta – Buckhead emphasizes guest engagement in the dining experience, and one way it achieves that is by offering a “Cocktail Kit.” A comprehensive basket delivered to the table provides everything diners need to be their own mixologists.

Although it may not appeal to everyone, one of the more ubiquitous gastropub elements designed to lend itself to fun is the communal table. Twenty-Two Storys, the gastropub at Hyatt Regency Atlanta, features not one, but two such seating options. “We purposefully designed the space with two large tables that seat 16 guests,” says Assistant Food and Beverage Director Dan Fiss. “They can accommodate one large group or two, three or four smaller groups. Either way, the groups end up interacting with each other, which is what we intended.”

BEYOND THE GASTROPUB

EVEN HOTELS THAT DON’T (YET) FEATURE A GASTROPUBSTYLE F&B CONCEPT ARE LIKELY TO BE AFFECTED BY THE MOVE TOWARD MORE CASUAL DINING. HERE’S HOW:

“A lot more venues are using different materials such as wood, metal and even stone to serve food. Copper pots and cast iron often make bold statements on the tabletop and create a visually stunning impact on guests.”

– MICHAEL HUANG, DIRECTOR OF FOOD & BEVERAGE, KERRY HOTEL PUDONG, SHANGHAI

“Restaurants are going away from tabletop linens. They are just too formal and too expensive to maintain.”

– THOMAS HAAS, VICE PRESIDENT OF F&B, NOBLE HOUSE RESORTS, SEATTLE

“There needs to be some sort of activity. It’s almost like dinner theater. We’re dealing with a very visual society now.”

– COREY NYMAN, DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, THE NYMAN GROUP, LAS VEGAS

“You’re seeing more and more young, talented chefs opening casual restaurants, but they’re using really good technique and sourcing really good food and doing it the right way. Casual great food is hard to find — there’s so much room for it.”

– ROBERT WIEDMAIER, CHEF AND OWNER, MUSSEL BAR & GRILLE, REVEL, ATLANTIC CITY, NEW JERSEY

“There is a strong emphasis on simplicity, comfort and ingenuity in modern dining. While formal dining has its place, to create a strong, busy business, the casual dining experience is vital to any hotel.”

– EDMUND O’DWYER, FOOD AND BEVERAGE OPERATIONS MANAGER, THE LODGE AT DOONBEG, COUNTY CLARE, IRELAND

 

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