A Focus on Social Food and Beverage Experiences

By David Ashen Principal and Founder, dash design | March 26, 2017

There was a time when a hotel restaurant was the place to be seen. A special anniversary or family celebration at a grand hotel with a formal meal was a real treat and something to look forward to.

While that's still true to some extent, changes in lifestyles and the hospitality industry have had a major impact on the way most people celebrate special events and casually socialize, including those centered on an extravagant meal at a grand hotel. Often, today's festivities focus less on elaborate banquets than they do on a lively bar scene with local brews, spirits and traditional drinks, along with inspired dishes at a restaurant of note, including those located in hotels.

During the first half of the 20th century, my father's family owned several small hotels in the Borsch Belt, a summer resort region of New York's Catskill Mountains. I remember hearing stories from my parents about grand dinners in the hotel's dining room. There was nothing unique about the dining room nor did it have any other identity than simply the 'hotel dining room', but those grand meals were always something special.

Much of that tradition changed with the growth of domestic and international travel and the associated rise in faster-paced living, which led to an upsurge of hotel brands. While this new sea of hotel brands offered a menu of mere mediocrity in comparison to their independent and grand counterparts, their vast numbers and ability to meet the varied needs of the modern traveler supplanted many of the once-popular grand hotels and their outdated way of marking notable events and providing a social scene.

More than that, with the nation's rise in international cuisines and celebrity chefs, the American palate has become more sophisticated, creating gourmands and spirt-lovers out of many of us. Today, the tables have turned on conventional dining, moving away from formal, banquet-style meals, toward a more cultured, yet highly social dining scene, with an emphasis not only on noteworthy restaurants, but also, trendy bars.

Twenty years after my childhood connection with the "grand" hotels, I was awarded my first restaurant commission for the Mercat a la Planxa at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. The space my firm was hired to transform was once the hotel's dining room and it was our job to shift the paradigm from the glamour of dining at the "grand" hotel – imagine perfectly round, warm dinner rolls served by (male) waiters in white (or black) coats. Because the ideal no longer found favor with guests, we were charged to create a destination restaurant for a star chef that, in many ways, turned its back on the hotel.

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