Where should we eat tonight? The answer to this question for travellers used to be simple: out. If you were staying in a hotel, even an extremely nice hotel, you were almost always going to go elsewhere to eat.
Successful, enjoyable dining experiences usually meant going somewhere other than your hotel, particularly in Australia. Hotel restaurants used to be the stuff of desperation, the kind of places you would wander into when you had given up all hope. Did we already say, particularly in Australia? But there were outliers.
In the 1980s, celebrated French-Canadian chef Serge Dansereau successfully launched the seminal three-hatted Kables restaurant in what was then the Regent Hotel (now the Four Seasons). However, Kables was the exception that proves the rule.
Fortunately things have changed and continue to change. Check into a hotel in Australia now and there's every chance you will be doing so as much for the food as the room. Maybe you won't even be staying – maybe you will visit the hotel purely to eat at the restaurant.
That may have long been commonplace in, say, New York, London or Tokyo, but it's always tended to be less common on our shores.
Local hotels, however, are now pouring money and resources into their restaurant offerings, enticing well-known chefs at the top of their games.
Superstar Brit Clare Smyth's first Australian restaurant is in a hotel. Melburnian Shannon Martinez's new vegan eatery is in a hotel. Sydney's recently opened Ace Hotel features a host of bars and eateries utilising the talents of locals Mitch Orr and Mike Bennie.
And there's more: Sydney seafood specialist Josh Niland recently announced he would be closing Saint Peter in its current Paddington location and shifting it to a new boutique hotel. And Tokyo legends Wagyumafia have just opened a high-end ramen restaurant, Mashi no Mashi, at The Star, Sydney.
To celebrate this rise of quality dining inside our favourite hotels, we chatted to the chefs rattling the pans to discover how this all happened.
OVOLO SOUTH YARRA, MELBOURNE, VIC
LONA MISA, SHANNON MARTINEZ
Photo: Lauren Gray
WHAT MAKES A HOTEL RESTAURANT DIFFERENT IS normally when you open a business, everything is on you. At Smith & Daughters [her original restaurant], I had no money. I had to buy all my furniture from Ikea and sand off the logos and hope people didn't notice. It was struggle after struggle. But this time around it was the freedom to purely focus on the dining experience. As a chef and restaurant owner, that was a really liberating thing for me. You just get to work on the thing you love.
MY INSPIRATION FOR LONA MISA WAS an interesting one, because Ovolo had taken this plant-based pledge [a pledge to ethical eating at its properties], which was a huge thing for a hotel group to do, and that's what attracted me to work with them. It was a really good chance to do something on a large scale without putting my own money into it.
THE ONE DISH YOU SHOULD TRY AT LONA MISA IS is the mushroom pinchos morunos, which is typically a pork skewer done in Moorish style, so we've recreated that using oyster mushrooms cooked in the Josper [wood oven]. Ovolo designed the restaurant before they'd made the plant-based pledge, so we got this epic Josper in and then they went plant-based. So a thing that was made to cook meat was now in a vegan restaurant. What it does for these mushrooms is next-level.
MY GO-TO ROOM SERVICE ORDER IS the congee at QT Sydney hotel (qthotels.com). When you wake up and you're hungover, to be able to have congee – oh man. It's just so clean and healthy, it makes me feel a little less guilty.
ESSENTIALS Lona Misa, Ovolo South Yarra, 234 Toorak Road, South Yarra. Open Mon-Fri for breakfast and dinner, Sat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Sun dinner. Mains from $30. See ovolohotels.com
THE TASMAN, HOBART, TAS
PEPPINA, MASSIMO MELE
Photo: Adam Gibson
WHAT MAKES A HOTEL RESTAURANT DIFFERENT IS you have so many processes to go through. That's why I'm pretty proud of Peppina: to achieve what we do with the food, where it comes from, the quality, and to get that over the line in a hotel is really special. I know where everything comes from, who grew it, where it's been grown, how it got here, and the person who delivered it.
MY INSPIRATION FOR PEPPINA WAS my grandmother, whose nickname was Peppina. The inspiration came from continuing the work I've done with other restaurants, supporting the local food community, and using the best local produce I can find. In Tassie, everything is so close, you can reach your hand out and touch the produce, or get connected to where it's coming from. The reason I named Peppina after such an important person in my life is because we always had good food, and we always knew where it came from.
THE ONE DISH YOU SHOULD TRY AT PEPPINA IS our paccheri Genovese, which is a family recipe. It's a slow-cooked beef shin and pork belly, kind of like a Neapolitan ragu. Lots of onions, a little bit of carrot and celery, and a bucket load of meat. It's our family's Sunday feast. That's been on the menu since day one.
ONE HOTEL RESTAURANT I WOULD LOVE TO VISIT IS the Michelin-starred restaurants in hotels there. I never really thought to look at restaurants in hotels until I went to New York.
MY GO-TO ROOM SERVICE ORDER IS a burger. Is that boring? You can tell a lot about a hotel by the quality of their burger. If they nail that, they're going to nail everything else.
CROWN SYDNEY, NSW
ONCORE, CLARE SMYTH
Photo: TOM ASTERIADES
WHAT MAKES A HOTEL RESTAURANT DIFFERENT IS a hotel provides a bigger structure and support system, where we can work alongside the hotel team to provide an excellent hospitality experience.
MY INSPIRATION FOR ONCORE WAS Oncore has a simple philosophy of using everything around us. Wherever we are, we work with produce that's specific to a place, and we do what we know with it. Some of my inspiration comes from my background of being British. It's always been important to me to put my British identity into my cooking. I love Australian ingredients and will always use them but any influence so far is more on a component level than a cultural level, because it's not my culture and I don't think it would be genuine for me to draw inspiration from Australian culture.
THE ONE DISH YOU SHOULD TRY AT ONCORE IS the Potato and Roe is a signature dish and very special to me, as it combines flavours from my childhood growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland on the North Antrim coast. I grew up eating potatoes every day and this dish features a few flavours from home. The potato, the roe, even the salt and vinegar crisps on top – it's an expression of my identity and history on a plate.
ONE HOTEL RESTAURANT I WOULD LOVE TO VISIT IS Cheval Blanc Paris (chevalblanc.com) and dining at their restaurant Plenitude, which has three Michelin stars.
MY GO-TO ROOM SERVICE ORDER IS I don't normally have a chance to eat breakfast so when I'm travelling I like to order room service in the morning. It usually involves smoked salmon, eggs, maybe pastries – and of course, tea.
ESSENTIALS Oncore by Clare Smyth, Crown Sydney, 1 Barangaroo Avene, Sydney. Open Wednesday to Saturday. Set menu from $240. See crownsydney.com.au
QT, SYDNEY, NSW
GOWINGS, SEAN CONNOLLY
WHAT MAKES A HOTEL RESTAURANT DIFFERENT IS it needs that swagger of a free-standing restaurant. Gowings had that swagger and I think I just gave it a bit of Mick Jagger swagger. I think about what people want, and if I was in town, what would I want. A good hotel restaurant is not just for the guests, it's for the community; you have to attract the local community.
MY INSPIRATION FOR GOWINGS WAS I wanted to give Gowings a stronger narrative, a stronger culinary story. When the group wanted to reinvent the space, they asked me to come up with a style, and I thought an Italian steakhouse would be perfect. That Little Italy vibe, Soprano-esque. Great steaks and great pasta. Great Italian produce.
THE ONE DISH YOU SHOULD TRY AT GOWINGS IS Ah, the bistecca Fiorentina, the tableside Caesar salad, the octopus ragu with mafalde pasta, the crudo section … but there's so much more I can do with the menu, and we will get there.
THE ONE HOTEL RESTAURANT I WOULD LOVE TO VISIT OVERSEAS IS I'd like to go to Raffles in Singapore (raffles.com), and visit Alain Ducasse's restaurant there. That would be really exciting for me. And then Jean-Georges, at Pound Ridge outside New York (jean-georges.com). He cooks some beautiful food, and I really admire him.
MY GO-TO ROOM SERVICE ORDER IS a good soup. You get more chance of a good soup than a good club sandwich. Plus, it's very nurturing. When you're away from home so much, as I am, you just need someone to wrap their arms around you, and that's what soup does.
ESSENTIALS QT Sydney, 49 Market Street Sydney. Gowings open Tue-Sat for lunch and dinner. Mains from $32. See qthotels.com
RITZ-CARLTON, PERTH, WA
HEARTH, ALBERTO CUZZIT
WHAT MAKES A HOTEL RESTAURANT DIFFERENT IS the clientele you have in a five-star hotel is very high. The attention and the delivery and the service must be right up there. You need to deliver luxury service, luxury food, and the hotel supports that.
MY INSPIRATION FOR HEARTH WAS the concept and the simplicity of the food all touching fire, in all its forms: charred, flambeed, torched, smoked. And the local produce, the key of Hearth is trying to highlight the best produce in WA.
THE ONE DISH YOU SHOULD TRY AT HEARTH IS the charred Abrolhos Island octopus, with saffron aioli, brown butter and capers. Very simple but very tasty. And also the duck, we let it dry in the fridge to get the very crispy skin, and then the breast is char-grilled and the legs are confited. It's beautiful.
ONE HOTEL RESTAURANT I WOULD LOVE TO VISIT IS in Italy, I have worked a few times with Massimo Bottura, so I would definitely like to go and see him in Modena at Casa Maria Luigia (casamarialuigia.com). He has also opened Gucci Osteria in Tokyo (gucciosteria.com).
MY GO-TO ROOM SERVICE ORDER IS comfort food. I go for a salad and a nice appetiser. And then main, usually you just want something simple, something you know. Rght now we have a Thai massaman curry on our menu and it's a great dish.
KIMPTON MARGOT SYDNEY
LUKE'S KITCHEN, LUKE MANGAN
WHAT MAKES A HOTEL RESTAURANT DIFFERENT IS not a huge amount in a situation like this one. Obviously we have room service, we have a bar menu as well, but mostly we've been able to keep things much the way we would normally do them. Having the experience with Glass, at the Hilton Sydney, over the last 15 years, certainly helped.
MY INSPIRATION FOR LUKE'S WAS to be honest it was to keep things exactly the same as Luke's in Waterloo [in Sydney's inner-south]. Our last menu there was our first menu at the Kimpton though we've tweaked it a bit now of course. But we were really able to take the concept – a neighbourhood feel, not too formal, approachable food – and transplant it into this incredible space.
THE ONE DISH YOU SHOULD TRY AT LUKE'S IS sharing food, so I think my favourites would be the dishes for two that we've got. We do a big steak for two, a fish as well, and a whole duck, which I do in my version of an Indonesian curry sauce, not too hot. We do a great prawn toast there as well, and the sashimi is always popular.
ONE HOTEL RESTAURANT I WOULD LOVE TO VISIT OVERSEAS IS the places in Los Angeles and New York, the sort where the restaurant is given space to be what it is, without having to fit into what the hotel expects.
MY GO-TO ROOM SERVICE ORDER IS is probably a burger but I usually don't tend to order room service as I would much rather go down to the bar and eat there.
ESSENTIALS Kimpton Margot Sydney, 339 Pitt Street, Sydney. Luke's open Sun-Tue for breakfast, and Wed-Sat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Mains from $41. See kimptonmargotsydney.com
FIVE CLASSIC HOTEL RESTAURANTS BOTH HERE AND OVERSEAS
Akelarre the restaurant is an absolute classic of the Basque region of Spain, a San Sebastian stalwart since 1970, when local chef Pedro Subijana first tinkered with fine-dining cuisine. In 2017 a hotel was added to the spectacular Monte Igueldo site, a member of the Relais & Chateaux group, making it a must-visit destination for luxury travellers. See akelarre.net
LE MEURICE ALAIN DUCASSE, FRANCE
Picture the insane opulence of classic French fine-dining and you pretty much have Alain Ducasse's La Meurice, at the Paris hotel of the same name. This two-Michelin-starred restaurant's dining room is the Palace of Versailles reimagined by Philippe Starck – literally – and the food is appropriately haute-cuisine. See alainducasse-meurice.com
THE PALM COURT, US
Few hotels can boast an establishment as historic and well-loved as the Palm Court, in New York's iconic Plaza Hotel. Running with the main building's French Renaissance theme, the Palm Court sits under a huge stained-glass dome, with towering plants and cane furnishings to nestle into and enjoy a high tea. See theplazany.com
As with Akelarre, Dan Hunter's seminal fine-diner, Brae, was first a restaurant, and then a hotel. In 2016 the Brae team added something special to their bucolic Birregurra, Victoria experience, in the form of luxury suites designed for guests who are dining at the restaurant. The mix of three-hat cuisine and five-star luxury is unbeatable. See braerestaurant.com
WAKU GHIN, SINGAPORE
Singapore's Marina Bay Sands hotel has no shortage of dining options, including Bread St Kitchen by Gordon Ramsay, db Bistro by Daniel Boulud, and even legendary dumpling joint Tim Ho Wan. Our shout-out, however, goes to erstwhile Sydney star Tetsuya Wakuda, who for 12 years now has been running the two-Michelin-starred Japanese fine-diner Waku Ghin at the hotel. See tetsuyas.com/waku-ghin