NEW YORK - The lobby of the Ace Hotel resembles a casting call for Gossip Girl. Every distressed leather couch, crushed velvet chair, and artfully nicked stool is draped with the type of interestingly dressed, oddly named people who seem to show up (often without an invitation) at art openings, restaurant previews, and fashion shows and make themselves at home.
These beautiful creatures appear to have permanently camped out at this hipster hotel that claims to care more about providing an "experience" than the typical hospitality comforts of the hotel business.
In fact, the Ace's buzz hasn't been about its boho chic decor or service; the raves are for the lobby restaurant, the Breslin, a charcuterie- and meat-centric pub that recently earned its first Michelin star. The restaurant's chef, April Bloomfield, who first tantalized New York foodies with her Spotted Pig restaurant six years ago, also has just opened another outpost within the Ace, the John Dory Oyster Bar.
This is what's rocking Gotham, where rare is the hot hotel without an even hotter restaurant. From the Upper East Side, where the Mark Hotel is wowing the well-heeled with its Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges (from chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten), to Midtown, where Food Network fixture Geoffrey Zakarian has opened the Lambs Club in the new Chatwal Hotel, the foodie scene is being driven by all-the-rage restaurants in hotels.
"Years ago, you never wanted to be in a hotel restaurant. It was quiet, it was expensive, and it was full of tourists," says Alison Brod, a judge on Food Network's 24 Hour Restaurant Battle. "Now, you're instantly walking into some action. The restaurants provide instant energy going into the hotel."
Hoteliers seek out successful restaurateurs and celebrity chefs because they provide name recognition and a built-in following, Brod says.
Such was the case this year when Danny Meyer (of Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and 11 Madison Park) opened Maialino off the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel. Ditto for superchef David Chang's Má Pêche in the Chambers Hotel in Midtown and Todd English's Food Hall at the Plaza Hotel at Central Park South.
More recently, brothers Eric and Bruce Bromberg, who are responsible for the Blue Ribbon restaurants, partnered with Renaissance Hotels to offer their comfort cuisine at upscale Renaissance properties, including the company's primo Times Square hotel.
"Every time you open a new hotel, you have to have an important restaurant," says Esquire restaurant critic John Mariani. "Restaurants bring enormous attention to the property itself."
In New York, that's definitely the case.
"You're seeing more of this in New York because there are more cool hotels opening here," restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman says. "The big convention or luxury hotels haven't been built here for some time, so the action has been on hip, boutique-style hotels. These, quite naturally, need eating and drinking places to match."
Here are some sizzling New York restaurants (tucked into hotels) that we like:
Meyer's Roman-style trattoria with its sunny disposition and welcoming attitude seems to contradict its location in Ian Schrager's Gramercy Park Hotel, with its velvet-rope attitude, exclusive bars, and swank rooms. But it works, and the staff at this bustling breakfast/lunch/dinner restaurant tries to deliver Meyer's signature hospitality. The kitchen is producing outstanding fare, including a roast pork sandwich on ciabatta topped with fried eggs; fried cod with olives, pine nuts and arugula; skirt steak with white beans; and heavenly salumi. The pastas are a highlight, including a textbook cacio e pepe; fettuccine carbonara slick with egg and studded with guanciale; pumpkin agnolotti with ricotta salata; and wide ribbons of malfatti with suckling pig and arugula. Like Meyer's other restaurants, Maialino gets it right in so many ways.
Maialino, Gramercy Park Hotel, 2 Lexington Ave., 212-777-2410; www.maialinonyc.com.
Manhattan foodies gave a cold shoulder to Ago, the inaugural restaurant in the Greenwich Hotel. The partners, including Robert DeNiro, made a fix, installing Andrew Carmellini, formerly of A Voce and Cafe Boulud, and retooled the grand tavern as a populist restaurant with rustic Italian food that New Yorkers have heartily embraced. Locanda Verde is always packed, but its genial bar accommodated walk-ins like us on a night when we were lucky to snag three primo spots at the bar. We tore into the menu starters, including burrata salad with dandelion greens; fava bean crostini; and grilled octopus salad with saffron potatoes and olives. Then we shared the lamb meatball sliders; gigatone pasta (enormous tubes) with "Sunday night ragu"; and rigatoni with lamb Bolognese. Karen DeMasco, one of the city's most beloved pastry chefs, is dishing up the sweet stuff.
Locanda Verde, Greenwich Hotel, 377 Greenwich St., 212-925-3797; www.locandaverdenyc.com.
The mausoleumlike basement of the Chambers Hotel is the improbable location of culinary superstar David Chang's new eatery, which may lack the hipster East Village vibe of his Momofuku Noodle Bar and Ssäm Bar but retains the heat of the chef's game-changing cooking. The windowless, decoration-free dining room suggests you train all your senses on the food before you, and we were happy to do so. The rice noodles with spicy pork rang all the bells - pan-fried quill noodles studded with nubby ground pork, fried shallots, and chopped bok choy was juicy, aromatic, and crunchy with every chili-stung bite. The squid salad was laced with scallions, chopped peanuts, and leafy cilantro. The pork ribs were glazed with a slick lemongrass caramel. And the banh mi came with three types of terrine in a roll stuffed with shredded daikon and cilantro. The Momofuku magic lives in this delightfully informal restaurant in a decidedly stuffy part of town.
Má Pêche, Chambers Hotel, 15 W. 56th St., 212-757-5878; www.momofuku.com/ma-peche.
The Plaza Food Hall
In the 20 years I've called the Oak Bar in the Plaza Hotel my home away from home, I've seen every imaginable and unimaginable change inflicted on the hotel. But we fans manage as best we can, and occasionally a few rays of light peek through, such as the return of the Oak Bar after a long closure for refurbishing, and now the opening of the Plaza Food Hall with a menu designed by the ubiquitous Todd English. Reminiscent of great food halls such as Harrods and Fauchon, the inviting space features a variety of dining stations and bars dispensing pizzas, burgers, dumplings, oysters, sushi, cheeses, and wine by the glass. Go for the oysters and you may sense a bit of the ghosts of Plaza past, when the faithful visited the old Oyster Bar. English's menu is still feeling its way, but the food hall is grand and looks to last longer here than the pupu platters from Trader Vic's long, long ago.
Plaza Food Hall, The Plaza, 1 W. 59th St., 212-986-9260; www.theplazafoodhall.com.
It's 4 p.m. and every seat at the bar is occupied. How could this many people be hungry at this odd time of day? The same people who don't care what the hands of the clock say when it comes to April Bloomfield's menu at Spotted Pig (I'm an early fan of her sheep's milk ricotta gnudi and smoked haddock chowder). Bloomfield's new restaurant in the Ace Hotel has given more fans the opportunity to sup on her unpretentious, stick-to-the-ribs fare - at all hours. I spot a seat at the bar at precisely the same time as a woman. We approach the prized seat, look at each other and blurt out, "Let's share." Kismet. A fellow foodie, she suggests we take turns sitting and order things to share. We agree on the house's signature lamb burger, capped with feta and smeared with cumin mayo. Wonderful. A terrine board with head cheese, pickles, and piccalilli is great stuff. And the pork belly with mashers is gastropub heaven. All around us, people seem to be picking at each other's plates, too. Fast friends or strangers like me and my dining companion? It hardly seems to matter in this magic culinary hubbub.
The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, Ace Hotel, 16 W. 29th St., 212-679-1939; www.thebreslin.com.