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Hotels offering fine dining

Eateries may be in but not of establishments

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NEW YORK — Weary travelers who have waited in long airport lines and stuffed themselves into cramped seats only to arrive at their destination hours late have one thing on their minds when they finally reach their hotel: a good meal.

Sure, a hot shower and comfortable bed are quick fixes, but if there ever were a cure for the traveling blues, it would be a relaxing — yet somehow rejuvenating — feast of the finest foods.

It would make the meal even better if the tired voyager didn't even have to leave the hotel to get it.

At more and more high-end hotels, they don't.

Served nightly at Le Cirque 2000 at the New York Palace hotel are foie gras ravioli, Dover sole and veal chops. For those with a craving for more traditional "hotel food," lobster and chicken breast sandwiches — with a creamy truffle vinaigrette, of course — are served at the bar from 11:30 a.m. until midnight.

Of the 17 restaurants awarded five stars by the 2001 Mobil Travel Guide, 10 are in hotels. But chef Christian Delourvrier of Lespinasse in Manhattan's St. Regis Hotel points out there is a difference between a hotel restaurant and a restaurant located in a hotel.

"We're in a hotel, we belong to a hotel, but we have our own identity," says Delourvrier.

Le Cirque chef Pierre Schaedelin describes the restaurant's relationship with the Palace as a "marriage."

"We share produce — things like that. And it's helpful to have access to another kitchen (the room-service kitchen) to borrow celery from."

Like Lespinasse and Le Cirque, many of these within-a-hotel restaurants have their own, noncorporate name and are run by their own management team. Jean-Georges is in the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York and Mary Elaine's is in the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Some wear their hotel affiliation proudly: the Restaurant at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas and the restaurant at the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Va., is simply the inn's restaurant with a lowercase "r."

Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton hotels have paid attention to fine dining for a long time, says Tim Zagat, publisher of the widely read Zagat Survey restaurant guide, and now others are catching on.

Hotels see good food, if not great food, as a necessity, whether their restaurants are serving the finest French haute cuisine or the best burgers, he explains.

The hotel benefits because the relatively small space that a restaurant will take up attracts people to the other 40 floors of the hotel, Zagat explains.

Hotels are also keenly aware of the importance of good service and an attractive decor, according to Zagat, and they are willing to pay for both — luxuries that some independent restaurants cannot afford. For instance, Renoir and Picasso, both located at MGM's Bellagio resort in Las Vegas, showcase millions of dollars' worth of art.

"It's a win-win for guests, but it's also a win-win for the hotels," says Zagat.

For the chef or restaurateur, the advantage of being part of a 3,000-room hotel is the steady stream of consistent business, especially in Las Vegas where travelers rotate among the full slate of top hotel restaurants, says Alessandro Stratta, executive chef at Renoir.

"We don't have to cut corners," Stratta says. "I can concentrate on the food, and the staffing level is good."

Furthermore, Stratta says, as an employee of the MGM Mirage hotel chain, he has many more opportunities to travel to find inspiration for new dishes.

Brand recognition is another factor, adds Joel Antunes, the executive chef at The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, in Atlanta.

"People know the Ritz name; they don't know my name."

But, Antunes says, some potential diners are still wary that the food will be generic — like the food served in hotel restaurants during the 1970s.

(If anything, being in a hotel requires a greater variety of dishes because a hotel restaurant is trying to persuade you to eat more than once at the same place during the same week, Antunes explains.)

In the first half of the 20th century, hotel restaurants were considered to be among the best restaurants in the country with "crowds gathering at the Waldorf," observes Elizabeth Blau, senior vice president of restaurant development for MGM hotels.

But when the public's appetite for fast food and midpriced restaurants grew, hotel restaurants didn't keep up. They continued to be relatively formal and expensive, she says.

When the tide changed again in the early 1990s and the public's desire for exciting, very expensive and very formal restaurants exploded, hotel restaurants weren't formal and dynamic enough.

It's only been a few years since hotel restaurants came up with the right recipe to win acceptance and accolades, Blau says.

Is there a downside to these hot and haute restaurants for those weary travelers?

Reservations might be a problem, with many of these restaurants filling their tables months in advance. Some, including Renoir, dedicate a few tables for last-minute reservations for hotel guests.

On the Web:

Mobil Travel Guide: www.exxonmobiltravel.com