At some point this century, luxury hotel restaurants ceased being stuffy sanctuaries for hungry travelers but became something even more unfortunate: blatant trophy businesses whose deep-pocketed employers desired the prestige of four stars without the slightest understanding of how to get it. The results were usually confused concepts that didn’t please the chefs, the bosses, or the patrons. Filini, the hot mess of a ristorante in the Radisson Blu Aqua, springs to mind: all style, no consistency. The restaurant at the Dana has shuffled through so many chefs, names, and concepts since the hotel opened in River North in 2008 that I’ve lost track.
I’m happy to report that those have become the exceptions. Now that the hotel industry has been dragged across its patterned carpets into the land where the rest of the dining world moved years ago, good things have followed. Some places outsource their restaurants to established restaurateurs such as the Boka Restaurant Group, which opened Paul Virant’s eminently likable Perennial Virant in the Hotel Lincoln before the hotel was even finished; a renovated Renaissance Blackstone gave itself over to Jose Garces’s colorful Spanish machinations at Mercat a la Planxa. “For success in a hotel, it takes a manager or owner that understands people and can differentiate what a chef wants from what diners want and have an even mix,” says Lee Wolen, executive chef of the highly acclaimed Lobby at the Peninsula. “But the guest is the most important part of the equation.”
At Beatrix, Rich Melman’s latest helping of Lettuce, the chefs and customers want the same thing. Instead of choosing a trend, Melman handpicked chefs who know what people like and how to give it to them. John Chiakulas, Rita Dever, and Susan Weaver, all veterans of Lettuce Entertain You’s test kitchen, load Beatrix’s affordable menu with bright flavors and enough flourishes to keep things interesting. Nothing fancy, just clever stuff: deviled eggs surrounded by a deconstructed potato salad, Caesar salads with fried capers subbing for croutons, and golden tomato gazpacho drizzled with olive oil. “Whatever the chefs love to cook is what it will be” was how Melman described the concept last fall. “And they are spectacular.”
I wouldn’t go that far, but Beatrix is onto something with the tsukune, soft and irresistible Japanese chicken meatballs in a simple chili-cilantro sauce, and standouts including a long sheet of truffled pasta harboring two impeccably poached farm eggs in a lemony butter sauce. And, OK, the cauliflower Milanese, a special that sounds jokey, is vaguely brilliant: Light, crunchy breading crowns mild florets amped up by a chili-yogurt dipping sauce. Beatrix even manages to get people excited about turkey meatloaf and braised kale.
Problem is, the same kitchen has produced its share of duds, too, such as a flavorless, distinctly uncaramelized “caramelized” pork shoulder with wilted romaine and blunt butter mashed potatoes and obvious hotel capitulations such as bland hummus with veggies and warm naan. For every wonderful dessert (the impossibly rich caramel pie with a flaky shortbread crust), there’s a head-scratcher—for example, the thoroughly unappealing vanilla milk and chia seed pudding. The young and cheerful staff treats every dish with equal passion, and you end up adoring your waitress even when she’s flirting with the bartender while you wait for your dinner.
The airy space, with its dark wood and hanging plants, also includes a wine bar, a cocktail bar, and a coffee bar with an enticing bakery counter proffering sticky buns and all kinds of cookies and mufffins. All over the room, you’ll see folks kicking back with fresh fruit juices (any of which can be spiked with alcohol, of course). In other words, this is just the kind of restaurant you want in your hotel. Despite the misses, Beatrix has enough goodwill—and points of entry—that it’s tough to walk out feeling anything but positive about the experience.
While Beatrix wants nothing more than to be popular, Travelle, a shiny Mediterranean-influenced venture in the dramatic new Langham (floors 2 to 13 of the Mies van der Rohe–designed IBM Building), desires only respect. If you know which way the wind is blowing these days, you won’t be surprised to hear Travelle doesn’t reach its goal nearly as well.
Travelle’s chef, the Tru veteran Tim Graham, wears his ambitions on the sleeve of his starched whites in the glassed-in kitchen, where his disciplined crew toils over niçoise ahi crudo and crisp “pita balloons” the size of volleyballs. The striking second-story restaurant’s pure lines and wall of see-through Plexiglas tubes are meant to reflect what the press release called an “industrial age aesthetic inspired by the 1960’s corporate culture.” This place obviously wants to be in conversations about Chicago’s Best Hotel Restaurant.
Unfortunately, something’s not right at Travelle. For starters, all the action seems to be in the adjoining Miesian lounge, where a torch singer belts out “Smooth Operator” and huge windows provide a lovely river view. The dining room, open 24 hours a day, overlooks a parking garage.
But when Graham’s food is good, it’s right on. Here I’m thinking of the creamy lavender-tinged English pea risotto with chanterelles or the perfectly cooked short rib ravioli topped with garlicky dried currants and Moroccan gremolata in a rich braised beef sauce. The Provençal tian with smoked tomato and fresh ricotta cheese is a delicate vegetarian masterpiece, and the solid oval of chilled olive oil, which dissolves the second it touches a multigrain sourdough, is a stroke of genius.
Sadly, of the above dishes, only the chilled olive oil survived a seasonal menu shift. And much of what remains on the labyrinthine menu tries too hard. The flaming saganaki wings have been brined, marinated in lemon and oregano, fried, tossed with more lemon and oregano, then lit on fire with some kind of fennel alcohol . . . and they still taste like ordinary chicken wings. The “seacuterie” is a gorgeous and creative plate stocked mostly with flops like an octopus “mosaic” and spongy scallops in a senseless homage to boudin blanc. Other dishes don’t try hard enough, such as a laughably fatty suckling pig. An artful dark chocolate verrine (basically a layered dessert in a small glass) with a brownie biscuit is a crispy-smooth candy bar dream, but it’s too little, too late.
It’s fitting that Travelle’s awkward servers never stop talking; half the staff seems plucked from another restaurant where grace takes a back seat to misguided enthusiasm. If the guest is indeed the most important part of the equation in a hotel restaurant, then Travelle obviously needs to check its math.