Savvy hoteliers have discovered that a great flagship restaurant can do more for business than Frette linens or a luxury spa. Old-school food-and-beverage directors are being eased out and Michelin-worthy chefs lured in. We crisscrossed the globe looking for hotels that are redefining the rules of in-house dining. Destinations in their own right, these 10 temples of haute cuisine are proof that you needn't stray far from your suite to find a memorable meal.
HIGH STEAKS The Gordon Gekkos of Manhattan have found a new home. Just when it seemed we'd entered leaner times, Terrance Brennan—who previously wowed New York with Picholine and Artisanal—proves that a classic American steak house is always timely. The dimly lit dining room at Terrance Brennan's Seafood & Chop House, with its burgundy and gold velvet walls, outsized leather banquettes, and a surfeit of dark wood, is an ideal setting for indulging in macho favorites like dry-aged porterhouse and Dover sole. Watch the intricate ballet of waiters pushing their carts like bumper cars around the dining room; thankfully, their tableside preparations of Caesar salad, chateaubriand, crpes suzette, and baked alaska are far more skillful than their steering. And the requisite over-the-top menu item?A $55.95 plate of steak and eggs with smoked salmon and caviar (of course). Benjamin Hotel, 565 Lexington Ave.; 212/715-2400; dinner for two $125.
ALSACE ON THE POTOMAC It's not every day that a Michelin three-starred chef waltzes into an American city to launch an ambitious restaurant, so it comes as something of a surprise that Café 15 at the Sofitel Lafayette Square has received so little national buzz since opening last year. Granted, Antoine Westermann, of Strasbourg's revered Restaurant Beurehiesel, isn't a globe-trotting celebrity chef along the lines of Alain Ducasse, but his menu delivers classically based, hyper-creative dishes that reach similarly stratospheric heights. The best riff on traditions of Westermann's native Alsace: plump frog's legs arrive with velvety onion ravioli called Schniederspaetle; guinea hen soaks up the richness of leeks, black truffles, and potatoes while baking in a bread-sealed cocotte. Like Ducasse at the Essex House in New York, Café 15 suffers from a confused look (a little bit bourgeois, a little bit modern) and a museumlike atmosphere that can make it difficult to have fun, but with food like this, who's complaining?Sofitel Lafayette Square, 806 15th St. NW; 202/730-8800; dinner for two $120.
EAST MEETS SOUTH The chopstick-wielding Frenchman Bruno Ménard just might be the most adored new face in Atlanta. To welcome him, the Ritz-Carlton brightened its stately Dining Room with apple-green silk, ornate Orientalist banquettes, and Asian ceramic tableware. Fresh from a stint in Osaka, Ménard woos diners with an ever-changing menu that might feature a conch salad with soba and a touch of rare Moroccan argan oil, or cocoa-coated lamb loin with pecan couscous. Still, the best comes last: a wicked tart made with vintage Cuban chocolate (Ménard is the son of a chocolatier from Tours). Amazing how you'll find room for pot de crèmes and lollipops from the petits fours trolley—plus a cup of exotic tea (Egyptian chamomile, Imperial gunpowder green) brewed while you watch. Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead, 3434 Peachtree Rd.; 404/237-2700; dinner for two $144.
NOUVEAU KID ON THE BLOCK In France they call them "la génération Robuchon," that competitive band of burningly talented young chefs who trained under the great and merciless perfectionist Jol Robuchon and then went on to make names of their own. The one stealing headlines these days is Éric Briffard, who recently took over the stoves at the Michelin two-starred Les Élysées in the Hôtel Vernet. In a frankly leaden dining room that is saved only by a handsome Gustave Eiffel stained-glass ceiling, Briffard knocks the stuffing out of haute cuisine, serving his signature dish of sea urchin gelée with fennel cream, fricassee of langoustines (their sweetness drawn out by spicy Bellota chorizo), and a virtuoso salad of scallops, mango, shiso, and Iranian osetra caviar. The chef, who grew up in Burgundy and whose grandparents were farmers, insists he's simply a peasant at heart. Just keep that caviar coming. Hôtel Vernet, 25 Rue Vernet; 33-1/44-31-98-00; dinner for two $140.
ROOM WITH A VIEW When in Rome, you never want a day of sightseeing to end. Don't worry: Just book an outdoor table on the seventh-floor terrace of Mirabelle, where the views stretch from the Borghese and Medici Gardens to St. Peter's Square. The crowd of Roman regulars confirms that chef Giuseppe Sestito's seasonal cuisine (spinach risotto with orange zest and jasmine flowers; sea bass served with deep-fried sage leaves) is among the best in town. Sweet-toothed Roman signoras risk their waistlines for settimo cielo, or "seventh heaven," a semifreddo with layers of three types of chocolate, topped with gold leaf. Throw Atkins-induced caution to the wind and follow their lead. Hotel Splendide Royal, 14 Via di Porta Pinciana; 39-06/4216-8838; dinner for two $150.
OLD-SCHOOL GOES COOL A female rising star on the unapologetically testosterone-driven London restaurant scene?Angela Hartnett, a protégé of Gordon Ramsay (that bloke of all blokes), is the talk of the town for taking over the city's bastion of tradition. With help from designer Nina Campbell, who updated the masculine space with plush colors and modern art, Hartnett's Menu is breathing life into the clubby Connaught. Even old-guard supporters of Michel Bourdin (the hotel's previous chef) and his sole jubilee are being seduced by Hartnett's relaxed, British-Mediterranean dishes (pouchy tortelli with roast pumpkin and sage butter; halibut confit with raw fennel salad). The smoked pork belly with caramelized root vegetables is the best we've tasted. Sorry, old boys. The Connaught, 16 Carlos Place; 44-207/592-1222; dinner for two $140.
SO FAR FROM SOBA In a city that pulses like an animé cartoon, one is grateful for the minimalist grace of the Four Seasons in Marunouchi, whose flagship restaurant, Ekki, is quickly earning a reputation for its rarefied atmosphere. The stark red and dark brown room is meant to focus one's attention on the precise flavors created by Jérôme Legras, the 28-year-old former sous-chef of the Michelin three-starred Le Cinq at the Four Seasons George V in Paris. French in essence, Japanese in execution, the menu includes an extra-buttery grilled chutoro tuna with an improbably perfect poached egg, and Kobe beef tenderloin with slow-cooked shallots. Go à la carte or opt for tasting combinations with cryptic names such as "Veracity" and "Insulation." Either way, end with the quivery panna cotta infused with verbena. Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi, Tokyo Pacific Century Place, Marunouchi; 81-3/5222-7222; dinner for two $200.
THE ODD COUPLE In one of the food world's most delicious ironies, the notorious Macanese gambling taipan Stanley Ho has persuaded the reclusive Joël Robuchon to clone himself at Ho's spectacularly gaudy casino hotel. Passing through acres of overwrought marble and gold, you ascend to Robuchon a Galera, where the neo-Empire motif is completed by Bernardaud china, lavish orchid arrangements, and twinkling crystal lights overhead. Having installed his protégé Francky Semblat at the stoves, the maestro himself flies in several times a year to devise menus that include some of his greatest hits (cauliflower gelée with caviar, those legendary mashed potatoes), plus an unforgettable squab cocotte with lime leaves and green cabbage-foie gras ravioli. Add the Rolls-Royce of bread carts and an enormous Bordeaux-heavy wine list that's also rich in Portuguese vintages, and you've got a royal flush. Hotel Lisboa, 2-4 Avda. de Lisboa; 853/377-666; dinner for two $160.
THE HOPE OF GOOD CAPE BEST VALUE The view of yachts in the middle distance and of Table Mountain on the horizon make it nearly impossible to focus on the menu at One.waterfront. Once you've soaked in the scenery, turn your attention to chef Bruce Robertson's innovative preparations of indigenous South African ingredients: grilled crayfish tail is lightly dusted with Cape Malay spices and served with a biryani rice fritter and banana tortellini skewered with a porcupine quill. A platter of St. Helena western coast oysters, mussels, and langoustines is accompanied by lemon basmati rice and a crisp green-bean parcel. Fragrant karoo lamb arrives with truffle mascarpone and rosemary jus, while venison is simply and perfectly prepared. A crème brûlée trio—vanilla, passion fruit, chocolate—is the ideal finale. Cape Grace, West Quay Rd., Waterfront; 27-21/410-7100; dinner for two $45.
DOWN UNDER AND OVER THE TOP The extravagant restaurant at the Park Hyatt makes a powerful statement in this otherwise leafy, sedate, cerebral city. A wall of hand-sculpted electric-blue glass at the entrance of Radii sets the tone; underlit stairs link a glamorous Deco-inspired five-tiered dining room, adorned with massive incandescent columns covered in metal mesh to resemble the markings on a giraffe. There are even tables lining the curvilinear staircase that descends to the clubby lounge below. The executive chef, Sean Donovan, who has been at the helm only since October, prepares robust French-tinged dishes in a white-marble display kitchen dominated by a large wood-fired oven. Try hickory-smoked Pacific oysters with prosciutto, pears, and sage; reef fish with mussels, clams, and aromatic curry sauce; or rotisserie-cooked wild duck with peaches, red cabbage, and polenta. No need to ask for the dessert menu—just peek into the pastry chef's glass-enclosed prep station to choose your after-dinner sweets. Park Hyatt Melbourne, 1 Parliament Square; 61-3/9224-1234; dinner for two $100.
Reported by Anya von Bremzen, Gillian Cullinan, Susan Gough Henly, Nathan Lump, Shane Mitchell, Niloufar Motamed, Christopher Petkanas, and Valerie Waterhouse.
T+L EDITORS' PICKS: FIVE MORE THAT TOP OUR LIST
Hotel restaurants don't have to be brand-new to be noteworthy. With their signature blend of service, style, and superlative food, these restaurants are a cut above the rest.
Azul The French-Caribbean fusion repertoire of dancer-turned-chef Michelle Bernstein keeps Floridians coming back for more. Dinner for two $150. Mandarin Oriental, 500 Brickell Key Dr., Miami; 305/913-8254
Le Cinq Chef Philippe Legendre has received a Michelin star for each of his three years at this Parisian palace hotel. Dinner for two $320. Four Seasons Hotel George V, 31 Ave. George V, Paris; 33-1/49-52-70-00
Le Louis XV Alain Ducasse's 16-year-old stronghold of classical French cuisine reclaimed its third Michelin star earlier this year. Dinner for two $395. Hôtel de Paris, Place du Casino, Monte Carlo; 377/92-16-29-76
Maestro Fresh takes on Italian classics by 29-year-old chef Fabio Trabocchi are worth the detour from D.C. to McLean. Dinner for two $170. Ritz-Carlton, Tysons Corner, 1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean, VA.; 703/821-1515
Restaurante Santceloni The modern Catalan cuisine from this longtime rival of Ferran Adrià has all of Madrid abuzz. Dinner for two $150. Hotel Hesperia Madrid, 57 Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid; 34-91/210-8800
If you can stand the heat, get into the kitchen. Several hotel restaurants are offering tables inches away from the chef. PHOENIX At Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician (480/941-8200; dinner for two from $250), the chef's table is equipped with video monitors so diners can follow every step of the sizzling action. VIRGINIA Guests in the kitchen of chef Patrick O'Connell's Inn at Little Washington (540/675-3800; $300 table charge plus dinner) are greeted with Gregorian chants, a rosewater hand-washing ceremony, and black truffles roasted in the private fireplace. LOS ANGELES Executive chef Douglas Dodd whips up seven-course tasting meals for Table One VIP's at Hotel Bel-Air (310/472-1211; dinner for two $230). HONG KONG The Peninsula's Spring Moon (852/2315-3160; dinner for four $1,429) creates a lavish Chinese banquet for chef's table patrons. You can even help a dim sum chef prep the first course—toques not included.