Usually, hotel restaurants feel like convenience options — you’ve checked into the hotel already, and the on-site restaurant is right there, so why not take a seat and eat whatever is available before starting your adventure elsewhere? After all, even the guests in The White Lotus chose the resort’s restaurant as their headquarters for scheming and gossiping, but the meals always seemed like an afterthought (even though they spent this past season in Sicily, an undeniable haven for excellent meals).
In Austin, when a new restaurant tries to establish itself as a special place to enjoy a meal, a location inside a hotel can present some challenges, especially in a city that loves its food scene so much. Hotel dining has always been part of the local Austin tourism experience, yet aside from a few high-end venues like the Driskill, generally speaking, these restaurants typically cater to guests and rarely make an impression on locals.
But now, as Austin grows and the number of hotels increases on a seemingly monthly basis, the restaurateurs, chefs, and managers who run local hotel restaurants view the so-so history of in-house restaurants as an outdated idea that they’re eager to dispel. Contrary to the “stigma around stereotypical ‘hotel restaurants,’” as Joshua Pope, the general manager of Dean’s Italian Steakhouse at the JW Marriott puts it, these days, there is good food to be found at hotels. The setup, hotel restaurant advocates argue, allows chefs to have more creative liberty with financial security, which has resulted in a bumper crop of high-quality hotel restaurants helmed by experienced chefs deeply committed to making sure their kitchens live up to the standards of even the most discerning Austin diners.
“[Austin] hotels can’t be lackadaisical about their cuisine,” says Kim Hanks, the CEO of Whim Hospitality and Camp Lucy, which includes Tillie’s restaurant. “People can simply walk down the street for the best taco, brisket, ice cream, margarita, you name it,” she says. She insists that a hotel restaurant’s success in Austin comes down to “bringing the best” in terms of the menu, the environment, and the level of hospitality.
There’s a certain romance to the idea of an independent restaurant totally powered by grassroots funding and a whole lot of gumption, but most Austin hotels these days aren’t interested in routine menus with corporate vibes. Instead, the hotel teams lean into the chance to collaborate with their restaurant counterparts and appeal to tastes beyond those of the customers booking rooms.
Chicago-based hospitality group Land and Sea Dept. opened poolside hotel restaurant Wax Myrtle’s in the Thompson Austin in February 2022. Land partner Peter Toalson says working to develop a restaurant with a team planning two hotels — the Thompson and the Tommie — and an apartment building could’ve been messy, but it worked out, allowing them to create “a space that appeals to hotel guests, residents of the apartment building, locals, and visitors,” he says.
Wax Myrtle’s tagged local chef Nick Erven, who’d previously led the kitchen at popular South Congress seafood restaurant Perla’s, to lead the culinary program. Erven’s understanding of Austin diners helped this brand-new bar and restaurant fit into the local dining landscape through dishes like pecan and pepper dip with pomegranate molasses, barbecue ribs with Calabrian chile caramel, and crispy chicken legs with braised garbanzo beans, dates, and tahini. The design work of Austin-based decorators and horticulturists also played a role in establishing Wax Myrtle’s connection to the city. The plant specialists sought out native-to-Texas vegetation to place throughout the space and to populate the dining room’s living green wall.
The structure and funding provided by a hotel can also be an attractive perk for celebrity chefs seeking an opportunity to get into the Austin food scene. In the last couple of years alone, culinary superstars from all over the country — like Savannah’s Mashama Bailey, the James Beard Award-winning executive chef of the Diner Bar and the Grey Market also at Thompson, and San Antonio chef Steve McHugh of Luminaire and Las Bis in the brand-new Hyatt Centric Congress Avenue — have chosen Austin hotels as launching pads for their Texas projects.
That practical support coupled with creative independence were the factors that wooed Top Chef champion Kristen Kish to Austin’s Line Hotel. She liked that the hotel company was known for working with chefs for its restaurants, noting that the corporate team helped with every stage of the planning, from designs to engineering. That left her free to focus on building a talented team for Arlo Grey, including executive chef Alejandro Munoz, an Austin native who cooked at local spots — along with experimenting with flavors and ingredients in a way to tell her own culinary story through the menu. “What I love about the restaurant scene in Austin is that it has variety, from some of the greatest tacos in the U.S. to barbecue (obviously). But [Austin] also has chefs from all over who have found the market to be a place where they want to be making food that tells a story,” Kish says.
While hotels in the Austin area are now designed to spark excitement among a broader customer base than their more traditional sanitized corporate counterparts, from a business standpoint hotels still provide a competitive advantage for chefs and restaurant groups because they offer relatively predictable clientele: guests staying on-site. “The biggest positive to being in a hotel is the energy created by the property that spills over into the restaurant,” says Hanks. Tillie’s at Camp Lucy offers reservations specifically for overnight guests — an especially important amenity since the resort’s location in the Hill Country means Austinites don’t come across the restaurant while walking around. Nevertheless, creating outstanding cuisine is important to ensuring the continued relevance and longevity of the business. The quality of chef Andy Knudson’s New Texan menu, from meats to produce, is a type of security that ensures non-guests will still drive for 45 minutes to dine at Tillie’s.
In West Lake Hills, Danielle Porter, director of food and beverage at Laurel at the Hotel Viata, echoes these positives of the hotel restaurant format. “A hotel restaurant has somewhat of a marginal guarantee of business,” she says, “whereas a standalone restaurant needs to create traction around their concept and their concept only.” That said, Porter points out that a successful hotel restaurant still should forge its own identity outside of the hotel umbrella. That’s how the team approached the hotel’s newer restaurant. “We wanted to make a unique space where Westlake locals could indulge in dishes that they could not get anywhere else in the area.” It worked hard to create restaurants that spoke to Austinites. Laurel accomplishes this task by offering Mediterranean dishes using Hill Country ingredients, which reflect the training of its chef, the gap that it fills in the neighborhood’s food options, and the Italian seaside look and feel of the hotel itself.
Hotel Viata is the result of a recent rebrand of the original Hotel Granduca, which first opened in 2015. David Putnicki, the general manager, says that when Pacific Hospitality Group purchased the building a couple of years ago, it immediately felt the drive to change the overall aesthetic. “Granduca [looked like] a very traditional-style Italian hotel,” Putnicki says, and that the restaurant had felt like a Tuscan villa. This felt dated (the memory of “Tuscan” kitchen design still haunts all of us who were around in the ’90s). So PHG decided to completely renovate the property, drawing inspiration from the Amalfi Coast, choosing lighter colors, airier fabrics, and plenty of wide windows to let in natural light. “The Amalfi Coast is a fun place for people to escape, and we wanted to position ourselves as a sweet retreat that’s connected to Austin, but is also a place where you can escape and have a carefree time,” Putnicki says.
Executive chef Mark Dayanandan of the Driskill (home of the iconic and very long-standing restaurant Driskill Grill, which recently reopened after a long pandemic closure) notes that design changes often inform the cuisine of the hotel restaurants as well. Dayanandan says that Driskill Grill draws serious inspiration from the hotel’s classic looks, which means classic dishes like Tournedos Rossini, lobster bisque, and steak tartare, but with modern flavors, he says.
For Hanks, Austin’s food identity is “all about creating a great meal and not being too pretentious about it.” It’s where, as she explains, “you can feel comfortable dining in a pair of well-worn boots and threadbare jeans next to a patron clad in sequined Dior.” At Tillie’s, this means a “come what may-meets-cosmopolitan feel that makes Austin so Austin.”
As a result of this change to hospitality development, Austin’s hotel restaurants have, according to Toalson, “become destinations in and of themselves.”
Gifted chefs from Central Texas, from all over the United States, and even from all over the world can find a strong support system in their hotel partners, which gives them a chance to be inventive and to cook the food that they want to cook. As Kish puts it, “the tagline for Austin is ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ which, to me, means individuality, creativity, and a sense of uniqueness. My restaurant fits that because it is my point of view on food, and there is only one me.” The general idea of a hotel isn’t weird, but Austin’s hotels and more importantly, its restaurants, are staying true to the roots of the city by being genuine and, yes, serving great food.