Profusion of haute hotels in Austin sets a new bar for guests

Remember when TGI Fridays was one of the most popular hotel restaurants in Austin?

Poised on the edge of Lady Bird Lake, TGI Fridays was a family-friendly option tucked into the back of the Radisson hotel. Nachos, burgers and chicken fingers were in ample supply when patrons took the kids for a bite then ventured outside to watch the bats fly from underneath the Congress Street bridge.

What a change a few years makes.

The bats still draw dozens of nature lovers every day, but the old dining standbys are bygones.

Appetites have definitely shifted. Consumers are demanding a higher level of sophistication and choice especially now that 2,500 new hotel rooms have been delivered near downtown since the latest development wave started in 2010 — and the array of food options accompanying them have been elevated like a decadent chocolate soufflé.

Even TGI Fridays received an extreme makeover — from darkened 1980s-style sports bar to airy and elegant contemporary dining room.

It’s not uncommon these days for visitors and locals alike to spend their free time lounging around a hotel, knocking back a cocktail or two.

The shift is evident by tracking liquor tabs that prove how much the right mix of booze, food and ambiance can pad a hotel’s bottom line.

Follow the liquor trail

Since the JW Marriott hotel opened at Second Street and Congress Avenue in February 2015, the 1,012-room hotel with three restaurants and a vibrant lobby bar has dominated Austin Business Journal’s monthly “Liquor Ticker” survey — a compilation of alcohol sales tracked by taxes collected.

In the past 12 months, the JW Marriott generated almost $11 million in liquor sales — far surpassing any other hotel, special venue, restaurant or bar. Other hotels also have collected hefty liquor revenue.

Even the new South Congress Hotel — a boutique hotel of less than 100 rooms — is getting in on the action. Though it’s been open less than a year, the hotel produced nearly $2.9 million in liquor sales, which ranks it No. 5 for liquor revenue among Austin-area hotels for the past 12 months.

An extensive food and beverage program — including a full-service cafe, coffee and juice bar, lobby bar, a more formal grill and bar and a 12-seat sushi/Asian joint — was a key factor in the hotel’s development, said Nate Wales, director of operations for New Waterloo, the South Congress Hotel’s developer and operator.

Plenty of money and thought went into creating the right synergy — leveraging hotel stays with food receipts — and choosing the right personnel to execute the plan.

“Restaurants are a complex mix of art and commerce, and when the chef and management dynamic is balanced it creates magic,” Wales said.

As such, New Waterloo invested in three experienced culinary experts to maximize the dining experience: Michael Paley, formerly of Hotel Ella and the acclaimed 21 C Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky; Yoshi Okai, a veteran of Uchi, Austin’s internationally known sushi restaurant; and Amanda Rockman, a former semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for pastry chef.

That commitment represented a risk, but one that appears to be paying dividends.

Meanwhile, one of Austin’s largest hotels and the official convention center hotel — Hilton Austin — has made significant investments to stay relevant as competition heats up. Don’t forget: the mammoth Fairmont hotel will open later this year on the other side of the convention center.

Justin Garner, Hilton Austin’s food and beverage director, said it’s not enough to operate a restaurant or two merely as an amenity for overnight guests.

The bar has been raised — and with strong precedent, he said.

“If you look back to history, all of the great chefs and great restaurants were in hotels. Look to the great European chefs and those in New York and Chicago in the 1930s and 40s. They all worked in hotels,” Garner said.

In the past year Hilton Austin has invested $23 million primarily for upgrades in its hotel and beverage program — an investment well spent, it seems — including the opening of its new signature eatery, Cannon + Belle.

“Restaurants are a huge part of the hotel experience now,” Garner said. “That means more relevant food and bar menus, higher quality ingredients prepared by more talented chefs, cooks and bartenders.”

Secret sauce

Hiring a talented chef was part of the secret sauce whipped up by the owners of the new Archer Hotel at The Domain Northside. It’s about 20 minutes north of Sixth Street, but in an up-and-coming area considered by many to be Austin’s second downtown.

David Bull, one of Austin’s first chefs with national cachet, was brought on to open a Second Bar + Grill following the success of the first location right across the street from the JW Marriott.

Bull also brings with him the clout of a larger hospitality organization — La Corsha Hospitality, which operates other successful restaurants in Texas.

Jeff Trigger, the founder and president of La Corsha, relished the idea of returning to the hotel sector. Previously, he managed the highly acclaimed Mansion on Turtle Creek and Adolphus Hotel — both in Dallas. Trigger also led the team that restored The Driskill to its historic glory in downtown Austin. He knows that market segment well.

That kind of track record — and connection within the Austin community — was important to LodgeWorks, a Wichita, Kansas-based company that built and operates The Archer. This is LodgeWorks’ debut in Austin, so credibility with the home crowd was paramount.

“With La Corsha’s talent and hospitality background, guests… can expect an incredible local culinary offering,” said Cheryl Gilliam, senior vice president of brands and marketing for LodgeWorks.

Local continuity was a prime driver for Hotel Van Zandt, which is operated by another company based outside of Austin yet is focused on preserving cultural vibes and values.

San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels designed Van Zandt with a distinctly music-driven, Austin vibe — and it paid attention to small cultural details.

Geraldine’s, the hotel’s signature restaurant, for instance, was named after a beloved guinea fowl that roamed the neighborhood around the hotel. It was a small but succinct gesture, part of solving a much bigger riddle.

“We always ask ourselves, ‘Would an Austinite hang out here?’” said Joe Pagone, general manager of Hotel Van Zandt.

It appears the answer is “yes.” The hotel and its highly designed restaurant have drawn strong business and reviews.

Upping the ante

The property that really upped the ante in downtown Austin was the W Austin hotel, which threw open its doors December 2010. Locals and out-of-towners have flocked there partly because of its affiliation with ACL Live at the Moody Theater — a music venue that’s been hitting all the high notes as part of the overall development.

Here, too, liquor receipts pack a wallop and it’s because a lot of locals hang out there. The W Austin usually lands in the top three for alcoholic beverage revenues each month — almost $5 million in the past year.

That big number is complemented by some smaller details that might not be readily apparent to the average consumer.

Trace, the W Austin’s signature restaurant, was the first concept restaurant in the entire upscale W Hotel chain. The name reflects the emphasis on fresh, locally sourced products — thus, the ability to “trace” the ingredients.

“We deliver a true taste of Central Texas,” said Drew McQuade, general manager of W Austin.

He knows the competition is stiff and bound to get stiffer with another 2,000 hotel rooms under construction or about to break ground in downtown alone. The W Austin is up for the challenge, McQuade said.

“While there are more options than ever for diners, we find that guests still put great value in dining with us,” he said.

Source: Austin Business Journal
Jan Buchholz, Senior Staff Writer

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