San Diego chefs flip the paradigm on hotel dining with six new and notable restaurants worthy of becoming dining destinations
Hotel restaurants used to have a reputation for serving overpriced convenience food to a so-called captive audience with a forgettable combination of white tablecloths and beige food. A perfunctory dining option if you were checking in late in the evening, grabbing a quick breakfast before heading out on your day’s activities, or the default choice for a business luncheon during a conference. Hotels, even, often looked at food and beverage as a loss leader for revenues, but a necessary amenity that guests expected like a musty gym or in-room coffee maker.
Today, that paradigm has flipped. Many of San Diego’s hottest restaurant openings of the past year have just-so-happened to be in hotels—and locals are flocking. Joining more veteran standout concepts like Serẽa at the Hotel Del Coronado, here are six of this year’s most exciting new openings.
“The public is finally moving away from the idea that hotel spots are boring, predictable or bland.”
~ Bill Mckinney
One of the most buzzed-about openings this year included the return of hometown celebrity chef Claudette Zepeda as executive chef of VAGA. The seasonal menu is a self-described ‘love letter’ to San Diego, focused on local sourcing from land (Cyclops Farms, Chino Farms) to sea (Saraspe Seafood), as much as possible within an hour of the restaurant. Dining at the Alila Marea Beach Resort Encinitas signature restaurant provides visitors with a taste of San Diego from simple, ingredient-focused California dishes to inventive SoCal-Mex. Bill Mckinney, the Director of Food and Beverage, offers, “At VAGA, we’re able to take chances that would have made many hoteliers cringe just a few years ago. As the faith and investment in concepts like this one become more common, the public is finally moving away from the idea that hotel spots are boring, predictable or bland.”
While opening a restaurant in a hotel comes with some advantages, like tapping into two audiences instead of only one, it comes with its own challenges as well. Mckinney explains, ”You’re functionally opening multiple restaurants, and that’s even if you only have one outlet. In most cases, you’re opening for breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service, and banquets all at once. In most cases in the independent world, you’re able to focus on one meal period and expand your business over time as demand increases.” Even so, Mckinney doesn’t see the trend reversing. “Having the cachet that comes with a notable restaurant or bar draws people to your hotel and keeps people talking. That can be hard to quantify, but any good hotel operator knows that keeping people interested in your destination is worth its weight in gold.”
To start, try the flavorful Crispy Dan Dan Pasty, smoked ground beef with garlic and charred leek in a savory pastry. The Baja Sea Bass is a standout main dish with green goddess, spiced ghee, and Marcona almond basmati.
“We are seeing more restaurant-centric guest stays than ever before.”
~ Caitlin Daimler
Westerly Public House anchors The Monsaraz, a new Tapestry Collection by Hilton hotel in Point Loma. The 92-room hotel tapped local management company, RAR Hospitality, as well as a San Diego chef, Jesse Paul, for the restaurant. Westerly Public House was designed with an Australian flair, inspired by the similarities between Sydney and San Diego. A spacious 4,000 square-foot courtyard is a main draw of the space, with a vibrant mural by Betty Larkin Design Studio.
Food & Beverage Manager Caitlin Daimler shares the vision for the restaurant. "Hotel restaurants were always considered to be either formal concepts associated with fine dining and high price tags or uninspired food centered around convenience. Now, restaurants are forming their own identities independent of the hotels in which they are established. They are an attraction in their own right, and we are seeing more restaurant-centric guest stays than ever before.”
The Bloomin’ Mushroom might sound like a chain knock-off, but the fried enoki mushrooms are fantastic in their own right, with an earthy flavor and delicate texture. For dessert, the Pot du Creme is the chef’s specialty, an elevated combination of butterscotch with sea salt ganache, whisky whipped cream, and caramel popcorn.
“Piper highlights Oceanside and the surrounding area, showcasing local products and goods.”
~ Kurtis Habecker
The 226-room Seabird Resort in Oceanside opened this summer along with its signature Piper Restaurant focused on California cuisine. Chef Kurtis Habecker helms Piper as well as The Shore Room, the resort’s ocean-view bar. Later this year they will launch Farm-to-Table Tours, showcasing Oceanside's burgeoning agritourism scene to guests. For locals, The Seabird Resort is only a couple blocks from the Oceanside Transit Center, making the destination an easy train ride.
Habecker says, “we made it a point to create a sense of place and community in Piper that highlights Oceanside and the surrounding area, specifically showcasing local products and goods.”
Habecker recommends, “the Caramelized French Toast is a must-try for the table. We tried to make our menu elevated but approachable while having fun, injecting some whimsy and twists on classics. For example, take the Everything but the Bagel Flat Bread. We take your classic bagel and lox and Piperize it. It starts with both housemade flatbread and smoked salmon. Cream cheese, smoked onions, capers, dill, and housemade everything bagel spice. For bagel lovers, we combine a Croque Monsieur (or you can make it a Madame) and use the Hasselback method to enhance flavor. Our Market Fruit gets the same focus. Starting with San Diego produce, we compress some to enhance the visual appeal, add a yogurt foam to lighten up the eating experience, and serve with housemade granola and honey from one of our manager’s father's farm.”
“There’s the feeling of being on vacation that comes with resort dining.”
~ Nick Green
During the multimillion-dollar renovation of L’Auberge, Adelaide was introduced along with upgrades to guest rooms, lobby, and more, replacing the former, more casual Coastline restaurant. Adelaide Executive Chef Nick Green offers, “Being able to include the opening of Adelaide in such a pivotal moment for the property was a huge advantage for us in terms of generating excitement. Adelaide soft-opened back in April at a time when people were becoming more comfortable with the idea of travel and visiting hotels again. With the past year and a half being somewhat unpredictable for food and beverage businesses across the board, it was challenging for us to predict and plan for what demand was going to look like. We’ve been very fortunate in that Adelaide has been incredibly well received by the local community as well as our hotel guests.”
Green understands the draw of hotel restaurants for locals, offering a chance to create a get-away along with your meal. “With hotels, you have the option of making an entire outing of it — there’s the possibility of an overnight staycation, pre-dinner drinks at a lobby bar and the feeling of being on vacation that comes with resort dining…. It gives them the feeling of being somewhere else.” With that appeal, approximately half of the restaurant’s diners are locals who come for both the food and ambiance.
The Beef Tartare combines marinated lettuce root and miso-eggplant aioli for Chef Green’s take on the classic starter, served with house-made sourdough bread. The scallops entree features heirloom tomato, Persian cucumber, shiso, and pickled blueberry, in a tomato vinaigrette.
“The resort can offer a unique setting and experience that feels more like a vacation getaway than just a dinner date.”
~ April Shute
Opened in August 2020, ARLO launched just outside of the past year, but set the stage for many of the more recent hotel restaurant debuts. The restaurant accompanied a $70 million renovation to the Town and Country resort with midcentury modern decor and Palm Springs-inspired design. ARLO is under the direction of chef Josh Mouzakes, who has experience with upscale hotel restaurants both in San Diego (Hotel del Coronado) and beyond (MGM Grand Las Vegas). April Shute, Vice President & Area Managing Director, shares that one advantage of opening a restaurant in a hotel as opposed to a standalone concept is support and benefits. “This is especially critical in the post Covid world of short staffing.”
ARLO also just launched a new weekend brunch menu that offers the perfect excuse to sit on their pool and palm-lined patio and feel transported for a few hours. Try the chocolate pancakes with goat cheese if you’re feeling adventurous, or a hashbrown benedict.
Park Hyatt Aviara reopened in October of 2020 after a $50 million property renovation, including signature restaurant Ember & Rye, featuring ‘Top Chef’ Richard Blais, which debuted this spring. Read more about Ember & Rye at: ediblesandiego.com/articles/now-open-ember-rye
This article was originally published October 20, 2021 exclusively on Edible San Diego Weekly. Want to join the club? Support the region's only dedicated, local, and independently-owned food media company by signing up for a digital membership or subscription today.