London's hoteliers are smiling. Figures for the first quarter of 2004 released a fortnight ago revealed that occupancy and room rates were considerably better than anticipated and a series of reasons were proffered - most notably a higher level of international air travel after the Iraq War and SARS.
One significant explanation for this upturn was, however, not mentioned. Most hoteliers, and not just in London, have behaved like good managers and have not only cut one particular area of their business which had been losing money for some time but have, in certain cases much faster than even they anticipated, turned them into profit centres even if they have not yet recouped all their capital outlay. I refer of course to their restaurants.
This phenomenon, in various guises, has swept through the Savoy Group and seen Nobu open in the Metropolitan Hotel, London. Outside Britain it has seen Alain Ducasse open restaurants in hotels in Monte Carlo, Paris and New York while Joël Robuchon has opened his L'Ateliers in hotels in Paris and Tokyo. Even Ferran Adrià, perhaps the world's most idiosyncratic chef, is tied into a deal with NH Hotels in Spain and has recently opened his first 'Fast Good' restaurant in the NH Eurobuilding, Madrid. And so many independent chefs from New York, LA, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago are now associated with hotels in Las Vegas that I can only imagine that shortly there will be an airline dedicated to conveying them, their staff and their produce into this manicured oasis.
And judging from recent openings, this trend is set to run and run in London. After the success of Locanda Locatelli in the Churchill- InterContinental in Portman Square, Giorgio Locatelli has recently opened Refettorio in the Crowne Plaza by Blackfriars Bridge. Pascal Aussignac and Vincent Labeyrie, whose three Club Gascon outposts around Smithfield Market have just opened Le Cercle next to Phoenix House, an apartment hotel by Sloane Square, serving the same kind of small dishes but sourced from around France rather than just Gascony. And over in the QC Hotel in High Holborn, Pearl has just re-opened with Jun Tanaka as the talented, if over-fussy, chef after what I am sure was a not inexpensive re-design by Keith Hobbs of United Designers who also incidentally designed Le Cercle.
As a financial model, this marriage would seem to have few faults. The hotel closes its old loss-making restaurant, earns compliments instead of criticism and pretty quickly starts to receive an income from the restaurant's operator based on turnover. As a bonus, the investment of a couple of million pounds is much less than the hotel is used to spending on its bedrooms.
For the chef it can be a dream. It is not just that someone else is picking up the bill for a state of the art kitchen and restaurant, but more importantly the huge benefit to cash flow - the financial hole that most independent chefs and restaurateurs face when they open - becomes history. Instead, the hotel pays the bills, recharges the restaurant and receives this and its income at the end of every quarter.
And the customer? Well, everyone assumes that we will all be happy even if no hotelier I know has ever found a practical solution to the question of residents' rights: whether when you book an hotel room you are simultaneously given the opportunity to book a table in the restaurant, automatically granted the right to a meal, or just join the queue.
But there are surely longer-term consequences, most notably the probable disappearance, if this trend continues, of the independent restaurant from the High Street making them an even more homogeneous showcase for global retail brands. As a result, it is more than likely that new openings will be more conservative and not involve, as in the past, the breaking of new culinary boundaries.
Money is as ever the determining factor or, as Locatelli explained even in a successful chef's case, a lack of it. "When I left Zafferano I was 37. I had been cooking for 20 years and I had a Michelin star. And I had £450 in the bank - not quite enough to cover the million or more you need at the very least to open in central London. The offer came along to take over the hotel's loss-making restaurant and with one or two exceptions, most notably when my customers have to cross the rather garish hotel lobby to use the lavatories, the arrangement works. The hotel's management doesn't interfere except, happily, to pick up a cheque for a few hundred thousand a year."
When Locatelli was planning Refettorio, another association with an hotel was not in his plans. "Over the years I have built up close relationships with the best suppliers in Italy and I wanted to open a second place on my own that would be much simpler than Locanda. We found two sites that would have been wonderful and I could just about afford the £200,000 premium. But I was gazumped on both occasions by a much larger company which already has branches around London and whose covenant, if not their cooking, was obviously a safer bet."
I have really enjoyed the food at Refettorio, where there are two menus, convivium, and a more comprehensive and more catholic restaurant menu. The former takes the building blocks of simple Italian food and allows you to construct your own meal: a couple of dozen cheeses including a five year old Parmesan (which Locatelli confessed prompts the hotel's accountants to query why they could not use the much less expensive two year old cheese throughout); the same number of artisanal salami; half a dozen different salads and breads and, the key to Italian food, half a dozen vegetables in vinegar for that vital acidity and bite.
The disadvantages are the restaurant's location and the situation. Walking through the glass doors of a brand new modern building to eat this earthy, peasant food is obviously somewhat incongruous but even more so is the fact that the most memorable meals of this kind involve not just these ingredients but an extended family whose livelihood is inherently involved. However good Locatelli's staff are, this will never be the case in an hotel.
Locatelli is concerned about the financial future for the young, talented chefs who come to him for advice because, as he explained, "It has always been the independent restaurateurs and chefs who have pushed the boundaries. If they are priced out of the market where will the future lie?"
But no sooner had he finished this rhetorical question than Locatelli produced an answer, albeit somewhat far-fetched. "You know, Nick, what would be wonderful would be if someone were to create a Street of Talent which would house a few restaurants where young chefs just paid the rent as a percentage of turnover and then, once they had established themselves, they moved on to let others take their place." With that tantalising idea, Locatelli went back to his hotel kitchen.
Refettorio, 19 New Bridge Street, EC4, 020-7438 8052,
Le Cercle, 1 Wilbraham Place, SW1, 020-7901 9999
Pearl, 252 High Holborn, WC1, 020-7829 7000.