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Hotel Restaurants Begin to Cut Fat and Lose Some Wait : Dining: Quicker and lighter fare is reshaping hotels' upscale eateries. In some lobbies, meal service is a la pushcart.

August 20, 1995|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

If you're a traveler who looks forward to long, fancy meals in formal hotel dining rooms, your options may be shrinking. But if you'd rather be able to grab a light, affordable dinner or a late-night snack, and you'd rather not wait for room service, take heart: Many hotels are coming around to your way of thinking.

After struggling mightily in recent years to make their fancy dining rooms pay for themselves, many of this country's leading chain hotels are moving their high-end restaurants down-market or adding informal dining options alongside them. Throughout the world of Hiltons, Hyatts, Sheratons and their brethren, grills, bistros and self-service operations are blooming.

The recent recession is one factor. But so are the decreasing length of the average American vacation--making travelers more eager to get out of their hotels--and the reduced tax-deductibility of business meals.

Traditionally, hoteliers have often been satisfied if their upscale restaurants could break even, on the theory that it helps sell the hotel to amenity-hungry travelers. Apparently, enough of us are avoiding those time- and money-gobbling restaurants that changes are being made.

In the last year, Hilton airport hotels in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta have opened 24-hour Intermezzo restaurants, which offer self-service sandwiches, pizzas and other light fare for travelers who may be arriving from other time zones.

Peter Kleiser, senior vice president for food and beverage operations at Hilton, notes that the L.A. Airport Hilton also has replaced its relatively pricey Alexander's restaurant (Kleiser's estimate of the average dinner bill: about $30) with the lighter, brighter offerings of Andiamo (average bill: about $24). Another Andiamo has opened at the O'Hare Hilton in Chicago, in place of the old-fashioned steakhouse atmosphere of the O'Hare Dining Room.

Last year, Hiltons in Washington and Orlando, Fla., replaced fancy dining rooms with more informal operations known as Grill 1919 and Finn's Grill.

The Beverly Hills Hilton closed its high-end L'Escoffier restaurant in August, 1994, leaving Trader Vic's as the fanciest eatery on the property, and freeing up the L'Escoffier rooms (and its spectacular view) for receptions and banquets.

"We make much more money with that space now than we ever did before," Kleiser says.

Meanwhile, the food and beverage specialists at Hyatt have decided to introduce Sarah's Pantry--a convenience store and coffeehouse created in the late 1980s to serve Hyatt resorts--to many Hyatt city hotels. The first was the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in Chicago, which opened its Sarah's last year. The next, in mid-September, is to be the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. Also, more than 25 Hyatts now maintain lobby coffee kiosks, counters or carts with drinks and breakfast pastries.

The company has taken another step in the same direction with the Market Stand Cafe, a self-service three-meals-daily restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Columbus in Ohio. The cafe, which opened in April, includes a bakery, deli, grill, grocery and an ice cream shop, and although they're disclosing no further details, Hyatt officials say they expect to open replicas soon at other hotels.

Within Sheraton's chain of more than 260 corporate and franchised hotels in North America, coffee carts with pastries have been added in San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and New York, and officials are hoping to win guests back to the idea of room service by cutting prices, dressing up menus and lengthening hours of service in some hotels.

But a deeper glimpse into Sheraton's restaurant plans is visible at the Sheraton Bal Harbor Beach Resort near Miami. There, the hotel has closed its Bal Harbor Bar and Grill in preparation for the October opening of Al Carbon, which is to be a "South American/Mediterranean" bistro with a hefty tapa menu, lots of ironwork and tile, wood floors and an open kitchen, an atmosphere designed to be far less formal than the old bar and grill. Also, a full-length dinner in the new restaurant is expected to take 90 minutes to two hours--a substantial change from the old days of three-hour lunches. If Al Carbon succeeds, Sheraton officials say, they will view it as a benchmark for change at other hotels.

*

Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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