Is even the greatest hotel restaurant doomed to feel forever second best, or is the chance of an outstanding dinner slowly improving?
Galvin at Windows restaurant, The Hilton, Park Lane, London. Photograph: Mark Whitfield
I can't remember the last time I chose to eat in a hotel restaurant. Controlled by accountants, designed by committee, cravenly crowd-pleasing and a mere add-on to the main business, most can be placed on a sliding scale that starts at very bad and tops out at boring.
The feel of most hotels doesn't help. The hustle, the bustle, the business suits in the bar, it all feels like a conveyor belt, a commercial terminus where food is but one route in and out. Surely what you want to feel in a restaurant is some personality, some sense that the place is individual, unique, a loved living entity. Which, in a five-star hotel, is mighty difficult to achieve.
Nico Ladenis came up with one solution when he moved to the Grosvenor House Hotel in 1992. He insisted on an unusual set-up. Hotel guests weren't able to come down from their rooms and walk straight in to his restaurant. Instead, they had to go outside on to Park Lane and use the Chez Nico entrance like everyone else. In a way, this was typical of the man: Ladenis didn't do compromise. He was notorious for chucking a wobbly if a guest asked for salt or had the temerity to order a second G&T. He even ordered customers to sit up straight.
By making sure his restaurant was physically separated from its hotel home he demonstrated the attitude that many people, chefs and diners, have to hotel restaurants. As Jeff Galvin, who worked at Chez Nico, recalls: "a fence went up around the restaurant," and there was, he says, a kind of "bravado that you don't really need hotel guests."
With his brother Chris, Jeff Galvin now runs the Michelin-starred restaurant at the Park Lane Hilton and has just opened La Pompadour at Edinburgh's Caledonian. Galvin takes a very different view to Ladenis: he sees having hundreds of potential customers in the same building as a boon. The Galvins have direct control over how their restaurants look, and after agreeing food margins and labour costs with Hilton, they are left to it on everything from staffing to sourcing. Galvin has lived in Edinburgh for two months, not because Hilton demanded it, but because he wants the kitchen to shine.