Monday, August 27, 2007

'High end' SF hotels will take your money and then not talk to you

San Francisco hotels that have sunk tens of millions of dollars into renovations, built fancy new bars and restaurants and swank new spas, and manage to hire plenty of staff to sell you rooms and collect your money can't be bothered to pay a single person to lend you advice on where to go when you're in town, the Bay Guardian reports.

The newspaper examines the practice of outsourced concierge service in the context of San Francisco, and the results are surprising.

Outsourced concierge service is where the hotel doesn't actually have a concierge, but lets a biased company like a tour bus line or travel website operator stand in its lobby, at its desk and hand out advice to gullible tourists.

What struck me about the Bay Guardian story is how many hotels that outsource their concierges have been on a spending spree lately, ostensibly trying to upgrade to the upper hotel tier:
  • The Westin Market Street has gone through many different outsourced concierge companies and is now looking for the newest one, according to the Guardian; yet the company recently spent $29 million renovating its rooms and building out a new restaurant, Ducca. It now bills itself as "an oasis of sophistication."
  • The Sir Francis Drake is trying to become a four star hotel, a representative of its owner Oxford Lodging told me recently, and has undergone a $20 million renovation that saw the installation of a new lobby bar. It continues to operate with an outsourced concierge.
  • San Francisco boutique hotel company Kimpton finished the Argonaut in 2002 after a $40 million renovation of an historic building and as part of unique partnership with the National Park Service. It is arguably Kimpton's leading property in San Francisco.
  • The Hyatt Regency Embarcadero is considered an iconic city hotel in a prime location and was acquired earlier this year for $200 million. No spare change for a concierge?
Bay Guardian: Concierges on the cheap / SF hotels outsource tourist services to the tour bus companies, unbeknownst to their guest


Foodies are amoral creeps, including Michael Pollan, says Atlantic writer

Quick, read it while the Google cache still exists!

Atlantic writer B.R. Myers savages foodies, starting with Michael Pollan, for celebrating the joys of feeding while ignoring, even mocking, the suffering of animals:
The pleasures of the oral cavity are now widely regarded as more important, more intrinsically moral, and a more vital part of civilized tradition than any other pleasures ... This can be seen in the public’s toleration of a level of cruelty in meat production that it would tolerate nowhere else ...

This is a prime example of food writers’ hostility to the very language of moral values. In mocking and debasing it, they exert, with Madison Avenue’s help, a baleful influence on American English as a whole. If words like sinful and decadent are now just a cutesy way of saying “delicious but fattening,” so that any serious use of them marks the speaker as a crank ...
Agree with it or not, Myers' essay presents an intriguing argument about food and foodie culture that will keep you reading. It is presented as a review of Pollan's Omnivore's Dilmema, and presents that book in a unique new light.

The essay is supposed to be roped off only for Atlantic subscribers, but Google still offers the essay for free from its cache:

Hard to Swallow page 1 (google cache)

Hard to Swallow page 2 (google cache)
Hard to Swallow page 3 (google cache)
Hard to Swallow page 4 (google cache)

Lest you think I post this to bash Michael Pollan, I should note that Myers clearly admires his work and praises two thirds of Omnivore's Dilemma in no uncertain terms.

Myers, by the way, put himself on the map with the thrilling A Reader's Manifesto, an essay attacking literary pretension.

(Also in the same issue of the Atlantic, an essay on San Francisco's Camp Bread and the scones therein.)

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Aqua taking Fifth Floor in 'very French direction,' source says

Laurent ManriqueGriffin Capital's $58 million acquisition of Hotel Palomar from Kimpton included a detailed agreement on how the Fifth Floor restaurant would evolve, a source close to the deal told me, including Aqua Development Corp. running the restaurant, a female chef who has already been specified and an overhaul that takes the restaurant in "a very French direction."

This is all from my Business Times story Friday.

More and more hotel managers are entirely outsourcing restaurant operations. Ducca at Westin Market Street is being run by Puccini Group, who will also run Eno, the wine, cheese and chocolate bar in the Westin St. Francis.

Kimpton also plans to tweak the menu under the new executive chef at Scala's, Patrick Robertson, and as reported here previously, at Grand Cafe to renovate the bar and take the menu in a more French and casual direction.

Business Times: Kimpton spices up hotel restaurants (free link)

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Zuni, Quince buy their produce in Berkeley

Tonight Anne and I watched the engaging documentary "Eat at Bill's," about Monterey Market in Berkeley, and learned that chefs from Zuni, Quince, Foreign Cinema and other San Francisco restaurants cross the bay to buy vegetables and fruit there, a mile from our home.

I knew Monterey Market as the place where Anne could get sour cherries for pie at certain times of year, and as the neighborhood place with better variety than Berkeley Bowl, which is a much longer drive away (albeit with longer hours).

What I didn't realize is that Monterey Market has become a key supporter of pioneering farmers and a hub for some of the most interesting produce out there. Nor did I realize how many culinary maestros slip in its back door every morning.

I was pessimistic that a documentary about a produce market could fill an hour. Eat at Bill's is an uplifting and fun movie that unexpectedly brought me close to tears.

I checked the movie out from the library, another option is to buy the DVD online for $20. They also carry it at Monterey Market.

The filmmaker, Lisa Brenneis, wrote more about the movie in Edible East Bay.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thomas Keller's Sysco fries are totally punk rock, blogger says

In which Laura Froelich makes Michael Pollan cry some more
Dear Michael Pollan,

There, there.

We know you're down because Nancy Pelosi personally hung, bled and skinned your farm reform bill in a Smithfield abattoir on account of it being terrorism, the kind of terrorism that keeps Democrats from controlling Congress again in 2008, when the new president might give them permission to finally end the war or whatever.

Might we suggest some ways to cope with your depression, Michael? Start with some bourbon, neat, followed perhaps by a kill-crazy rampage in which you and your mob personally smash all tractors, ethanol tanks and lifesaving hospital technology your great great grandmother's great great grandmother wouldn't recognize as anything other than witchcraft.

And then fire up your laptop (named for a genetically engineered fruit no doubt!) and log on to food writer Laura Froelich's blog, where she says prepared French fries from Sysco, the massive food service company, are the absolute best in the world, far better than the ones made by hand in a fussy traditional French style by Tony Bourdain in New York.

Laura is especially fond of the Sysco fries served in gauche Las Vegas by agribusiness giant Thomas Keller. As an Archer Daniels Midland spokesman Keller's rep told New York Magazine:
One of the top reasons Bouchon uses frozen French Fries is consistency ... the consistency in these fries is often better than that of fresh potatoes.

The second reason is capacity. Bouchon would need to use over 200 pounds of potatoes a day to fulfill French Fry orders.

Laura Froelich is also a fan of the product. She writes of Bouchon's frozen, government-subsidized corporate welfare fries:

In my opinion, the Keller fries were stellar. Thin-cut (but not too thin), crispy (but not crunchy) on the outside, light and fluffy on the inside, and just the right proportions of oil and salt.

Feeling better already, Michael? Thought so! Interest you in a FunYun??

Fro Fro Blog: Chowdown - Keller vs. Bourdain

New York Magazine: Keller Cops to Using — No! — Frozen Fries

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ogden has 'less active role' in Lark Creek Restaurant Group, Dellar says

My coworker Elizabeth Browne at the Business Times reports in this week's issue on all the growth at Lark Creek Restaurant Group, and interestingly gets co-founder Michael Dellar to admit that his partner, chef Bradley Ogden, has taken a big step back from the business.

It seems Ogden is especially uninvolved in Bay Area restaurants like Yankee Pier and Lark Creek Steak, according to money man Dellar. From the story:
The 8,000-square-foot Bradley Ogden opened at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas in 2003, and was named best new restaurant for 2004 by the prestigious James Beard Foundation. Ogden moved to Las Vegas to start the venture and has since taken a less active role in the company, Dellar said, with culinary efforts now headed by Adrian Hoffman, former chef at One Market.
I asked Dellar about his relationship with Ogden in February. He said Ogden was still with the company but had pulled back:

He's just not here very much ... He's here occaissionally -- he makes regular visits here, but his time is spent more and more with our business partners [for example in Las Vegas].

In the Meantime, Dellar is growing the company from 11 restaurants now to 13 in 2008 and 16 in 2009, in the greater Bay Area and "Southern California, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Ariz. and the Seattle area." Revenue companywide will be around $45 million this year.

Business Times: Lark Creek is flowing into new locations (subscriber-only link for three weeks)

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Aqua takeover of Fifth Floor approaches

At a cocktail reception last night for the Grand Cafe's new executive cheif, Mauro Pando, I asked everyone I encountered about the situation at another Kimpton hotel restaurant, Fifth Floor, which has been in management contract talks with Laurent Manrique's Aqua Development Corp.

It sounds like that deal is about to happen.

Here's what someone from the Fifth Floor told me: "it's not going to be a big surprise" when the restaurant announces its new executive chef, likely later this week. This was after I asked about Laurent and Aqua.

When Mauro told a couple of us that he lives up in Carneros, I asked if Laurent didn't live up that way as well and whether he'd be overseeing Grand Cafe. His only reply was a chuckle.

We'll see. The possibility of Laurent working at Aqua was first reported in the Chronicle's Inside Scoop.

Another salient detail is that the Fifth Floor and its hotel, the Palomar, have been up for sale for some time. I first reported this back in December.

At Grand Cafe, Pando is returning the restaurants to its traditional French roots, but also taking prices down a notch. He is presenting more casual, brasserie fare, "a very country approach" with rural dishes like cassoulet.

He is also renovating the "petit cafe" and bar, including adding a zinc bar and bringing in more light.

(For the record, I did not partake in the free dinner following the reception.)

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Monday, August 13, 2007

Chow eyeing Jack London Square in Oakland, even as food hall shrinks

San Francisco restaurant Chow is interested in a location in Oakland's Jack London Square, the East Bay Express reported Wednesday, even as the square's developers struggle to attract other food tenants.

Meanwhile, the developers have cut way back on the restaurant and food component of the so-called "Harvest Hall" at the center of the Jack London Square expansion, I reported Friday. It was going to be 185,000 square feet of sit-down restaurants, food stalls, produce shops, meat markets, a cooking school, exhibitions and other food attractions.

Now it's two-thirds offices, with only the lower two of six floors dedicated to food. Apparently this was allowed under the entitlements approved by the city council a couple of years ago.

The changes were put forward after the developers closed on $200 million in construction financing for the first half of the development. Office is easier to fund these days than food, particularly if you are taking a Slow Food approach.

Business Times: Oakland's Harvest Hall will be mostly offices / Developers line up $200M to begin (free link)
East Bay Express: Back to Square One

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

House wine still sucks, but is now pretty

So remember how restaurants used to mix up the last dregs of wine bottles opened months ago, creating a nasty slush known as "house wine" which they would sell at a very slight discount to college students and other suckers?

Or maybe they would just pick some cheap-ass wine and designate it the "house wine" for the rest of the month?

Well forget all that! Contemporary house wine is totally different and new and chichi and awesome!

See now, instead of making house wine from actual wine that was actually corked, the restaurants are going straight to the wineries and asking for leftover grape juice that didn't even make it into bottles so they can mix it all together in giant containers and serve it in DEAD SEXY glass containers with etching on the side and everything!

As San Francisco magazine reports, the whole thing is very noble and responsible and restaurants would practically be burning down the planet and destroying the wine industry if they didn't sell cheap-ass wine:
In an attempt to reduce waste and lower wine prices, Salt House, under the guidance of co-owner Doug Washington, started partnering with local wineries to create custom blends of house wines served on tap. Imagine: no corks! More money for dessert!
Also doing this are Laiola and Two, aka Hawthorne Lane.

Most of the house wines are a blend of three types of grapes, like Salt House's "Athena Seniors Red '05," which is Cab, Zin and Syrah. Two offers some house wines of a single grape type, like Sangiovese, and there are some two-grape blends at the other places.

At Salt House, the house wines are priced around $10 per bottle lower than the cheapest wines, and are available by the half bottle and glass.

If I'm being a little harsh and catty here (hard to imagine!!), it's probably because I'm totally jealous of Marcia from Tablehopper for sniffing out the story and getting it into SF Mag.

In all seriousness, this is an interesting trend.

(No link, SF Mag story not online.)


UC Berkeley to finally get a decent hotel

Chip Conley's Joie de Vivre Hospitality is opening its first hotel in the East Bay following its takeover and planned $9 million renovation of the historic Hotel Durant, one block from the UC Berkeley campus.

Joie de Vivre is also poised to takeover the Waterfront Plaza hotel at Jack London Square in conjunction with Ellis Partners LLC, which owns Jack London Square.

Based in San Francisco, Joie de Vivre is expanding aggressively throughout California. It entered the Los Angeles market just two years ago and now has four hotels there, including the recently-acquired Sportsmen's Lodge in Studio City. Conley told me the company is finishing negotiations with two more LA-area hotels. (None of this LA stuff made it into my story).

The Durant in Berkeley is an interesting buy for Joie de Vivre. The company may finally give the University of California the hotel it so richly deserves.

I have lived in Berkeley for 13 years, including 9 years within a block of this hotel, and my wedding guests lodged at the Durant this past June. The hotel has a lot of potential, with great bones, a rich history and a bustling bar.

But like the other major hotel near campus, Hotel Shattuck, it lacks in both amenities and service. The Durant is 80 years old and it shows, from the creaky elevators to the lack of air conditioning to the unreliable plumbing.

If you want a better hotel, you have to go to the Claremont, an expensive resort up in the hills, or to the DoubleTree at the Berkeley Marina. Neither are within easy walking distance of the campus.

The Faculty Club on campus has just 10 spartan rooms. The Bancroft Hotel across the street from campus looks nice from the outside but only has about two dozen rooms.

The university wants to partner with Carpenter & Co. on a fancy hotel and conference center just west of campus, a better location than the Durant from both the freeway and BART, but there is skepticism over whether this plan will ever happen at all.

Business Times: Hotel firm Joie de Vivre makes first East Bay foray (free link)

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