It had been six months since Nick Bayer and his wife had been on a date. But with freezing temperatures gripping Philadelphia and indoor restaurant service banned, dinner in a tent wasn’t appealing. So instead of sitting outdoors at the Walnut Street Cafe, a local restaurant, they opted for an elegant meal served in a hotel room that had been converted into a private dining space.
Their night out was the result of teamwork between the cafe and AKA City University hotel, part of a growing trend that is attempting to provide business for two industries hardest hit by the pandemic — restaurants and hotels. (This joint effort is being called the Walnut Suite Cafe.)
This isn’t typical room service. The Bayers didn’t sit on the edge of a bed eating tepid food from a cart deposited in the middle of the room. Instead, for $50, they got use of a suite for three hours to enjoy their $65 per person prix fixe meals (not including beverages) served by a waiter at a laid dining table. To minimize contact, the food and beverages are preordered and prepaid. The waiter not only served, but escorted the Bayers to the room on the 31st floor of the hotel, so he was the only person they had contact with all evening.
“We were really excited, my wife and I dressed up,” said Mr. Bayer, who wore a blazer with a pocket square to his dinner on a Wednesday evening with a Nor’easter rolling in.
The logistics are challenging for the restaurant, since the waiters can’t see the diners to sweep in if someone drops a fork or finds their steak overcooked. The service allows for add-ons during the meal by scanning the QR code on the one-use paper menu, which allowed Mr. Bayer to order a second martini.
“So far we’ve been able to anticipate people’s needs and accommodate everything in advance,” said Branden McRill, the chief executive officer and founder of Fine-Drawn Hospitality, which owns and operates the Walnut Street Cafe. But just in case, a card with the restaurant phone number is left on the dining table.
AT HOME: Our best suggestions for how to live a full and cultured life during the pandemic, at home.
Mr. McRill gives credit for the idea to the chef Aidan O’Neal of Le Crocodile brasserie and the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, which created Le Crocodile Upstairs by removing beds and installing custom-made tables in 13 hotel rooms, where private parties of up to 10 could dine ($100 per person for a three-course dinner). The NoMad Manhattan hotel had a similar effort, the NoMad Feast, but both were suspended when stricter dining restrictions for restaurants went into effect in New York in mid-December.
The Bayers, who live just a few blocks from the AKA hotel, went home after dinner. But since the Walnut Suite Cafe launched shortly after Thanksgiving, about 20 percent of guests have opted to stay for the night, with their $50 hotel fee applied to the room charge of $250 for a one-bedroom suite, or $550 for a two bedroom, Mr. McRill said.
Of the 100 hotel rooms at the AKA, 15 suites have been designated for dining, limited to a maximum of four guests per party. For New Year’s Eve, the Walnut Suite Cafe is offering an earlier three-course sitting for $95 per person, (optional $45 wine pairing), or a later five-course meal for $150 per person (optional $65 wine pairing), plus the $50 room fee. No suite is used more than once an evening to allow for proper cleaning.
With New Year’s Eve approaching, similar partnerships have cropped up across the country. Here, some of what’s on offer:
After restrictions in Boston limited outdoor dining to private property, the UNI restaurant moved all its service to nine semiprivate rooms created by taking over the suites on the first two floors of the Eliot Hotel. The beds were removed and one table was set up in the bedroom and another in the front room, with French doors separating the two. Up to six guests per group dine a la carte from the sushi and sashimi menu created by the James Beard Award-winning chef Tony Messina, while the restaurant’s music is piped in to create a familiar ambience.
There is no additional fee for use of the room, but when a party wants the entire suite, there is a minimum $300 food and beverage charge per person. A special tasting menu is being created for New Year’s Eve.
Le Cavalier brasserie opened in the Green Room at the Hotel duPont in Wilmington, Del., during the pandemic. To help with social distancing, some of the hotel rooms are being used exclusively for private dining. Ordering for the family-style meals is done in advance, with a $380 dinner for two featuring two appetizers, two entrees, two sides and one dessert. Each additional person is $150 up to the maximum of 10. Guests can opt to stay overnight, a choice made by about half the diners.
A king bedroom for two with the dining special costs $500. A special New Year’s Eve menu that includes a bottle of champagne begins at $450 for two guests for the evening, or $600 including a night in a classic king bedroom.
In Denver, the Urban Farmer steakhouse has paired with the adjacent Oxford Hotel to offer what they are calling a “steakcation” in converted hotel rooms that have had the beds removed and replaced with dining tables for up to six people. For overnight guests, private use of one of the three dining chambers comes as part of a package that starts with rooms priced from $129, plus a $200 food and drink minimum.
For those not planning to stay the night, the dining rooms are rented for $100 for four hours, in addition to the minimum food charge. The full Urban Farmer menu is available, and on New Year’s Eve, specials will include options such as a charred octopus appetizer and a prime rib entree.
The Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis has transformed 13 hotel rooms into private dining areas for groups of up to six people. The seven-course $110 tasting menu is delivered to the door, and the contactless service continues with the chef, Nyle Flynn, of the Tullibee restaurant explaining his meal via video. An optional $65 wine pairing is also explained remotely. There is a $65 fee for use of the dining room for three hours. Guests receive a 10 percent discount on the price of a stay if they decide to overnight.
A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 28, 2020, Section B, Page 2 of the New York edition with the headline: Want a Nice Dinner Out? Your Hotel Room Awaits. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
One Way to Avoid Other Guests? Book the Entire Hotel
For those who aren’t deterred by a bill in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, buyouts of entire hotels or resorts offer the amenities and services of a hotel and the privacy and control of a vacation rental.
By Sarah Firshein
When Jack Samenuk checked into Zabriskie House this week, there was no mystery about whom he would encounter in the inn’s double parlor or wood-paneled dining room.
The only guests in the 11-bedroom property, which opened in January as part of the Inns of Aurora, a resort in New York’s Finger Lakes region, are Mr. Samenuk’s nearest and dearest: his mother, three siblings and their families, including two children, 3 and 4, and two Labrador retrievers. The group also invited some in-laws to join them for a private dinner and backyard s’mores on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s just going to be us — no one else will be there,” said Mr. Samenuk, 21, a model and Fordham University student who lives in New York City. “I feel like it’ll be our little home away from home.”
That arrangement — a “buyout,” where one group pays for free run of an entire hotel or resort — has become increasingly popular for travelers with means in the Covid-19 era. Zabriskie House buyouts start at $4,500 a night, depending on the time of the year, length of stay and other factors. For those who aren’t deterred by a bill in the thousands, if not tens of thousands, buyouts offer the amenities and services of a hotel and the privacy and control of a vacation rental.
“Buyouts were very ‘of the moment’ even before Covid,” said David Prior, the co-founder of PRIOR, a travel company that specializes in luxury trips. “But now even more so, because you can go with friends or an intergenerational group and still feel safe. It’s almost like a reunion.”
‘A big, safe get-together’
The pursuit of “togetherness” is what motivated Juan Soria, 51, to organize a Thanksgiving trip to Dive Palm Springs, a French Riviera-inspired boutique hotel in California. Buyouts at Dive start around $2,500 a night — the cost of booking all 11 rooms at their standard rate, which start at $225 a night — plus an one-time $5,000 event fee.
“We have a large community of friends who go to parties and events, which we’ve all missed this year,” said Mr. Soria, a technology consultant who lives in San Francisco. “And I thought, ‘I would love to just have a big, safe get-together with our closest friends and have a great time.’”
Before the gathering, Mr. Soria and his wife, Katie Moore, 47, created a Google Slides presentation that detailed hotel floor plans and other logistics, then shared it with the group, which totaled 19 adults, over Zoom. The four-night trip was given an official name (“Mission: ImPALMsible”) and mantra (“Safety, Serenity, Respect”).
Mr. Soria said he chose Dive in part because of its layout: The majority of common spaces, including a large pool area, are outside.
“There’s no way we would want to be taking over, say, a part of a larger property without physical segmentation from other guests,” he said.
Mr. Soria and Ms. Moore worked with the Dive team to ensure certain requests were met. Thanksgiving dinner seating was arranged so that “pods” — either couples or sets of couples that had been quarantining together at home — could sit together.
‘They can really do anything they want’
As Mr. Soria’s experience showed, having the run of the place leads to hotel and resort stays being curated to travelers’ tastes and interests. For a group of clients next year, PRIOR, the travel company, is customizing a buyout of Hotel Garzón, the chef Francis Mallmann’s five-room boutique hotel in Uruguay. But that’s not all: Mr. Mallmann will give a master class on grilling, his culinary specialty, and be on-hand to hobnob with his guests.
AT HOME: Our best suggestions for how to live a full and cultured life during the pandemic, at home.
Bespoke trips of that sort range in price, but usually start at around $5,000 a person, on top of PRIOR’s $249 annual membership fee, Mr. Prior said.
“We work with each location to create something tailored and special,” he said. “It’s like a hybrid of an intimate party and a touring group.”
At Estancia Vik, a 12-suite boutique hotel in José Ignacio, Uruguay, a new buyout package ($6,000 a night) can be customized with activities like private polo demonstrations and moonlit horseback rides.
“Usually when we have a buyout we have all of our resources focused on that group, that makes our options even better and more extensive,” said Tomas Laura, Estancia Vik’s manager.
For six weeks this summer, a group of four adults and four children bought out the seven-bedroom main house — which usually accommodates 14 people — at Cape Arundel Inn & Resort, in Kennebunkport, Maine. They brought along a basketball hoop and trampoline, which the hotel’s maintenance team set up.
“When someone’s taking over the whole property, they can really do anything they want,” said Justin Grimes, the managing director at Kennebunkport Resort Collection, which owns and manages Cape Arundel. “If we were open with a traditional model, we wouldn’t be able to just throw up a basketball hoop. Guests get a really unique experience.”
After a prolonged closure in winter and spring, Cape Arundel reopened with a buyout-only model in June. In addition to the main house, guests can take over the property’s three-bedroom cottage (or both). The switch has allowed the seaside resort to help defray some of the first-half financial losses and keep staff employed, Mr. Grimes said.
“We didn’t want our properties to sit empty for the summer,” he said. “Knowing that they’d be usable in a variety of different ways, we had to make it feel a bit more residential.”
That meant retrofitting a commercial chef’s kitchen with appliances that wouldn’t intimidate the average home cook and creating a de facto business center with desks and printers. Scaled-back service lends an extended-stay feel; guests can cook, just as they would at a vacation rental, or arrange catered or prepared meals.
For operators like Mr. Grimes, a single large group can in many ways be easier to attend to than multiple smaller groups, even with the year’s new health precautions. One point of contact, for instance, means staff can often handle requests remotely — another way to limit in-person interaction. Dining is more streamlined, too.
“If we were operating our restaurant with a full hotel, we would have needed to coordinate dining times, party size and contact-tracing reporting, all in what is a modest-sized dining room,” Mr. Grimes said.
‘We’ve never seen so much demand so early in the season’
Before the pandemic, most luxury hotels arranged buyouts upon request. Many now offer formalized buyout packages to attract the increased interest.
“We’ve never seen so much demand so early in the season,” said Nina Libby, the vice president of marketing at Caldera House, an eight-suite hotel and alpine club in Jackson Hole, Wyo. “Families are excited to reunite, but people are making safety a priority during their vacations this year.”
Caldera House’s new buyout package starts at $21,900 a night for a minimum of seven nights. Experiences might include sleigh rides through the National Elk Refuge or, for an added fee, a private ski session with Bode Miller, the Olympic gold medalist.
Larger hotels and resorts are also getting in the game. Groups who can fill a minimum of 70 suites can take over Casa Velas, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for $49,420 a night. The new “Tower Takeover” (price upon request) at the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino allows groups to buy out one of the hotel’s three towers (the smallest has 80 rooms). The new buyout package at InterContinental New York Times Square (from $100,000 a night) affords access to a minimum of 200 rooms, the 4,000-square-foot ballroom and more.
But for William and Alexandra Cobb, 27 and 25, the fewer, the merrier.
The Philadelphia couple rented out Sheldon Chalet, a five-bedroom luxury hotel in Alaska’s Denali National Park, for their October wedding. No seating charts needed: Their guest list featured only themselves.
“It had to be something that was private,” said Mr. Cobb, a consultant for private equity firms. “We wanted something that was just us.”
Reachable only by private helicopter, Sheldon Chalet transitioned to a buyout-only model in March. The starting rate is $35,000 for a three-night minimum.
“They did everything for us,” said Ms. Cobb, an occupational therapist. “We ate crab cakes on a glacier after taking a fixed-wing flight. We really wanted espresso martinis, and they experimented with five different recipes.”
Yet when it was time to celebrate, the newlyweds discovered they weren’t, in fact, totally alone.
“They set up a disco ball for the night of our wedding,” Ms. Cobb said, adding, “The staff partied with us the whole night.”
A version of this article appears in print on Dec. 31, 2020, Section B, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: One Way to Avoid Other Vacationers? Book the Entire Hotel. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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