There are few restaurants Hector Tamez frequents more than Uni, the izakaya located in Boston’s boutique Eliot Hotel. Consider the presentation, he says, or how the staff feels like family. Then, of course, there’s the Chiang Mai duck carnitas. “I would take it over several highly ranked Michelin-starred restaurants that I’ve been to any day,” Tamez says.
When the pandemic hit, Tamez continued to support local restaurants, Uni among them, by ordering takeout, but the food was never quite as good, he says. By the summer, Tamez was dining out again, alfresco, limiting his visits to just a handful of restaurants, including Uni. Although indoor dining in Boston resumed in late June, Tamez, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School, wasn’t comfortable sitting down to eat indoors anywhere that wasn’t his home — until he discovered a workaround.
In October, shortly before Halloween, Tamez saw a post on Uni’s Instagram announcing a new feature: Enjoy the restaurant’s a la carte menu in the privacy of one of the Eliot Hotel’s suites. With a maximum of six guests per room and a 90-minute time limit, the experience seemed to Tamez to be a way to enjoy all the perks of indoor dining (like warmth, for one) with the safety of eating at home. “Sure, there’s no data to support that this is necessarily safe,” says Tamez, “but I feel safer in this decision.” He and his wife have dined in the Eliot’s rooms several times in the months after the concept’s debut in early November.
For nearly a year, since the pandemic forced the closure of dining rooms nationwide, restaurants have operated on the brink of collapse. With constantly changing restrictions on indoor dining and the precariousness of relying on revenue from outdoor dining, especially in the midst of brisk winter conditions in much of the U.S., restaurants are forced to regularly innovate in order to stay afloat. Hotels have suffered similarly. Amid a stark decrease in business and recreational travel, hotels across the country averaged 44 percent occupancy during 2020, compared to 66 percent the year prior, according to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. For restaurants housed within hotels, with plenty of empty suites to spare, an inevitable union emerged: Why not briefly fill rooms by offering an exclusive evening of private pandemic dining?
Like a high-end version of room service, diners who come for Uni’s in-suite experience are shown to their bedless private dining area in one of the hotel’s 14 suites allocated to the restaurant. The multiroom suites at the Eliot are divided by a French door; each suite accommodates two parties, separated by this door. The menu is QR-coded, and a masked and gloved server enters the room and takes the party’s entire order in one go. Dishes are then carted from the restaurant into rooms all at once, and diners can enjoy them at their leisure. All the while, the restaurant’s throwback hip-hop soundtrack plays through the bedside Sony alarm clock — simultaneously through all 28 rooms. Sake casks and bottles adorn the credenzas and side tables.
Uni is far from the only hotel restaurant experimenting with in-room dining, though each operation has its idiosyncrasies. The Crossroads Hotel in Kansas City is throwing in an overnight stay with a meal, while at Minneapolis’s Hewing Hotel, pre-recorded videos on each room’s TV describe every course. Some restaurants have repurposed nearby rooms into staging areas in which to plate dishes. For others, anything a customer might need during the meal — more drinks, napkins, or condiments — just requires a quick call to the front desk.
Paramount to the concept’s success is employee safety. In many hotel private dining programs, servers only enter rooms to take orders and then leave the meals on a cart parked just outside the suite. If the staff does have to enter the room multiple times, patrons must be masked. At the Hewing Hotel, Hotel Du Pont, Detroit Foundation Hotel, and Crossroads Hotel, only one party is permitted per room each night, allowing for deeper sanitization and air filtration. Uni’s private dining spaces see two groups per night. At the Crossroads Hotel, chef Ian Wortham has meal delivery down to a science, recording the amount of time it takes each group to complete each dish. That way, Wortham says, “you can go off of time as opposed to having to keep checking in to see where the people are in their meal,” effectively limiting the amount of times a staff member would need to enter the room.
The same day Uni announced its suite dining program on Instagram, Le Crocodile, the French brasserie at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel, opened reservations for its private dining rooms, dubbed Le Crocodile Upstairs. The concept began as an offhand comment chef Aidan O’Neal made at an April public relations meeting in response to the pandemic. He joked that by summer, Wythe Hotel rooms would be utilized for private dining. “It seemed like a crazy idea in April, but as the year progressed, we revisited the idea and then followed through on it,” he says.
What began in a handful of rooms eventually expanded into a 13-room operation, which added 70 seats on top of Le Crocodile’s outdoor patio and indoor service in the restaurant, O’Neal says. When it was up and running, $100 per person allowed parties of up to 10 people to enjoy three courses from the a la carte menu, milling in the hotel room as long as they liked until the 11 p.m. curfew, making for one party per room per night. Each room had the beds removed and replaced with dining tables, beverage storage, and air filters. Demand was immediately and consistently high throughout Le Crocodile Upstairs’ nearly two months of operations.
In accordance with New York City’s current ban on indoor dining, Le Crocodile has temporarily paused all service — including in-suite dining. Though hotel rooms are technically considered a private residence, O’Neal says, “it’s definitely in a gray zone of, is it a restaurant or is it a hotel room? You book the room and you’re not really in the restaurant.” Le Crocodile sought the advice of the governor’s office, which advised the team to consider private dining to be indoor dining and cease operations. Even when indoor dining is permitted in New York City again, O’Neal says his priority lies not in private dining, but in getting the restaurant’s main dining room and patio back up to speed.
While Le Crocodile erred on the side of caution, other proprietors see the hotel room dining loophole as a much-needed opportunity. At Philadelphia’s Walnut Suite Cafe, the private-dining union between Walnut Street Cafe and the AKA University City hotel, restaurant operators embraced in-room supping as a way around the city’s indoor-dining ban that’s been in effect since early December. “If you go and check into the Four Seasons today and order room service, you’d be able to and somebody would bring it into your room,” says Branden McRill, founder of Fine-Drawn Hospitality, which owns and operates Walnut Street Cafe. McRill claims Walnut Suite Cafe’s program is much more akin to room service — where a staff member delivers all the food to your room in one shot — than private dining, and therefore doesn’t flout restrictions.
But it’s the exclusivity of the private-suite experience that has permanently altered the way Hector Tamez, the Harvard cardiologist, views dining out. Restaurants are sometimes too loud, too crowded. In a hotel room, you’re shielded from the masses, you feel important, he says. “You feel like you’re the only person in the restaurant. If the pandemic were to be over tomorrow, and Uni had the opportunity to keep the suite dining, even for a surplus charge I would probably still do it.”
Allie Volpe is writer based in Philadelphia. She has contributed to the New York Times, Playboy, Rolling Stone, the Atlantic, and more. Carolyn Figel is a freelance artist living in Brooklyn.