Four Seasons to close restaurant, renovate

November 11, 2011 (CHICAGO)

After the ball drops next month, so will the hammer. "It will be more approachable, more fun," said the hotel's Executive Chef, Kevin Hickey. "You're gonna have the same passionate level of excitement – great quality, locally-sourced ingredients – but it will be at a more accessible price point."

The former Seasons -- which, at 22, is as old as the hotel itself -- will become a junior ballroom and private event space; a similar fate befell its sister property, The Ritz, which closed its majestic Dining Room several years ago, turning it into a private space. That gave way to a more casual restaurant, deca, in the hotel's main lobby.

The trend toward more casual dining has not been lost on other hotel restaurant operators. Within the past year alone, the Park Hyatt has attempted to transform its elegant NoMI into the more casual NoMI Kitchen; The Peninsula has announced that its four-star jewel -- Avenues -- will become a private event/meeting space, now that chef Curtis Duffy has left; the Elysian's Balsan restaurant has instituted casual, Sunday family dinners; just last week, with the paint barely dried at the revamped Public Hotel -- home to the completely transformed Pump Room -- news came out of Highland Park that after 30 years, Carlos' would be shutting down after New Year's Eve to re-concept as well. It appears the era of white tablecloths and multi-course, tuxedo'd servers is coming to an end, at least in Chicago.

"It doesn't bother me," said Hickey, a Bridgeport native who returned home seven years ago, after stints in Dublin, London, Atlanta and Los Angeles. "I think fine-dining has evolved. I think the customers have changed what they want, and what they expect from a dining experience. The formality and the multi-hour commitments are gone."

A few blocks away, visitors at The Peninsula have plenty of dining options. There's a casual bistro on the first floor at Pierrot Gourmet, high-end Chinese at Shanghai Terrace and the three-meal-a-day Lobby restaurant, which also offers high tea in the afternoons. But the hotel will no longer offer the multi-course, serene (and some would say cerebral) dining experience at Avenues. With Chef Curtis Duffy's departure recently, the hotel has decided to reclaim some much-needed private space for meetings.

"To a certain degree, our industry needs to look at giving more options to the customer," said Jisoo Chon, the Director of Food & Beverage at The Peninsula. "The days of the chefs dictating to customers what they should eat, and how they should eat may be gone…I hope fine dining isn't over; I think we can sustain it as long as we can give them more options." Chon says he thinks the words "fine dining" may be getting vague, and says it really depends on how you interpret them.

"I think if you mention 'fine dining' to our older generation, they'll think white table linen, chandeliers and someone coming up to the table with a champagne cart," he said. "The younger generation probably would say it's where they feel comfortable, where they are treated well, and are just having a different experience."

Hickey says even if the creature comforts have evolved, it's still important to give diners a great food experience. At The Four Seasons, there will now be just one menu for the entire hotel, but the range will have to be extensive. Part of that means offal.

"We like to eat fat, spicy, big flavors," he said. "You've seen this huge resurgence of snout-to-tail, and that's what chefs are looking for. Anyone can grill a tenderloin; a true test of a cook is what can you do with pork neck." One of the first items on the new menu will offer just that: homemade pork neck agnolotti with braising jus and green olives.

But make no mistake, this is still the Four Seasons. Hickey says there will still be that air of sophistication. "If you want to make it a special occasion, you can still do that. You can still have an anniversary dinner," he says. But you could also go in jeans and order steak tartar with a 62-degree egg done sous vide, along with waffle chips and homemade beer mustard.

They'll also cook a small Lola duck from the Hudson Valley, confit the legs and thighs, make a dumpling from them, then serve it with cherry-braised cabbbage. Hickey calls it "refined rusticity," which takes a page from The Bristol playbook: think head-on prawns, split down the middle, grilled on la plancha with butter, white anchovies and garlic.

When asked if all this "rusticity" might scare away the Gold Coast/conservative tourist-business traveler that has relied on the consistent Four Seasons brand all these years, Hickey said he thinks the new menu will offer "a range that will keep them happy…they're still gonna get that recognition from the staff, but we're really trying to embrace the neighborhood. By having more fun [read: no more ties or vests for servers] we're also going to get that younger demo too."

The Four Seasons as a company has been moving away from the stiff, formal dining rooms for some time, letting each property express itself with more individuality and personality. "We [the company] decided the old model [a bar, a lounge, a cafe and a fine-dining room] is gone. Now they have specific identities, styles and cuisine."

That model has apparently been successful at Edge in Denver and Yew in Vancouver; neither restaurant feels like a sleepy, corporate hotel dining room. Hickey says The Blvd. at the Beverly Wilshire is always packed, both at lunch and dinner, and he can see why. "People want the hot dog, the flatbread, the sliders when they come here; the customer brought us to this point," he said. "We've seen the covers and the dollars spent in the bar/lounge area go up exponentially in the last few years."

The restaurant has a targeted soft-opening slated for mid-February.

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