Hotel restaurants have come a long way from being an accommodation afterthought. Early forms of such establishments were largely the domain of guests who would order from a menu that listed all the classics: think a club sandwich and a Caesar salad. But hotel restaurants of the here and now have taken a local approach from the get-go and are holding their own as much as any other eatery in the ever-changing landscape.

Dining in luxe towers is big business in the States and Asia, with celebrity chefs attracting both tourists and locals. And while hotel restaurants are by no means a micro market here, the opportunity to usher in a new era for the category is ripe for the taking.

Hospitality speaks to executive chefs Massimo Speroni from QT Hotels and Resorts and Heidi Flanagan from Ace Hotel about launching shiny new concepts with universal appeal and all that comes with spearheading restaurants that just happen to be part of hotels.

Massimo Speroni is no stranger to the hotel restaurant game. The Italian-born chef spent five years at Bacchus in Brisbane’s Rydges South Bank before he made the move to New South Wales — specifically Newcastle; the location of the latest QT. Rydges and QT are part of the same hospitality group, which made the move an easy one for the chef. “QT is more modern and it’s a quirky place,” he says. “It’s a little younger than a classic five-star hotel.”

Speroni is behind the food offering at Jana Restaurant and Bar and Rooftop at QT; two very different concepts within the hotel. Jana is open for all-day dining on select days of the week and is a mix between a casual Italian trattoria and a fine-dining experience, while the Rooftop operates from 4pm on weekdays and 12pm on weekends for drinks plus an izakaya-inspired menu.

“We try to please every palate, so the food offering is a mix between familiar and something different,” says the chef. “We’re aiming to cater to 50 per cent locals and 50 per cent tourists.”

Massimo Speroni

Produce naturally plays a big role on the menu, with the team supporting growers
who are located as close to the restaurant as possible. “We are working with Pukara Estate for olive oil and lamb, which is amazing, and we are buying eggs, honey and chicken from Little Hill Farm,” says Speroni.

Launching an all-in-one eatery is a specific type of beast, with Jana starting the day with breakfast service before moving into lunch and dinner depending on the day. “I start with the season when designing the menu and what produce is available at the time,” says Speroni. “We will put new dishes on every two to three months.”

The breakfast menu covers local pastries along with more substantial savoury options such as tempeh salad with purple potato and a shoyu and sesame dressing, an Ora King salmon bowl with eggs and herb salad and of course, avocado toast. But Jana’s iteration of the classic dish sees avocado teamed with Meredith Dairy goat’s curd, crispy quinoa, shallots and shiso instead.

Italian influences are front and centre on Jana’s lunch and dinner menu, which has an impressive grill section as well as carb-centric dishes. “We have a great selection of steak from Wagyu 9+ to dry-aged rib eye from Jack’s Creek and three pastas for mains,” says Speroni. “I’m Italian and my chef de cuisine is Italian, so we’re bringing in familiar flavours. But if you just want to have a steak, we offer that option, too. You can have a quick meal or a two-hour experience.”

The chef tips the beetroot with spiced vinegar, amaranth and Kris Lloyd buffalo curd cannolo as a highlight along with the Hiramasa kingfish crudo with kombu dashi and natural yoghurt. Al dente risotto with seasonal mushrooms, Grana Padano and marjoram is one of the pasta options, with spaghetti teamed with green peas, sunflower seeds and basil and squid ink gnocchetti with cuttlefish, bisque, Champagne lobster, mussels and dill rounding out the offering.

Guests can choose from six steak options that span a range of cuts from oyster blade (Riverine) and hanger (Bass Straight) to sirloin (Jack’s Creek), tri tip (2GR), rib eye (Jacks Creek) and scotch fillet (Westholme). One of the best parts about ordering a steak for a main are the sides guests can tack onto their order. Grilled carrots are paired with walnuts and goat’s curd, with broccolini hit with smoked shoyu and sesame. Shoestring fries are tossed with rosemary salt and there’s a mixed leaf salad with tomato, avocado and lemon, too.

The food offering at Rooftop was designed with the beverage offering in mind, which revolves around an extensive range of cocktails and Japanese whisky. Speroni has honed in on seafood and crudo at the top-level venue, with Oscietra caviar and blue scampi roe served with blinis and sour cream and salmon sashimi dressed with golden sesame and ponzu.

It’s a big step above your average bar food fare. “It’s not a proper restaurant, but you can order a few dishes to share,” says Speroni. “There’s a lot of crudo and we have a fish tacos, gyoza and sous vide octopus as well — it’s very different from the restaurant.”

Heidi Flanagan began her culinary career under the tutelage of Peter Doyle in Sydney before she moved to London and “gained some life experience”. Stints at a sushi bar in Ibiza followed before the chef returned home to open three Keystone Group venues. It was Flanagan’s next move that would kick-start her journey with five-star hotels.

“A position became available at Como, and I worked as an executive chef at two properties in Bali and then moved to Turks and Caicos,” says the chef. “I then opened Origin at the Shangri-La Singapore and returned home at the onset of COVID-19.”

It wasn’t long before Flanagan was snapped up by Ace Hotel to spearhead Loam in the chain’s first Australian location in Surry Hills. The chef was recruited by a former colleague and didn’t hesitate to join a company whose ethos aligns with her own personal values.

“The Ace brand is quirky and bespoke, and while we have a corporate structure, it’s very individual,” she says. “Ace is entrenched in giving back to the community, and being an ambassador for a company that’s true to its core is really exciting. I had also stayed at Ace in New Orleans and Shoreditch and felt it was a good fit for me. I like the fact it’s steeped in design and that each property has its own DNA.”

Loam Surry Hills is the sister restaurant of Ace’s Downtown Los Angeles venue,
with the younger sibling simultaneously paying homage to the original concept
while taking its own path. “Los Angeles and Sydney are alike in so many respects,
not just in terms of climate, but clientele,” says Flanagan.

“We did a fair bit of work with Chef Ari Taymor who helped me with the direction of the menu, which was a labour of love to get it to where it is now. But Loam is a Sydney restaurant built around what the food scene demands and while they are aligned in spirit, they have their own identities.”

The restaurant swung open its doors in May in line with the hotel, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The menu is very much morphing as the weeks tick by, with the team finding its strengths and taking on feedback from diners. Ace is far from a conventional hotel and is likely to pull in local patrons who may have never set foot in a hotel restaurant at home before thanks to its international reputation as a hub for everyone.

“It’s up to us to educate people on how to use the space,” says Flanagan. “Dining in hotels isn’t big here, but our space is so nice to hang out in. The restaurant is an extension of the sunken lounge area, and you almost forget there’s a hotel tower
above your head.”

The culinary footprint at Loam naturally starts with breakfast — think familiar fare with a twist. A concise menu charts Heidi’s house muesli; a rye waffle with fruit and mascarpone; a chia and sorrel pudding with coconut and mango; a breakfast roll; baked eggs, and of course, avocado toast.

“Our take on avo toast isn’t actually toast; it’s a flatbread,” says Flanagan. “It’s a vegetable pulp and nut and seed flatbread with avocado crush, coriander, lime, macerated tomatoes and shaved fennel with a pomegranate sumac dressing.” It’s a dish that transcends breakfast, securing a spot on the lunch and dinner menu by happy mistake.

Loam’s day-to-night offering is very much driven by veg-leaning dishes that
will change according to seasonality. “I find a lot of people like to eat clean, so we
have the option to add proteins including fish or chicken onto dishes such as the
salad,” says Flanagan. “I’m going to put on a seaweed pasta soon and I’m working on
a house moussaka.”

Loam’s menu sees a range of culinary influences on display from a portobello
tonkatsu burger with Japanese mustard and crunchy slaw to market fish with sweet
corn, zucchini noodles and lemon butter and a classic beef burger with lettuce,
blue cheese mayo, pickles, tomato jam and gruyere on a potato bun. The point is,
there’s something for everyone whether guests want to share multiple dishes or
have one for themselves.

There’s also plans for the launch of weekend brunch, which will see the introduction of a curated offering from the kitchen. “We’re the new kid on the block and people are trying the food and providing feedback, which is really great for us as a team,” says Flanagan.

“Once we get a little more traction that we’re open for lunch on the weekend, I think we will become a busy little restaurant on Saturday and Sunday and we will look at more of a brunch offering. I hope that it will take on a world of its own and become a restaurant people want to come to. It’s going to have a great legacy moving forward and that’s something entrenched in me. Having been overseas for so long, I feel like I’m home. It’s been great to sink my teeth into something.”

Jana and Loam are just two of the many hotel restaurants that exist around the
country, with old and new establishments ushering in diners via the lobby and straight into memorable dining experiences.

Photography by Nikki To