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The Rise of the Food and Drink Amusement Park

The modern multi-concept hotel takes a more-is-more approach to dining and drinking.

On a Thursday evening in May, as late spring exhales a steamy breath over the city, New Yorkers are sorting themselves into their respective post-work haunts.

At the airy, plant-filled restaurant and cafe, Studio, a polished, young crowd spreads out on fur-lined benches sipping on bright, seasonal cocktails. At Gabriel Stulman’s new, critically acclaimed restaurant, Simon & The Whale, a nattily-attired older milieu digs into roasted barley black bread and clinks glasses of Volnay. By the time the sun has punched its own time clock and descended, Broken Shaker, a low-lit rooftop watering hole where bartenders in T-shirts sling tropical-inspired drinks, boasts a line to get in. And in the wood-paneled George Washington Bar, a cadre of already well-lubricated night owls settles down for after-dinner cocktails, while industry folks sidle up along the counter by a restored fireplace to gossip and drink sherry.

This is not a cross-section of a neighborhood or even a single street block—all of these venues sit under (and on top of) a single hotel: the new Freehand in New York’s Flatiron District. Designed by Roman and Williams, it offers a small town’s worth of nightlife amenities across 18 vertical stories; it’s the latest example of a new hotel trend whose currency is multiple food and drink concepts, with an emphasis on multiple.

“We love high and low, morning and night, beautiful and good and sinister and dark,” says Stephen Alesch, the co-principal of Roman and Williams with Robin Standefer. “Multiple venues suits this. One space cannot do that.”

In Chicago, the Chicago Athletic Association, named one of the world’s best new hotels by Travel + Leisure in 2016, has no less than seven dining and drinking venues, from Milk Room, a tony, reservations-only cocktail bar, to the Game Room, where businessmen drink Schlitz and play bocce. The recently renovated Hotel Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles boasts two restaurants and a bar on the ground floor alone, in addition to a cocktail bar and a tiki concept. It’s a far cry from the days when the sole, sleepy, muzak-playing lobby bar was a thing best avoided on your way out the door.

“If you’re an ambitious hotel company, you’re setting out to create the best experience for your guests,” says Kathryn Bangs, former creative director of Sydell Group, which owns the Freehand hotels as well as The NoMad, The LINE and a smattering of other brands. “Today I think that means creating a deeper experience that encourages a sense of exploration and multilayered discovery. Guests want to experience something new every time they stay.”

In 1999, André Balazs helped pioneer this new model of hospitality with The Standard, Hollywood, which was designed to be a honey pot for bright young things without luxury budgets. He sought to attract LA’s demimonde by instituting a flashy party atmosphere: the lobby featured the famous “girl in a glass box,” a DJ booth, a tattoo parlor and barbershop, a 24-hour coffee shop and restaurant and a pool bar. That original Standard helped establish the modern hotel as a busy downtown rec room, a place that’s “going to incite new ideas, where people are going to turn to in terms of creative energy and new possibilities, whether it’s a new drink or a new type of meal,” says David Brody, associate professor of design studies at the Parsons School of Design, The New School and author of Housekeeping by Design: Hotels and Labor.

Lately, that idea has been taken to the next level. In addition to multiple bar concepts, The Standard’s New York properties also sport venues that change seasonally, like the pop-up winter garden where guests can sip cocktails in heated yurts, or a summery “seashack” serving boozy popsicles and frozen Daiquiris. And at the newly opened The LINE hotel in Washington, D.C., there are three restaurants and two bars, a community radio broadcast station, a neighborhood running club, hospitality education classes and letter-writing workshops.

When it comes to the balance sheet, the multi-concept hotel has plenty going for it. Following the model of Las Vegas casinos, more venues under one roof means more people spending green on the property. “The owners at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel used to always say, ‘Let’s keep them on the island,’” says Christian Schulz, a partner at Studio Collective, the firm that designed Hotel Figueroa.

In our gastronomically-obsessed age, restaurants and bars are poised to be big revenue generators. “Hotels can take typically underutilized nooks and crannies, and, with the right design magic, make a great destination bar,” says Kristina O’Neal, a principal at AvroKO, which designed the six-venue Penthouse Bar & Grill at the Park Hyatt Bangkok. At a hotels like these, guests might frequent a few bars over the course of one evening, while eating at only one restaurant.

Inside New York's Freehand Hotel

For the most part, though, hoteliers don’t expect visitors to take an amusement park approach to the food and drink offerings, getting off one culinary or mixological ride to hop on another two floors down. “I see these multilayered hotels almost like choose-your-own-adventure novels,” says Bangs. “There’s always a million different storylines you didn’t follow. You want it to be the kind of scenario where, when guests leave, they’re like, ‘We didn’t get to do this thing, we gotta come back.’”

The rise of multi-concept hotels has coincided with another telling trend: the shrinking hotel room. In the 1990s, the average hotel room was slightly over 350 square feet, while modern hotel brands chasing the millennial demographic build rooms about half that size; a stay in a Yotel, an urban “microhotel” chain, will net you a tiny 170-square-foot cabin. It’s a spatial shift which signals a move from prioritizing personal space to carefully curated, lively public spaces: lobby bars with nationally recognized cocktail programs and celebrity chef-helmed restaurants.

In 2011, the New York Ace Hotel introduced the idea of a lobby that was as much for the public as for private guests: It served as a co-working space for the neighborhood’s freelancers and tech entrepreneurs, the go-to spot for fashion after-parties and a happy hour bar for creatives. “People want to stay in a hotel that is alive and full of locals,” says Andrew Zobler, founder and CEO of the Sydell Group. “They want an environment that fosters meeting other people.”

In turn, becoming a cultural and social beacon—in some cases tripling a neighborhood’s food and drink options—is good for a hotel’s bottom line. “By reaching out to the surrounding communities and the city itself, hotels become destinations,” says Adam Goldstein of Studio Collective. “When the hotel is not as busy, the locals can help support it.”

The profusion of tastefully appointed bars and restaurants in hotels also points to an updated definition of luxury for a new generation of travelers. The Standard, High Line, with its uber-exclusive clubs the Boom Boom Room and Le Bain, first showed the way here as well. A menu of see-and-be-seen restaurants and bars that boast a frisson of glamour and excitement has taken the place of the Jacuzzi tub, the palatial, Trumpian penthouse and indulgent room service.

At the Freehand New York, a typical room bears all the discriminating marks of the Roman and Williams design—custom light fixtures, commissioned murals—but its college dorm dimensions mean it isn’t the type of space you’d want to lounge in all day. The perks of a stay at the Freehand come in the form of special access: seats are set aside for hotel guests without reservations at Simon & The Whale, and those with a room card can reach the rooftop Broken Shaker bar via the hotel elevators. Those not staying at the hotel have to enter through a different entrance on the street.

“The amenities that are available in a room… might not be the same level of a luxury property,” says Brody. “But that’s because millennials want to spend time at the hotel bar. They want to spend time at the hotel pool. They don’t need to be swathed in their bathrobes in a marble bathroom at the Four Seasons. It’s about feeling like you’re pushing the edge of what’s trending, what’s now.”

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