Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants Dares To Be Different

Market Watch’s 2017 On-Premise Player of the Year takes a unique approach to dining and drinks, creating distinctive venues that are destinations for guests and locals alike.

Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants operates 66 hotels and 82 restaurants, including Sable Kitchen + Bar (pictured) in Chicago.
Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants operates 66 hotels and 82 restaurants, including Sable Kitchen + Bar (pictured) in Chicago. (Photo by Colin Beckett)

When a restaurant lover launches a hotel company, the result is Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. Founder Bill Kimpton, who died in 2001, opened his first boutique hotel 35 years ago in San Francisco, debuting a café and bar alongside the property. In the decades since, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants has become a powerhouse in the hospitality industry by following a service model that’s hard to replicate. The company—which boasts 66 hotels and 82 restaurants and bars in the United States and the Caribbean—embodies the boutique experience by providing one-of-a-kind lodging, dining and drinks options that are localized to their individual markets.

With Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Bill Kimpton aimed to eschew the cookie cutter hotel and dining format, and it’s paid off. Following its $430 million acquisition by InterContinental Hotels Group in 2015, Kimpton is well positioned to expand on a global scale. The move is new territory for the company, which had been a solely U.S. operation until November 2016 when it opened a resort in the Cayman Islands. Kimpton’s hotel and restaurant divisions operate separately but symbiotically, and executives note that both sectors are equally important to Kimpton’s overall success. This strategy has earned the company top honors as the 2017 Market Watch “On-Premise Player of the Year.”

“Everything we do is unique and bespoke in our hotels and restaurants,” says Alex Taylor, Kimpton’s senior vice president of restaurants and bars. “We don’t repeat ourselves. There is no Kimpton-in-a-box. Everything is custom, and that involves getting into the markets and understanding the micro-market neighborhoods we’re in. Our founder, Bill Kimpton, was really passionate about restaurants. He was a restaurateur at heart.”

Kimpton is looking to increase its focus on its nightlife offerings, including upscale lounges like the Social Club in Miami.
Kimpton is looking to increase its focus on its nightlife offerings, including upscale lounges like the Social Club in Miami. (Photo by Cris Molina)

Operational Allies

Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants separates its two business units. Taylor oversees all of the company’s restaurant and bar staff, from chefs to mixologists, and he has a counterpart on the hotel side. The two work autonomously. “That’s a significant key to our success and how we stay ahead of the game,” Taylor explains. “We operate like an independent restaurant company, but we get along very well with our hotel partners.”

The recent merger with United Kingdom’s InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG)—which owns such hotel brands as Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Hotel Indigo, Candlewood Suites and Staybridge Suites—has been another boon to business. The Kimpton model is fairly different from IHG’s existing brands, many of which are very large chains with properties across the globe. But Taylor says IHG’s backing has been a positive addition and that the Kimpton portfolio continues to operate as it always has. “We’re leveraging what IHG brings—systems and networks, and access to new places, cities and owners,” he explains. “Operationally, it’s been business as usual. Strategically and developmentally, IHG has opened incredible doors for us to keep doing what we’ve been doing on a grander scale. That company is an incredible accelerant to our growth and scale thanks to their resources and expertise. We now have the strongest pipeline in Kimpton’s history for what we’re opening going forward. The international additions are a whole new world for us.”

Today, Kimpton operates 66 hotels in 33 U.S. cities and Grand Cayman Island. The company will expand both domestically and globally over the next few years. In 2017, Kimpton plans to add hotels in California, Colorado, Tennessee, North Carolina and Amsterdam. Further into the future, Kimpton has announced openings in Arizona and Florida for 2018, Washington in 2019 and Paris in 2020. The moves into Europe are especially significant, as Taylor says Bill Kimpton’s primary restaurant influences came from the chef-driven restaurants he enjoyed while traveling there. “He loved the experience and warmth that European restaurants exude,” Taylor adds. “Bill wanted to create the same environment throughout this country.”

Kimpton senior vice president of restaurants and bars Alex Taylor oversees all of the company's restaurant and bar staff, from chefs to mixologists.
Kimpton senior vice president of restaurants and bars Alex Taylor oversees all of the company's restaurant and bar staff, from chefs to mixologists.

Taylor adds that Kimpton’s approach to restaurants and bars has never been about keeping up with trends. “We’ve always focused on our enthusiasm for hospitality and the human connection we make by providing incredible restaurant and bar experiences,” Taylor says. “That enthusiasm is our defining ethos. We’re excited about what’s coming next.”

Staying true to the company’s goal of reflecting local market tastes and preferences, Kimpton aims to align with well-respected regional chefs and mixologists instead of national celebrity names. Local recruitment is a top priority for Taylor and his team, and it’s a key part of what differentiates Kimpton from other national players. In 1983, early in the company’s history, Kimpton worked with Japanese prodigy Masataka Kobayashi to open Masa’s Wine Bar & Kitchen at Hotel Vintage Court in San Francisco. The destination restaurant stayed open for 30 years. Kimpton also helped launch Wolfgang Puck’s career in 1989 with the opening of Postrio at the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco.

“We’ve always partnered with well-regarded chefs,” Taylor says. “Our focus has been on finding credible and talented local people who have an understanding of the community where they’ll help create the restaurant or bar. We give creative support, but we don’t control the menus. Our talented chefs and bartenders breathe life and vision into the concepts.”

Maintaining local focus for a large, international company is difficult, but it’s a challenge top-level Kimpton employees embrace. It’s all part of the company’s goal to avoid homogenized and uninspired experiences. “We address the community by creating locally beloved restaurants and bars,” Taylor explains. “We really try to understand what makes an area special and reflect that quality in each concept. It’s extremely fulfilling. We’ve invested a lot in providing a platform for our local teams. We have to offer incredible food and thoughtful drinks. There’s a strong collaboration between the kitchen and the bar. They have to work together to create the experience we want.”

Director of bars Mike Ryan says the company's willingness to support new ideas is a major draw for career bartenders like himself.
Director of bars Mike Ryan says the company's willingness to support new ideas is a major draw for career bartenders like himself.

Standout Concepts

When Kimpton makes plans for a new hotel property, dining and drinks outlets are always part of the conversation. The company’s restaurant and bar executives travel to new markets during the planning phase to research the area and assess what types of venues would be a good fit. They also reach out to local chefs and bartenders early on to ensure they have access to top-notch personnel in each city. It was through this method that Kimpton hired Mike Ryan, who now serves as the company’s corporate director of bars.

Ryan started with the company in 2010 as the lead bartender at Sable Kitchen + Bar, located adjacent to the Hotel Palomar Chicago in the city’s River North neighborhood. Sable pioneered the combination of cutting-edge food and cocktails when it launched seven years ago, and it’s still a strong mixology leader today. “Sable was an important venue for Kimpton and the overall restaurant community because of how we married cuisine and beverage together,” Taylor says. “We did things there that were ahead of their time. There’s such enthusiasm for creative beverage experiences now, and we’ve been a leader in that movement.”

Sable’s menu highlights contemporary American fare designed for sharing. Dishes range from short rib sliders and braised pork cheeks to charred octopus and chicken and waffles (main plates are $6 to $28). The cocktail list skews towards classics, but also incorporates modern, globally inspired and creative recipes. Specialties include the Cereal Circle, mixing Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac, Yahara Bay Kirschwasser cherry brandy, Lustau Palo Cortado Sherry, house-made Cheerios syrup and a whole egg, and the Daisy Drive, comprising Hendrick’s gin, Yellow Chartreuse, honey syrup, fresh lime juice, cumin, rose water and muddled cucumber, garnished with cucumber sticks and rose petals. Cocktails at Sable are $14.

“Sable was really Kimpton’s first mixology-focused bar,” Ryan says. He adds that the company’s commitment to its restaurant and bar employees and its willingness to experiment and support new ideas are major draws for career bartenders like himself. “There’s never a ‘good enough’ at Kimpton,” Ryan explains. “Many restaurant team members are drawn to the company because it fosters a social atmosphere and emphasizes great guest experiences, with a specific focus on dining and drinks.”

Cocktails rule at Kimpton venues, such as Washington D.C.’s Radiator.
Cocktails rule at Kimpton venues, such as Washington D.C.’s Radiator. (Photo by Jennifer Hughes)

Ryan is now involved in all aspects of Kimpton’s corporate bar management and development, and he leads monthly bartender conference calls and annual bartender summits. Two of his recent projects include the drinks den Vol. 39 and the Latin American rooftop lounge Boleo, both in the Kimpton Gray Hotel in Downtown Chicago. Vol. 39 boasts a lengthy menu of rare spirits and wines, along with roving Champagne and caviar carts, while Boleo offers Latin-influenced cocktails and Argentine and Peruvian street food.

“Our restaurants and bars are created with the intention of becoming pillars in the community, and our food and beverage programs are an amazing accessory to the hotels,” says Boleo head bartender Jess Lambert. “We aim to be the best restaurant and cocktail bar in town. Creativity is highly encouraged, which helps our beverage menus stand apart, and our service is a constant point of focus, education and training. Kimpton continues to open spaces that have high-concept bar and cocktail programs. We like to push boundaries and be trendsetters.”

For winter, Lambert is incorporating amaro, vermouth and fortified wine into her drinks at Boleo. Signatures include the Fernet Flip ($8), which features CH Distillery’s Fernet-Dogma amaro, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao liqueur, honey, heavy cream, whole egg and Angostura bitters. “Our guests are very open to what we’re doing, and they’re a bit adventurous,” Lambert says. “They’re well-educated on spirits, wines and cocktails, so it’s incredibly important for us to be two steps ahead and provide a beverage menu that’s thoughtful, balanced and well curated.”

That notion of variety and quality is evident throughout Kimpton’s food and drinks menus. At Geraldine’s in the Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt in Austin, Texas’ Rainey Street Historic District, contemporary Texas fare and locally inspired cocktails are king. The venue, which hosts live music nightly, has become a destination for Texas natives and guests. Popular drinks include the Willie’s Cup, mixing High West Double Rye whiskey, hemp seed milk and sage, and the Far From the Tree, made with locally produced Treaty Oak rum and Paula’s Texas Orange liqueur, fresh-pressed apple juice, a.k.a Mixology pecan-orgeat syrup, and lime juice (house signature drinks are $12). Geraldine’s also boasts a lengthy craft beer list that includes five Austin-made draft beers and several more Texas labels in cans ($6 a draft pour or can).

Rooftop bars like Pittsburgh’s Biergarten are popular.
Rooftop bars like Pittsburgh’s Biergarten are popular. (Photo by Greg Powers)

Pushing Boundaries

Kimpton’s lengthy roster of restaurants and bars showcases the diversity of the company’s restaurant division and its commitment to all sectors of the beverage community. The portfolio includes the beer-focused Biergarten on the rooftop of Pittsburgh’s Hotel Monaco that boasts an exhaustive list of European brews and German fare, and the urban tasting room Bacchus Bar in Portland, Oregon’s Hotel Vintage, that focuses on Pacific Northwest wine labels. The company also boasts myriad upscale cocktail bars, from The Outsider in Milwaukee’s Journeyman Hotel and Pennyroyal in Seattle’s Palladian Hotel to Square 1682 in Philadelphia’s Hotel Palomar and The Social Club in Miami’s Surfcomber Hotel. Ryan says Kimpton will increase its focus on nightlife venues like lounges and rooftop spaces in the future, though he notes that the company will avoid nightclub-style venues and bottle service concepts.

“Every one of our restaurants and bars is unique,” Ryan explains. “Quality and authenticity are crucial. We don’t take shortcuts, and that makes us stand out. When we open a new spot, we aim to be loved locally. We don’t just want to open an amenity to our hotel guests. We focus on the back of the house as much as the front of the house and we definitely tend to take risks. We put so much attention on the details, which helps us achieve a much higher level of quality and respectability.”

Kimpton venues strike a unique chord and offer different guest experiences in each market, like the intimate cocktail den Vol. 39 in Chicago.
Kimpton venues strike a unique chord and offer different guest experiences in each market, like the intimate cocktail den Vol. 39 in Chicago. (Photo by Laure Joliet)

Urbana Dining & Drinks, adjacent to the Kimpton Hotel Palomar Washington, D.C., aims to bring the fresh flavors of Italy to the nation’s capital. The venue serves handcrafted pasta dishes and fresh-caught seafood (entrées are $14 to $31) alongside a bar program that incorporates a variety of Italian liqueurs and house-made specialty ingredients (cocktails are $9 to $13). Urbana also boasts an extensive list of Italian and American wines ($9 to $14 a glass; $45 to $250 a 750-ml. bottle).

“At our bar, guests trust and rely on the opinions and recommendations of the bartenders,” says Urbana head bartender Andrea Tateosian. “Our guests are adventurous. People get excited about oddball ingredients and flavor combinations. Right now, our best-selling cocktails blend ingredients that most guests wouldn’t have thought to put together—espresso and passion fruit in one and charred corn and Tequila in another. Kimpton’s focus on creativity and innovation allows us to push our guests’ boundaries and exceed their expectations.”

Kimpton also aims to push its own boundaries as a company, which is a key part of its growth plans for the future. The Kimpton Seafire Resort & Spa on Seven Mile Beach in Grand Cayman opened this past November with five restaurants and bars, marking Kimpton’s first project outside of the United States. The Caribbean resort houses a Mediterranean restaurant, a Mexican-themed beach bar, a Spanish gastropub and two different pool bars. The property’s beverage manager, John Stanton, says that even at a destination resort like Seafire, the goal is to attract local island residents as well as guests. 

“If locals aren’t seeking us out, how can we expect our guests to view us as more than just a hotel bar or restaurant?” Stanton says. “Our restaurants and bars strive to be far more than just amenities to our hotel guests. When I come to work, I feel like I’m walking into something so much greater than a hotel operation.”