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Hotels bring back the heat to their dining rooms

New York's Scott Conant brings a deft touch and unwavering passion to creating food that is unexpected and soulful.

Toronto's hotel dining scene is coming back from the culinary netherworld of the Mother's Day brunch.

The Four Seasons, whose restaurant Truffles was a bastion of old-school formality, is in talks with New York all-star Daniel Boulud. French master Jean-Georges Vongerichten might be setting his sights on the Shangri-La. Yet another hotel, the Thompson, slated to open on Wellington Street in June, is planning two restaurants in addition to Scarpetta, which will be run by New York celebrity chef Scott Conant. "Toronto is a coming destination of hotel dining," said Mr. Conant. "If we didn't pull the trigger on it, we'd be behind."

Competition might explain why more hotels are stepping up to the plate: five luxury towers will be fighting for the city's fine-dining attention. But ever since the emergence of the Ian Schrager hotel concept in the 1980s, hotels have recognized that generating a loud, youthful buzz is as important to their success as a quiet room.

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We've come back to that idea of hotels as destinations. Even the chain hotels have realized this. There's been a revival of hotel restaurant food. Robert Davidson, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who is writing a book called The Hotel: Space Over Time.

Before the relatively recent proliferation of restaurants with 30 seats and snaking lines (reservations are for your mom's crowd), hotel dining defined the city's landscape. "To get a good meal, you had to go to a hotel," master chef Mark McEwan says of the late seventies and early eighties.

The "it" kids included now-defunct Truffles, the King Edward's Le Méridien and the Hilton - which saw the flashy debuts of European imports Albert Schnell and John Higgins. "The Windsor Arms was the epicentre of the food scene back then," says Mr. McEwan. "You went there even if you didn't have any money, just to be a part of it." More than just food, the cosmopolitan scene - familiarity with a soupçon of the exotic - lured in diners.

In the mid-2000s, the Gladstone and Drake hotels opened, launching a new model of hospitality: boutique cool, which combines avant-garde design with haute comfort food. "It's the convergence of hospitality, community and culture," says Jeff Stober, whose Queen Street hotel, the Drake, is soon set to announce its own new dining additions.

When Mr. McEwan grew his empire to include One at the Hazelton Hotel in 2007, he ditched over-serviced formality for sexy, slightly retro decor by Yabu Pushelberg (whose credits include the W hotels in New York), beat-heavy music and a tongue-in-cheek menu - think tempura onion rings and "vice" martinis made with ice wine.

The Ritz-Carlton, new to Toronto this summer, will lose some of the old-fashioned notions of "fine dining" but none of the quality, offering a menu from local hero Tom Brodi, recently of Canoe, along with pizza from the lounge oven and sushi from the raw bar.

The Thompson hotel is planning a 24-hour eatery modelled on the first boxcar diner - think of a hipster-infused version of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks.

"We're looking to bring excitement back," says Dimitri Zarikos, general manager of the Four Seasons Toronto. Mr. Boulud, who's also known for his DB Bistro Moderne, a Vancouver dining hot spot, confirms that he's been approached to take on their kitchen, but won't say if he's committed. "A hotel becomes a social centre when you bring a chef from outside," says Mr. Boulud.

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Still, this is just what Mr. Zarikos wants: "Now we're seeking noise, dim lights, action."


Some other hot hotel-dining cities

Toronto is a coming capital of hotel dining, says New York's Scott Conant, who will help put the city on the map alongside the globe's greatest hospitality haunts:

Asia de Cuba, St. Martins Lane Hotel, London This West End boutique still draws the in crowd for Latin-Asian fusion, the chili-spiked chocolate menu, a humming rum bar and a design-drenched dining room by Philippe Starck.

The Breslin, Ace Hotel, New York Pairs charcuterie chic (specialties like tongue sandwiches, terrines and tender belly) with a nouveau-kitsch, casual atmosphere that does justice to its hip Chelsea address.

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Blue Door, Delano Hotel, Miami This epicentre of South Beach swank features French-Brazilian flavour by celebrity chef Claude Troisgros. White-hot decor comes with quirky accents, like an in-pool table.

Dos Palillos, Casa Camper, Barcelona A disciple of El Bulli super-chef Ferran Adrià, Albert Raurich serves tapas-style Asian cuisine in a funky atmosphere. Dough for the transcendental duck dumplings was three months in the making.

Market by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Shangri-La, Vancouver Vancouver's hotel boom won heavyweights Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten who mans Market with four distinct vibes and modern fare that's like catnip to local foodies. (Rumour says Toronto is his next stop).

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