Seems like everyone’s a foodie these days. Really, who doesn’t know about “farm-to-fork” cooking, small batch wines, and some celebrity chef’s favorite little haunt with five tables accessible only by mule train outside Hanoi? Then there are all the chef’s table cooking classes—once the province of mostly elite groups—which have now become ubiquitous.
That’s a good thing. When group dining is interactive and educational, it serves up great networking opportunities, healthier bodies and a more sustainable ecosystem. On top of that, restaurants are keeping pace with ever more creative designs inspired by the local fresh market, a global jetsetter hotspot, or maybe a media mogul’s industrial loft. So what’s next?
“This year especially, it’s about the butcher and the charcuterie,” says Ellen Burke Van Slyke, creative director of F&B for Loews Hotels, based at Coronado Bay in San Diego. While the focus on creative food continues to evolve, she says the menu also has to satisfy the preferences of three basic profiles in a group: meat and potato traditionalists, health-conscious diners, and the adventurous types who want their meal to provide a sense of place.
“Cheesemakers are also hot,” says Burke Van Slyke. “We find more and more farmstead cheeses and artisanal cheeses. And that all connects to the whole cultural shift about wanting to know what we eat and where it comes from. That’s the biggest trend that planners are hearing.”
Groups also want “experiential dining,” she adds, with action stations where diners interact with the chef as well as chef-lead classes and demos. “People really want to have that experience with the chef. They want to watch the chef, watch the techniques, watch how he or she picks ingredients and partners them.”
More current cuisine trends include international street food, microbrew “craft beer” and “sentimental sweets” like cupcakes and Whoopie pies.
Meanwhile, Loews’ branded meeting break and dinner experiences are signature events tied to specific locations, such the company’s “Adopt-A-Farmer” program—a company-wide initiative where each property supports at least one local farmer.
The newest restaurant in Loews’ stable is Eleven at the recently opened Loews Atlanta, featuring New Southern cuisine. The kitchen’s large brick oven is an intriguing visual while earthy browns, beiges and mood lighting create an intimacy and sophistication balanced by urban artwork from local artists. The menu is a combination of Southern staples with a Mediterranean twist with mainstays like collard greens, sweet potatoes and squashes accented with the rich and fragrant European spices of cumin, coriander, saffron and the like.
“It’s the farm-to-table concept. We’re supporting the regional, local food growers and offering organic simple food,” says exec chef Olivier Gaupin. “We’re responding to what the people want: healthy eating in a beautiful setting.”
Try the hickory smoked chicken with Parisian gnocchi casserole or Fudge Farm pork tenderloin lacquered in molasses. For groups, Gaupin says, “There’s a gorgeous breakfast bar, kind of like a breakfast nook, that can accommodate 20-30 people. It’s a great place for demonstrations and cooking classes. It’s just waiting to be used like that.”