Guest-only hotel bars put premium on privacy and the pour

Washington’s Jefferson hotel features the Book Room, a guest-only lounge; guests can order drinks from the hotel bar by phone.
Washington’s Jefferson hotel features the Book Room, a guest-only lounge; guests can order drinks from the hotel bar by phone.

In the nation's capital, discretion is indeed the better part of valor. Washington's Jefferson hotel features an area called the Book Room, a 20-seat lounge modeled after Thomas Jefferson's personal library where visitors, while perusing signed books by celebrity authors such as Martha Stewart and chef Tom Colicchio, can order drinks from the hotel's Quill bar by phone.

The Book Room is open for hotel guests only. During the day, non-guests are politely led by the hotel staff to Quill, while at night a key card is needed to enter the Book Room.

"It's a place to go where people won't be seen or interrupted," said Philip Wood, the Jefferson's managing director. "In D.C., there's a fair amount of demand for that."

The Jefferson is part of a small but notable group of urban hotels ratcheting up the exclusivity quotient by offering guests an opportunity to either drink in their own special lounges or to create small drinking parties by supplying their hotel rooms with special elixirs, top-shelf spirits and other imbibing amenities.

Far from the type of huge, loud, velvet-roped clubs and drinking establishments found inside the hotels dotting the Las Vegas Strip, these lounges tend to be more intimate affairs that place a premium on privacy and a personal touch, while reflecting the increased popularity of craft cocktails.

At Miami's Faena hotel, which opened in December, guests can take refuge in the Library, which is accessed through a discreet entrance near the hotel's concierge desk and features a clubby, art deco vibe.

London's Hotel Cafe Royal features the Club, where members have access to a 120-seat lounge; past guests included Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali and David Bowie. The Club also features events such as wine tastings and pop-up dinners.

Some hotels are even taking that quiet drinking experience upstairs.

Last year, boutique hotelier Aparium Hotel Group started including custom-made, elixirs from Milwaukee's Bittercube Bitters as an in-room amenity at both Milwaukee's Iron Horse Hotel and the Charmant Hotel in La Crosse, Wis.

Aparium's Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis will have the Spruce Soda Co. make a "proprietary" tonic-and-soda-flavored drink when the hotel opens this fall, while the company's Hotel Covington, which debuts in Kentucky in the fall, will feature cocktail mixers from Lexington-based Gents Original.

The mini-trend of guest-only lounges and drinking amenities appears to run counter to the broader effort by many boutique and lifestyle hotel operators to bring locals into their establishments by opening buzzy bars and highly conceptualized restaurants, some of which are headed by well-known chefs.

Sales of food and beverage fell to about a quarter of U.S. hotel revenue last year, from 38% in 1980, largely due to the declining popularity of room service and the steady rise in limited-service hotels, according to CBRE Hotels.

Hotels are attempting to compensate with the trend of building high-volume restaurants where most of the diners are not hotel guests.

Still, bars and lounges account for about $4 billion in annual revenue, or about 10% of all food and beverage revenue, according to Chicago-based hospitality consultant Technomic. And with hard liquor's gross margins at about 85%, compared with 70% for food, some hotels view guest-only lounges as a point of differentiation from chain hotels and other independents.

"Certainly, it's counter to what we've seen, where a lot of the focus has been to widen the popularity of hotel bars and lounges to bring in locals," said David Henkes, advisory group senior principal at Technomic. "But certainly, if you're doing all you can to make your guest feel special, there's something to be said for that."

Meanwhile, there are more signs that some hotels are expanding alcohol availability beyond the lounge and minibar.

Last month, craft-beer maker Stone Brewing said it would open its first "brewery hotel" in Escondido, Calif., about 30 miles north of San Diego, in early 2018.

The 99-room hotel will offer guests a complimentary beer at check-in and in-room growler service (a growler is a jug used for the transport of draft beer). The hotel's driveway will feature an image of beer flowing from a tap.

One of the craft cocktails at the Walker Inn lounge in Los Angeles’ Hotel Normandie.
One of the craft cocktails at the Walker Inn lounge in Los Angeles’ Hotel Normandie.

And on Sept. 1, the operators of New York's Death & Co. bar, who run the 26-seat Walker Inn lounge at the Hotel Normandie in Los Angeles's Koreatown, extended that concept by taking over the hotel's 10-room second floor and rebranding that section of the hotel as the Rooms at the Walker Inn.

Guests are treated to the rooms' vintage vibe as well as access to what David Kaplan, principal at Death & Co. parent Proprietors, calls an "exhaustive" list of spirits, mixes, elixirs and other craft-cocktail ingredients. The lounge and the Rooms are connected via a private stairway.

"We're really forming the true hospitality experience, from the bar up to the hotel," Kaplan said. "We've seen it forever, all the way back to the days of the taverns. This is a reimagining of that."


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