Hotel restaurants, once as mediocre as they were stuffy (all that ugly upholstery!), have become magnets for culinary talent and are now the hottest places to eat in town. Here, a state-by-state guide to the best, selected by our panel of experts.
MARY ELAINE'S Scottsdale
Flourishes like footstools for purses suit the hushed room with its valley views. Chef James Boyce's food is classical (foie gras with truffle honey and century-old balsamic vinegar) but also great for vegetarians, who get their own tasting menu (The Phoenician, 6000 E. Camelback Rd.; 480-423-2530).
MANKA'S INVERNESS LODGE Inverness
In this rustic dining room (think logs and antlers), chef Daniel DeLong and chef-innkeeper Margaret Gradé treat locally raised, trapped and foraged ingredients with respect: Tomales Bay mussel soup with saffron and sorrel; deer grilled in the fireplace (30 Callendar Way; 415-669-1034).
AUBERGE DU SOLEIL Rutherford
At the 21-year-old restaurant that became an inn and helped create Napa Valley's wine country cuisine, chef Richard Reddington continues in the same haute French style as his mentors Roger Vergé and Daniel Boulud (180 Rutherford Hill Rd.; 707-963-1211).
CAMPTON PLACE San Francisco
Raised in Gascony and apprenticed at Paris's Taillevent, chef Laurent Manrique makes the most of the Californian cornucopia in dishes like fillet of sole with quenelles and pepper fondue. The decor just got a million-dollar redo this spring (340 Stockton St.; 415-955-5555).
THE DINING ROOM AT THE RITZ-CARLTON San Francisco
Sylvain Portay was the chef de cuisine at Alain Ducasse's restaurant in Monaco before succeeding Gary Danko here. The Dining Room is the very model of old-fashioned formal, down to its comme il faut French food (600 Stockton St.; 415-773-6198).
FIFTH FLOOR San Francisco
Laurent Gras does French-modern menus, whimsically divided into Ocean (hamachi seared with lemon thyme and pomelo) and Farm (squab breast stir-fried with sage and grapes)--quite suitable for this plush and hip zebra-carpeted room (Hotel Palomar, 12 Fourth St.; 415-348-1555).
MASA'S San Francisco
Ron Siegel (an F&W Best New Chef 1999 and the opening sous chef at the French Laundry) is the perfect successor to Julian Serrano. You'll find chocolate brown walls, toile-upholstered chairs and sublime French-Japanese dishes, such as hamachi carpaccio with shiso-radish salad (Vintage Court, 648 Bush St.; 415-989-7154).
THE GRILL Pasadena
Chef Craig Strong is young and ambitious--a successful leading man in Ritz-Carlton's plan to update its cuisine. The staid and stuffy room has yet to catch his spirit (The Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel and Spa, 1401 S. Oak Knoll Ave.; 626-568-3900).
BLUE ON BLUE Beverly Hills
Chef RaShon Jones quietly sends elegant comfort food (lobster-and-pumpkin ravioli, meat loaf) to the poolside cabanas at a hotel better known for its fashion shootfriendly midcentury decor and buzzing bar scene (Avalon, 9400 W. Olympic Blvd.; 310-407-7791).
POLO LOUNGE Beverly Hills
The Pink Palace's Rat Pack glamour has returned, thanks to French-trained Japanese chef Katsuo "Suki" Sugiura (an F&W Best New Chef 1989), who excels at inventing Asian-fusion dishes and revivifying tired classics, like McCarthy salad. He smokes meats and makes his own breads, vinegars, ice cream and chocolate (Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd.; 310-276-2251).
ERNA'S ELDERBERRY HOUSE Oakhurst
Chef Robert Riescher's dream résumé (he's worked for Gray Kunz and Ferran Adria) leads to creative tinkering: white bean soup with Parma ham, sage and basil; seared Thai snapper with carrot risotto in saffron broth. Erna's daughter Renée Nicole, a former Charlie Trotter and Gary Danko cellarmaster, oversees the wines at this stone-turreted faux château near Yosemite National Park (Château du Sureau, 48688 Victoria Ln.; 559-683-6800).
Chef Paul Wade starts with Rocky Mountain cuisine, then reaches for inspiration from the Alps, Pyrenees and Andes. Seared elk loin with dried cherries is one happy result. And there's a stellar cellar (Little Nell, 675 E. Durant St.; 970-920-6313).
THOMAS HENKELMANN Greenwich
Formal, correct service meets intelligent, luxe dishes (veal medallion with port, Dover sole in a white wine-butter sauce) in German-born, French-trained Henkelmann's patrician dining room. He doubles, quite successfully, as pastry chef (Homestead Inn, 420 Field Point Rd.; 203-869-7500).
Michelle Bernstein, who trained with Jean-Louis Palladin, creates Eurasian-Latino dishes: honey-lavender grilled quail; bouillabaisse with sofrito, lime and cilantro. It's hot, sexy food in a cool, sexy room, with an ice-topped bar (Mandarin Oriental, 500 Brickell Key Dr.; 305-913-8254).
MARK'S SOUTH BEACH Miami
Beach Chef Mark Militello (an F&W Best New Chef 1990) continues to refine his Med-Caribbean dishes, like conch seviche with vanilla rum--with the help of his talented executive chef Tim Andriola (Hotel Nash, 1120 Collins Ave.; 305-604-9050).
WISH Miami Beach
When E. Michael Reidt (an F&W Best New Chef 2001) joined the fanciful, colorful Todd Oldham decorated Wish last year, he brought Brazilian flavors to the menu. Example: rum-marinated tuna with avocado hollandaise (The Hotel, 801 Collins Ave.; 305-674-9474).
Chef Wayne Hirabayashi's open kitchen does international food--in a good way. Wood-fired and tandoori ovens turn out both seaweed nan with wasabi pesto and grilled whole fish (Kahala Mandarin Oriental, 5000 Kahala Ave.; 808-739-8888).
LA MER Honolulu
Chef Yves Garnier, who heads up the fanciest restaurant in Waikiki's fanciest hotel, leans heavily toward southern France in dishes like the market fish baked in a rosemary-salt crust (Halekulani, 2199 Kalia Rd.; 808-923-2311).
PAHU I'A Kona Coast
The 50th state arguably holds the patent for Asian fusion, and island native chef Robert Kealiinohomoku along with right-hand man James Cassidy do it right (Maui-onion-and-garlic-stuffed Kahua Ranch lamb; shiitake whipped potatoes), especially when you have a table hard by the Pacific surf (Four Seasons Hualalai, 100 Ka'upulehu Dr.; 808-325-8000).
THE DINING ROOM AT THE RITZ-CARLTON Chicago
Chef Sarah Stegner's unpretentious modern French style leads to guinea hen with baby turnips and artichoke puree. This restaurant (which, oddly enough, is owned by the Four Seasons, as is the hotel) is the most extravagant splurge in town (160 E. Pearson St.; 312-266-1000).
Leather, rosewood and huge windows make a chic showcase for chef Sandro Gamba (an F&W Best New Chef 2001). Expect confident Italian (and some Asian) cooking: a peeky-toe crab napoleon with wasabi crème fraîche; escargot ragout with braised beets (Park Hyatt, 800 N. Michigan Ave.; 312-239-4030).
"Kentucky fine dining" is chef Jim Gerhardt's clunky name for his fabulously toothsome food. He's dedicated to local ingredients: pawpaw, spoonfish, hominy, sorghum--and, of course, bourbon. He not only marinates pork chops in bourbon with spicebush berries and maple but also smokes tomatoes over bourbon-barrel staves (Seelbach Hilton, 500 S. Fourth Ave.; 502-807-3463).
GAMAY New Orleans
Chef Greg Sonnier (an F&W Best New Chef 1994) is all about big, boisterous Cajun-Creole flavor that sometimes veers Southwest. He steams rabbit in masa with tomatillos and roasted jalapeños, and serves it all in a serene French Quarter room (Bienville House, 320 Decatur St.; 504-299-8800).
THE GRILL ROOM New Orleans
Coming from California's Château du Sureau, chef James Overbaugh brings a West Coast sensibility to this plush institution. The result: haute Creole dishes, like poached catfish remoulade with caviar; oxtail-and-tasso-stuffed pasta (Windsor Court, 300 Gravier St.; 504-523-6000).
WHITE BARN INN Kennebunkport
The 1860s barn is rustic and dressy (jackets required) in equal measure. Chef Jonathan Cartwright's French menus, heavy on seafood (lobster on homemade fettuccine with Cognac butter), and a 7,000-bottle cellar lend a sense of occasion (37 Beach Ave.; 207-967-2321).
CASTINE INN Castine
This 1898 harbor-town inn is central-casting Maine: rugged and ravishing, with a wraparound porch. Less expected is a chef of Tom Gutow's caliber; he produces French-accented food that showcases regional ingredients, like scallops with spicy celery-root puree and cilantro vinaigrette (33 Main St.; 207-326-4365).
INN AT EASTON Easton
The glorious eighteenth-century Federal-style mansion has a quite contemporary dining room. Chef Andrew Evans exercises his mostly Australian training in dishes like Peking duck salad with local baby greens in a coriander-chile-mint dressing (28 S. Harrison St.; 410-822-4910).
Everything at Rialto is comfortable--the sofalike banquettes, the gentle lighting and the southern European food. Chef Jody Adams (an F&W Best New Chef 1993) stuffs quail with mascarpone and green peppercorns (Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St.; 617-661-5050).
OLD INN ON THE GREEN New Marlborough
Only candles light the mahogany tables in this 240-year-old former stagecoach stop. But chef Jeffrey Waite's eclectic, French-based food is pure twenty-first-century: lobster bouillabaisse; squab tagine with apricots and almonds; Gascon rooster coq au vin with English pea risotto (Rte. 57; 800-286-3139).
Beautiful understatement rules, both in the rooms and on the plate. Chef Peter Platt gives American ingredients classic French treatments, as in his Texas antelope with ramps and wild-black-huckleberry sauce (Hawthorne Rd.; 413-637-0610).
When chef Ken Oringer puts trendy argan oil and carrot emulsion in a calamari ragout, you can trust that they belong there--he's no faddist. His caramelized swordfish au poivre and his suckling pig are new classics. Leopard-print carpet, velvet and jazz set the tone (Eliot Suite Hotel, 370A Commonwealth Ave.; 617-536-7200).
RENOIR Las Vegas
Chef Alessandro Stratta (an F&W Best New Chef 1994) is all about precision and vitality, with flawless French technique acquired from his stints with Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse. Think braised short ribs with creamy horseradish potatoes (The Mirage, 3400 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-791-7223).
PICASSO Las Vegas
Chef Julian Serrano competes for diners' attention with 11 Picassos, sending out the refined-yet-gutsy French-ish (he hates to categorize) food he made famous for 14 years at Masa's in San Francisco: fallow deer with caramelized green apples; lobster boudin (Bellagio, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 702-693-7223).
DB BISTRO MODERNE New York City
The steady hand of Daniel Boulud (an F&W Best New Chef 1988) is quite discernible in his slick but friendly take on the nouveau Parisian bistro. Chef de cuisine Jean-François Bruel's witty burger of ground beef, short ribs, foie gras and truffle on a Parmesan bun is the latest New York must-try dish (City Club, 55 W. 44th St.; 212-391-2400).
ALAIN DUCASSE New York City
The vermilion, granite and gilt grand salon is an apt stage for the lobster-truffle-osetra-foie gras fireworks and the candy-cart climax. A rare New York Times four-star rating repaired the damage wreaked by vicious early reviews (Essex House, 155 W. 58th St.; 212-265-7300).
LE CIRQUE 2000 New York City
The celeb-filled institution has held on to loyalists despite last year's chef switch. Chef Pierre Schaedelin keeps the old favorites (foie gras ravioli, sea bass in crispy potatoes), and pastry chef Luis Robledo-Richards continues the Jacques Torres tradition of dramatic desserts (New York Palace, 455 Madison Ave.; 212-303-7788).
LESPINASSE New York City
Classical French artiste Christian Delouvrier is capable of soaring, especially with wild game or risotto, or his baby-vegetable ragout in a truffle broth. The mirrored, gilded room does a good Versailles impression (St. Regis, 2 E. 55th St.; 212-399-6719).
JEAN GEORGES New York City
Though genius chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has kitchens all over the world, this pale, glass-walled parlor offers the peak JGV experience: scallops with caper-raisin emulsion; dorade steamed in seaweed with tamarind (Trump International Hotel, 1 Central Park West; 212-299-3900).
TOWN New York City
Since chef Geoffrey Zakarian understands the finicky New York City palate, this glamour-puss David Rockwell-designed space was an instant hit. The food is American with an edge: halibut poached with fennel; escargot risotto with truffles (Chambers Hotel, 15 W. 56th St.; 212-582-4445).
BARICELLI INN Cleveland
Third-generation chef-restaurateur Paul Minnillo has been practicing seasonal simplicity at this cozy nineteenth-century Little Italy brownstone for 17 years. Two favorites: maple-glazed duck breast with duck-fat hash browns; mint-rosemary-crusted rack of lamb (2203 Cornell Rd.; 216-791-6500).
THE FOUNTAIN Philadelphia
Chef Martin Hamann delivers the quintessence of grand hotel dining--French food among giant bouquets and bouncy banquettes. Orzo with smoked salmon, quail egg and caviar and veal medallions with lobster and citrus ravioli prove it's not all predictable (Four Seasons, 1 Logan Sq.; 215-963-1500).
CHARLESTON GRILL Charleston
With its green marble floors, mahogany walls and Christofle silver, this place is the South by a set designer. French-trained chef Bob Waggoner produces "contemporary low-country cuisine" to match, as in crab cakes with tomato-and-shrimp coulis (Charleston Place, 224 King St.; 843-577-4522).
PENINSULA GRILL Charleston
Chef Robert Carter's updated Southern dishes, like wild mushroom grits with low-country oyster stew and grilled shrimp with hoppin' John fit the not-overly-formal room (Planters Inn, 112 N. Market St.; 843-723-0700).
MANSION ON TURTLE CREEK Dallas
Chef Dean Fearing, buried in industry awards, still wears cowboy boots while meeting-and-greeting around the gaudy tables. Theater is what his fans want, and Fearing delivers it with more-is-more dishes like Grilled Mahi Mahi with Honey-Habanero Glaze on Cowboy Lobster Gordita and Mango Ranch Relish (2821 Turtle Creek Blvd.; 214-559-2100).
VALHALLA Park City
The restaurant is more Scandinavian in its name and blond wood design than it is in chef Zane Holmquist's menu, though some dishes, like caribou striploin with rye bread pudding, definitely nod due north. Open only in winter (Stein Eriksen Lodge, 7700 Stein Way; 435-649-3700).
Airy, informal Maestro is surprising in a standard-issue Ritz in a staid suburb, but its young chef is truly astonishing. Fabio Trabocchi's tripartite menu is headed Tradition, Evolution and Creation, but those last two hold true throughout: poached oysters and caviar on dabs of cauliflower soup, venison sausage in a sauce of Sauternes with celeriac ravioli. Tastes outstrip descriptions by miles (The Ritz-Carlton Tysons Corner, 1700 Tysons Blvd.; 703-821-1515).
727 PINE Seattle
Chef Danielle Custer (an F&W Best New Chef 1998) returned to Seattle to open this spacious, spotlighted salon, bringing with her the catchy motto "Think global, cook local." In fact, she cooks grandly, with high-style presentations. Expect kasu-marinated wild salmon with green-tea glaze or smoked mushroom-stuffed chicken with coconut-orange collard greens (Elliot Grand Hyatt, 727 Pine St.; 206-774-6400).
THE GEORGIAN Seattle
The recently renovated dining room has gone less formal without losing its crystal chandeliers and 18-foot windows. Young Brit Gavin Stephenson cooks formal French with a little attitude: crab cake, razor clam and popcorn shrimp; potato ravioli with shaved boletus and white truffles (Four Seasons, 411 University St.; 206-621-1700).
INN AT LANGLEY Whidbey Island
Chef and innkeeper Stephen Nogal looks out from his open kitchen onto the communal table while herons and eagles soar outside the window. Roasted Walla Walla onion soup and duck with loganberries are matched to a small, stunning selection of Washington State wines. Open weekends only (400 First St.; 360-221-3033).
Chef Michel Richard, originally Gaston Lenotre's pastry protégé, later famous for Citrus, in Los Angeles, counters the current fashion for food au naturel. His dazzling art dishes are soulful, serious and unique--scallops disguised as porcupines; veal cheek "osso bucco" on a marrow custard-stuffed bone-shaped potato (Latham Hotel, 3000 M St. NW; 202-625-2150).