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Forget menus, napkin colors and floor plans. When chef Shinya Otsuchihashi began preparing to open his first hotel restaurant three years ago, he focused on one key element: sociability.

It’s the driving force behind his creation, Upstairz, the signature restaurant at Zentis Osaka, a new boutique hotel (and the city’s first Design Hotel member) that recently opened its doors in the city’s Kita Ward — albeit with a coronavirus-friendly, hygiene-focused edge.

“The dining experience is defined not solely by the cuisine offered and how it’s presented on the plates before you, but rather by the harmony between every element that the guest tastes, sees and feels,” says Otsuchihashi, who is also the chef behind the Michelin-starred restaurant behind Craftale in Nakameguro. “I believed in doing so, we could create a concept that would be lasting — one befitting a hotel that, itself, undoubtedly, has a long future ahead of it and the potential to leave a lasting legacy.”

Destination-worthy: Chef Wes Avila opened his first hotel restaurant, Piopiko, as a buzzy taco lounge at the Ace Hotel Kyoto. | GORTA YUUKI
Destination-worthy: Chef Wes Avila opened his first hotel restaurant, Piopiko, as a buzzy taco lounge at the Ace Hotel Kyoto. | GORTA YUUKI

A flurry of new hotel openings have taken place across the country in recent months, from Hokkaido to Okinawa — many initially timed to debut ahead of the now-postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Even before the pandemic, the challenges facing chefs opening hotel restaurants were extensive and complex, from catering to the diversity of the clientele and providing room service, to establishing the restaurant’s identity in the context of a wider environment.

The pandemic has added additional logistical challenges, forcing some international chefs to conduct tastings on Zoom due to travel restrictions, and creating new, hygiene-related issues (goodbye breakfast buffets, hello QR code menus).

At Zentis Osaka, Upstairz occupies an airy second floor space, with tiled floors, large windows, circular lighting, dark wood tables, abstract greenery — and a curated menu of contemporary French cuisine using premium local, seasonal ingredients.

“At first, I thought independent restaurants and hotel restaurants were entirely separate endeavors,” says Otsuchihashi. “Over time, however, I also began to see how I could potentially harmonize some of these seemingly different elements at Upstairz,” he says.

Wes Avila, the founder of Guerrilla Tacos in Los Angeles and one of a number of high-profile U.S. chefs running restaurants at the new Ace Hotel Kyoto, is also all too familiar with such complexities. At Ace Hotel Kyoto — the United States-based group’s first hotel in Asia — he’s behind Piopiko, a buzzy taco lounge whose menu ranges from zingy cauliflower and umeboshi (pickled plum) tacos to octopus quesadilla.

Collaboration: Caveman staff worked with design firm Claesson Koivisto Rune to design the interior of the restaurant. | ©︎ K5
Collaboration: Caveman staff worked with design firm Claesson Koivisto Rune to design the interior of the restaurant. | ©︎ K5

“This is the first time I’ve opened a restaurant at a hotel,” he says. “The menu was of course my main focus, but I also was very involved in helping with the overall feel and vibe of the restaurant and worked closely with our team on plates, service, music and ambiance.

“We really built Piopiko to be a standalone restaurant that happens to be located at a hotel. We want it to be a place that locals love first and foremost, but is also destination-worthy for travelers, too. Any restaurant, whether it’s in a hotel or standing on a corner by itself, needs to find its audience.”

Avila not only faced the challenge of introducing quality tacos to an ancient capital not renowned for its appreciation of Mexican food, but due to travel restrictions, he was also unable to visit in person to train the chefs.

“Fortunately, before the pandemic, our executive chef at Ace Kyoto, Motonobu Nishimura, had visited LA and worked in my kitchen with me, so he had a solid understanding of what we were looking to accomplish with the menu,” Avila says. “It’s been a lot of phone calls and video conferencing ever since. Training has been tricky, but the team in Kyoto has really done a great job.”

Pandemic dramas ultimately eclipsed the potential for cultural confusion: “Thankfully, there haven’t been cultural challenges, really, except that we’re trying to get people to use their hands to eat tacos instead of using a knife and fork. That’s definitely not a situation I run into very often in Los Angeles.”

And then there’s Caveman at K5, a new design hotel which opened inside a former 1920s bank in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi Kabutocho district earlier this year.

The restaurant — an affiliate of popular Kabi restaurant in Meguro — is masterminded by Atsuki Kuroda, a former sous-chef at three-Michelin-starred Maaemo in Oslo, who serves up a playful mix of modern, nature-inspired dishes.

“Actually, we don’t see ourselves as being part of a hotel,” explains Kuroda. “K5 presents itself more as a microcomplex than a hotel. We believe Caveman — and the other bars and cafes here — all have equal voices.”

Design collaboration with Claesson Koivisto Rune — from the CKR-designed oak tables with solid X-shaped legs to T-chairs by Jasper Morrison for Maruni — was a key factor. “We had a lot of fun brainstorming and discussing the interior works. … It was a collaborative process where we were given the opportunity to express ourselves.”

When asked about the difficulties of being associated with a hotel, Kuroda adds: “One example is perhaps the fact that we don’t get to see our guests’ faces and expressions when we serve room service. We normally aim to provide a unique and quality experience by operating within a human scale and with a sense of independence.”

And due to the pandemic, the timing of K5’s opening in February was not without its challenges.

“It was a difficult moment,” Kuroda admits. “We were not far from losing Caveman (when the hotel closed for eight weeks). But the situation really gave us the opportunity to stop and think about our identity and what we want to provide in terms of taste and experience: We are aspiring to change the food scene in Japan.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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