By Terry Trucco
Last summer, Herb n’ Kitchen, the new restaurant at the New York Hilton-Midtown, was briefly the talk of the town, never mind that it hadn’t opened yet.
In case you missed the fuss, Hilton announced it was closing its conventional – and woefully outdated – all-purpose restaurant and launching a new “dining concept” in the vast space at the back of the lobby.
With a meld of grab-and-go, healthy fare, local sourcing and scores of tables, you could pick whatever caught your eye and take it to a nearby table, up to your room or out the door (the Ziegfield Theater, the largest single-screen movie theater in town, stands across the street).
The real news, of course, was that Herb n’ Kitchen’s arrival signaled the demise of room service at New York City’s largest hotel. Was a seismic change in hotel dining underway?
In recent weeks Herb n’ Kitchen opened softly, then officially. I stopped by last week for a look.
At first glance, Herb n’ Kitchen emits an airport vibe with its wall of cold cases displaying salads in plastic containers, yogurts and bottled beverages.
But upon closer investigation, the place gets interesting. It’s clean, airy and good looking,
with handsome woodwork, accents of Carrera marble and a wall of gleaming copper pots, a wink at the titular “kitchen.”
You pick up your food at familiar stations – coffee and pastries, cold foods (salads, sandwiches, ice cream) hot foods (soups, sandwiches, flatbreads) and snacks. But much of the food is intriguing and unexpected.
Yes, Doritos, Snickers and M & Ms occupy the snack table. But they share space with small-batch local creations like Kings County Beef Jerky, Baked in Brooklyn Pita Chips and Salty Road Salt Water Taffy. The coffee, including cappuccinos and lattes, is Illy. Pastries – muffins, scones, chocolate pistachio biscotti – are baked daily in house. And you can watch the flatbreads – Margharita, BBQ pork belly or buffalo chicken – cook in the big brick oven behind warming shelves holding Italian sausage sandwiches, hot dogs and burgers.
About the burgers. Forget have it your way. They come grilled to medium, topped with New York cheddar. “They’re designed to save time. You can just grab one,” says Beth Scott, vice-president, global product development, food & beverage, Hilton Worldwide. I like the time-saving idea, less so the notion of a burger that’s been sitting on a warming shelf. Scott assures me they aren’t left on the shelf for long. “You can see the food being prepared. We’re not sticking food made eight hours ago in a box,” she says. Indeed, the burger I sampled was warm and tasty, made with beef from celebrated New York restaurant butcher Pat La Freida and wrapped in a distinctive cornmeal roll. It wasn’t bespoke – I’d have preferred medium rare — but at $9.75 it was a bargain by New York hotel standards.
Prices generally are agreeable — $4.25 for a bagel with smoked salmon, $13.75 for Brooklyn Lager battered fish n’ chips on a roll, $3 for a small coffee. There’s also a lavish buffet breakfast for $36 with miso soup and Korean noodles with vegetables in addition to the usual offerings and omelet station.
Should you decide to eat on the premises, seating choices abound. The place seats 215 in a fleet of rooms, with and without TV screens. The main area boasts a clever communal table created from two generous tiered slaps of marble. Electrical outlets are as plentiful as chairs, and WiFi is free.
An impetus for the new venture was to give guests “a reason not to leave the hotel,” says Scott, who acknowledges Hilton was slow to adapt the fast-casual dining trend popularized five years ago. “We listened to people. They weren’t getting the food choices they wanted,” she says. Scott expects other Hiltons will adapt the concept, tweaking it as needed.
And room service? The classic cart with a carnation is history. But you can have anything you want from Herb n’ Kitchen delivered to your room, provided you spend $15 (a 15 percent gratuity is added). Your order arrives in a white paper bag emblazoned with the Herb n’ Kitchen logo. My guess? No one will miss the $30 burger – or the carnation.
New York Hilton-Midtown, 1335 Sixth Avenue between 53rd and 54th streets; 212 586-7000.