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When Scott Circle restaurant Nage Bistro got a makeover late last year, it adopted many of the trendy design elements that are popular in D.C.’s hottest new restaurants. Exposed brick now covers the walls, along with tiles of live moss atop refurbished wood reportedly from a barn built in Louisville, Ky., in 1932. Edison light bulbs hang throughout the room; a chalkboard displays specials.

The menu got a revamp, too, under the direction of Miles Vaden, an alum of Fiola and Eventide (since replaced by Sean Sullivan, who most recently worked at Glen’s Garden Market and The Hamilton). The restaurant boasts “local, fresh ingredients,” occasional tasting menus, a local craft beer program, and a cocktail menu with house-infused spirits.

But there was one detail missing in a press release about the renovations: The restaurant is located in a Courtyard by Marriott. Instead of calling itself a hotel restaurant, Nage branded itself as a “neighborhood place.”

“Neighborhood place means a little more casual but high quality food,” says owner Josh Grapski, “a place where you’re going to know somebody, or you go there often. And that’s the type of place we’re trying to be.”

That’s not typically what you’d associate with a dining establishment in a midrange hotel. But Nage is one of many local hotel eateries trying to reboot and draw in locals, not just travelers. Attracting more D.C. diners grew as a priority for many hotel restaurants in the wake of the recession-induced travel slump. And to even begin to compete with the wave of new independent eateries, many felt the need to upgrade.

Among those to undergo (or about to undergo) renovations in the past year or two: Firefly at Hotel Madera, J&G Steakhouse at the W Hotel, Art and Soul at the Liaison Capitol Hill, the rooftop bar at the Donovan House, and Seasons at the Four Seasons. Other hotels have brought in new concepts altogether: Decanter at the St. Regis, Boveda and the Caucus Room Brasserie at the Westin Georgetown, Trademark gastropub at the Westin Alexandria, Degrees at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown, The Federalist at the Loews Madison Hotel, Jardenea Restaurant at The Melrose Georgetown, and Edgar Bar & Kitchen at the Mayflower Renaissance. Nearly all these places have tried to create a lively bar scene with an amped-up cocktail program and more casual dining atmosphere.

Hotel restaurants have historically had pretty lousy reputations, with a few celebrity chef-driven exceptions like Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak at the Four Seasons or Michel Richard’s (now-closed) Citronelle in the Latham Hotel. What local would think to have dinner at a Courtyard on a Friday night? These were places for tourists and business travelers more concerned with convenience than quality.

Many hotels had treated their restaurants merely as amenities, like a pool or a gym: They had to have places for guests to eat in order to attain certain star ratings or attract certain clientele, but the restaurants weren’t really money makers. “If you look at, say, a 100-room hotel that generates $10 million in revenue a year, and their restaurant generates $500,000 a year, where would you focus your attention?” asks Grapski. “The amenities, which is the restaurant for a lot of those places, become secondary. And when they become secondary, they go down in quality significantly.”

But now, J&G Steakhouse General Manager John Leinhardt—previously food and beverage director of the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas—says hotels are starting to realize that restaurants can be very profitable. “It’s a great source of income that lends itself to guests wanting to book events there, knowing that in the afternoon they can have a good lunch in the hotel walls,” Leinhardt says. (He declined to say how much of the hotel’s profit comes from the restaurant.) “It’s no longer just an amenity. It’s no longer just, ‘Well, we have to feed you, so we’ll build a dining room.’ Now, it’s, ‘Let’s build a dining room, not only to feed you but to entertain you,’ and of course, to attract a local crowd, so there’s a great vibe and a great buzz.”

Four-year-old J&G Steakhouse plans to renovate its dining room in August to give it a more “playful, energetic, and approachable vibe,” says Leinhardt. In response to feedback from locals who wanted a more social scene, the restaurant will add a martini-focused bar near the dining room called Bar 515 (named after the hotel’s address). The existing downstairs wine bar will also be part of Bar 515. “We want that to be our little local’s hideaway,” Leinhardt says.

The corporate structure of chain hotels often leads to food aimed at the lowest common denominator of diner, says Charlie Solis, General Manager of Trademark gastropub at the Westin Alexandria. The hotel’s previous restaurant, Jamieson Grille, used recipes from a corporate chef in New York. The on-site chef had some autonomy, but not much. That’s no longer the case at Trademark, which replaced Jamieson Grille in November. The restaurant rearranged its relationship with the hotel, so it no longer has to get corporate approval of its uniforms and music playlist, either.

The inventor-themed restaurant, inspired by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office next door, now aims to bring in a local crowd by using more local ingredients and adding cocktail classes. Like Nage, Trademark intentionally does not mention its hotel location in its media materials or website. At Jamieson Grille, 40 percent of the restaurant guests were locals, but Solis says that number has climbed to 70 percent since Trademark opened.

Kimpton Director of Restaurant Operations Danny Bortnick adds that it’s more common in big-box hotel restaurants to find chefs with catering, rather than independent restaurant, backgrounds, because they know how to deal with the high volume of orders from room service or private events. But that’s changing. “We have restaurant people running our restaurants. And we have hotel people running our hotels,” Bortnick says. “Once the chef is in place, the concept evolves around that chef.” (The kitchens at Trademark and Nage also manage room service.)

It’s helped hotel food that respected and well-known restaurateurs and restaurant groups are seeing the appeal of partnering with a hotel: Hotels know the power and cachet of a name brand, so restaurant operators often get a good deal on the space. “It’s less about how much money can I make for the square footage. It’s more about who are they going to attract that’s good for my hotel,” Grapski says.

Hotel restaurants are also beefing up their bars. It’s often an easier gateway for getting locals in. Boveda at the Westin Georgetown branded itself as a trendy-sounding “Latin speakeasy.” Meanwhile, Trademark turned to veteran Alexandria-based mixologist Todd Thrasher with advice about its cocktail program, and he connected them with one of his protégés, Chris Bassett, who worked at PX and Virtue Feed & Grain, to oversee the drink menu, which now has all the obligatory components of cocktail cred, from seasonal ingredients to house-infused liquors.

Meanwhile, when Firefly at Kimpton’s Madera Hotel underwent a $300,000 renovation in October, one of the biggest changes was an expanded bar and new cocktail program with “boutique aperitifs” and small-batch liquors, as well as house-made syrups, bitters, and sodas. Bortnick explains: “You have the potential to be doing revenue from 5 o’clock all the way to when you decide to close. Whereas still in this country, unfortunately, everybody wants to eat at 7 o’clock.”

Hotels aren’t just trying to dodge the stigma of bland food and boring drinks; they’re also trying to shed the stuffy outdated hotel restaurant feel. Art and Soul underwent a renovation in January and February, replacing its white banquettes and carpet with free-standing tables and herringbone wood flooring to create an “indoor urban market feel.” “It very much felt like a hotel,” says Director of Operations Mike Kraus of the old look. “And our goal in the renovation was to give the restaurant its own identity.”

The renovation also aimed to create the feeling of the “hustle and bustle” of a busy restaurant. “The carpet and the soft fabrics keep everything very quiet and sterile sounding,” Kraus says. “When you walk into the lobby of [the Liaison Capitol Hill] now, you can hear our people. When the bar area is full during happy hour, it’s loud. You can hear the restaurant. You know there’s something going on in there, and you want to check it out.”

With some restaurants spending millions of dollars on designer decor, the look of the restaurant is as competitive as ever, says Nage’s Grapski. “It seems like there’s 10 to 12 new restaurants opening every month, and the interior design component of that competition is amazing to me, the amount of money people spend on the inside,” he says. “So I guess you get caught up in that because it’s a competitive component which is definitely a differentiator for businesses.”

Nage spent $125,000 on its upgraded rustic barn-wood look in order to compete with the frenzy of new restaurants in nearby Dupont Circle and 14th Street NW. But at the end of the meal, you’ll probably still exit through the Courtyard by Marriott’s lobby.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery