Before this week, I hadn't considered myself the kind of person who would rent a hotel room by the hour.
That changed after a three-hour private dinner at the new Rand Tower Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, one of a handful of Twin Cities hotels and inns that are reimagining room service for the COVID era. By turning guest rooms into private dining rooms, hotels are finding a new use for vacancies during a time of limited travel while offering safety-minded service to customers who might be jittery about indoor dining.
Hewing Hotel in Minneapolis' North Loop was one of the first locally to offer an elevated in-room dining experience, beginning last fall shortly after Gov. Tim Walz announced a second pause in on-premises consumption.
"We were trying to think of ways to keep cooking," said Hewing executive chef Nyle Flynn. Hotels, as essential businesses, were still allowed to operate, and room service was par for the course. Surely, he could do better than a continental breakfast.
Flynn came up with a seven-course tasting menu, dropped off one by one with just a knock on the door. The chef beams into each room via video to introduce the dishes.
The hotel converted three rooms to start, sending the king-size beds down to a storage room to make space for dining tables. Tickets sold out in the first weekend. Now, there are 14 private dining rooms, with seatings four days a week. (The dinners will run at least through Valentine's Day.)
"We really wanted to make it a special night out," Flynn said.
At the height of hotel dining's recent popularity, 10 rooms out of the Afton House Inn's 25 were converted into private dining rooms, with tables set up next to a fireplace — and a jetted bathtub. With strong interest, in-room dinners will continue even as the restaurant has reopened, said Dave Jarvis, whose family has owned the inn for 44 years.
"There's a certain small percentage of guests that don't feel comfortable going to a restaurant but do feel comfortable dining in a hotel room," Jarvis said. "We want to respect that and have an option for people who aren't ready to dine in a restaurant yet."
Besides offering a sense of safety to diners and a creative workaround to the now-defunct dining shutdown, the strategy has brought back underemployed hospitality staffers. Jarvis was able to rehire three servers, a dishwasher and two cooks.
And it has drummed up extra revenue for struggling hotels, which typically offer diners a discount on overnight stays. By the end of a meal in one of Nicollet Island Inn's rooms in Minneapolis, more than half of the diners elect to spend the night, said owner Larry Abdo. Chalk it up to the Champagne and roses that are a part of every private dinner.
"Romance has always been the solution for a lot of stuff," he said. "And we've got toothbrushes and shaving stuff at the front desk."
Guests who partake in hotel dining experiences are finding it full of surprises they didn't know they had been missing.
They can control the music in the room, for example. Those with hearing issues say they can converse more easily than in a busy space.
Ross Lian-Thornton, of Edina, realized what a bother it used to be to get up in a crowded restaurant and make his way to the restroom; at the Hewing Hotel, where he recently dined with his husband, Spencer, his own private bathroom was right in the room.
At the Rand Tower, the 90-year-old Art Deco wonder that just opened as a hotel in December, the upholstered headboard was all that remained of a king-size bed that had been taken out of the 20th-floor room where my spouse and I dined. In its place, a table that can seat four had been preset with flatware and glasses; an amuse-bouche and our burrata salads were already delivered. When we were done with the plates, we simply put them out in the hallway, where our next course awaited.
A wooden writing desk was turned into a self-serve bar for bottles of water, wine and Champagne, along with a pre-filled hotel ice bucket that was even lined with a standard-issue plastic bag. (Many hotel dinners offer optional wine pairings, but also allow guests to bring their own drinks.)
The wall-mounted TV was on, set to a jazz station and the never-ending flame of a virtual fireplace.
As my spouse and I took in the glittering views of neighboring office buildings from our smartly appointed room, she lamented having worn her snow boots to dinner. After all, it had been a long time since we'd dressed up to go out, and we were both a little rusty. Just then, it occurred to us — at this completely private restaurant, we were free to take off our shoes.
5 to try
Check into these five Twin Cities-area hotels, which are among those offering private dinners:
3291 St. Croix Trail S., Afton
Four-course dinner with wine pairings (half-glass per course) runs $55 per person, plus a $30 room fee. 5:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.
300 Washington Av. N., Mpls.
Three-hour, seven-course dinner for parties of up to six costs $110 per person plus a $65 room rental fee (on Valentine's weekend, $165 per person plus $100 room rental fee). Wine pairings $65. 6 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, Valentine's weekend Friday through Sunday.
95 Merriam St., Mpls.
Overnight guests can order off the restaurant menu for a contactless dinner delivered to your door, followed by continental breakfast the next morning — or, dine in the repurposed Bridal Ready Room (the January menu is lobster and chocolate). The room, Champagne, roses and breakfast costs $179, with dinner a la carte.
527 Marquette Av., Mpls.
Chef de Cuisine Andy Vyskocil crafts a six-course meal for $125 per person, plus a three-hour room rental fee of $75, for parties of two to six.
Reservations: 612-688-4500, exploretock.com/randtowerhotel. 6:30 p.m. daily
350 N. Market St., St. Paul
Prices vary for an overnight stay with a private four-course dinner for two in one of the hotel's suites, wine and parking included. Through Feb. 28 with a minimum of two days' advance booking.
Reservations: 651-292-9292, reservations.saintpaulhotel.com
Sharyn Jackson • @SharynJackson