As hotels go, the Ritz-Carlton is the Rolls Royce of resorts.
Being a brand synonymous with service, opulence, comfort and luxury is a huge marketing asset that attracts big-money customers to its 81 hotels in 27 countries.
That's also a problem.
In Sarasota, the tall royal palms lining the ascending football-field length driveway are often taken as a cue that only those with lots of dollars need venture inside. Its fine-dining restaurant, Verona, was well-reviewed, but the ornate chandeliers and Romanesque décor were out of step with Sarasota's evolving dining scene.
To break that perception, the resort recently spent more than $3 million to gut the place and turn it into Jack Dusty, a seafaring-themed restaurant, bar and outdoor patio aimed at pulling in the upscale, food-centric customers that now dine at trendy spots downtown.
The Jack Dusty, which borrows its name from the man onboard an 18th century ship who was in charge of doling out rum and ship stores, looks as if it fell out of Ralph Lauren's head, with sandalwood accents, clean design, organic materials and stylish décor.
The restaurant is part of a trend among resorts: trying to attract nontraveling customers onto the premises through redesigns, food made with ingredients from local farmers and craft cocktails made by expert bartenders.
Resorts are targeting those food-loving customers who stay on the property but ask the concierge for tips on where they can eat local food at nearby competing restaurants. They also want to pull in locals who don't normally think of the hotel as a place to unwind and dine.
That includes the Marriott's Orlando World Center resort, where the similarly outdated but well-regarded fine-dining Italian restaurant Tuscany was replaced last week by Siro Urban Italian Kitchen. The dimly lit new restaurant features a menu of small plates, with pork belly, ahi tuna, flatbread pizzas and a grandma-style "Red Lead" bucatini sauce served at bare, wood-topped farmer's tables that have replaced their former white tablecloth versions.
Locally, the Lowes chain refreshed the award-winning Mauritana Grille at the Don CeSar Hotel on St. Pete Beach a little more than a year ago, brightening the décor and emphasizing the seasonal ingredients on its menu. Last year also saw a retooling and rebranding of Aquaknox as Aqua, a stylish destination dining spot at the Westin Tampa Bay.
The Sarasota Ritz's move to modernize was an acknowledgement by the resort's new management team that dining habits rapidly changed around them in the 15 years since Verona opened, says Jack Dusty general manager Patrick Bucko.
The fact that Bucko had never worked at a resort was one of the reasons he was hired. Growing up in Sarasota and managing several notable local restaurants, including Euphemia Haye on Longboat Key, gave him valuable perspective on the local dining scene.
As recently as the late 1980s, a big night out in Sarasota might have included eating at a restaurant serving a boatload of fried seafood. Today, the town's 52,000 residents count such spots as the inventive Eat Here, the local-ingredient-driven Indigenous and the Peruvian gastro-pub Darwin's on 4th among the culinary highlights.
"Back then, they weren't really interested in the connection to local ingredients," Bucko says. "Now they're really interested in where the seafood is coming from, how fresh it is, who the chef is, what herbs they are using and where they were grown."
In addition to Bucko's local contacts to purveyors, Chef de Cuisine Jeff Thomas reaches out to area farmers for seasonal ingredients for making Blackened Grouper Etouffe and Sarasota Cioppino. He also spends time at the downtown market on Saturday mornings, schmoozing with area vendors.
The emphasis is more prominent at the bar, as well, where craft cocktails are served with hand-chipped ice, and appetizers include fried gator tots and locally made Mote Marine sturgeon caviar.
For Thomas, the former executive chef at the pioneering Beach Bistro on Anna Maria Island, there is enormous pride in small un-Ritz-like details, such as the pork rinds made using pigs from Nature Delivered in Brooksville.
"They told me they didn't want a corporate chef that thinks like the Ritz-Carlton," Thomas says. "They wanted a local chef with contacts to local purveyors."
The idea for the transformation came from a new Sarasota team of managers hired in 2011. They approached corporate Ritz leaders in Chevy Chase, Md., about taking the waterfront Verona toward a seafood concept instead.
A wall of small, curtained windows was torn out in favor of floor-to-ceiling views of the patio and adjacent marina. San Francisco-based designer EDG Interior Architecture & Design sectioned the 236-seat restaurant into a variety of gathering areas. Along a back wall, a row of high-top tables appointed with fish-handled forks and knives stand adjacent to a main dining room with a mixture of couches and chairs. Jack Dusty is about 2,000 square feet smaller than Verona, which makes it easier to create a more intimate dining atmosphere.
On the newly expanded patio, fire pits and heaters give winter visitors a chance to sit and sip outdoors in comfort. Above the dining room, a fluid sculptural ceiling installation showcases 1,800 handcrafted brass mesh petals that look from below as if they are floating on the surface of a waterway.
"It's hard to keep someone's attention for an hour and a half," Bucko says. "People want to be more social when they go out. It's more about the food and the drinks and the getting together than whether the server has white gloves or not."
If the gamble works, it could prompt the Ritz-Carlton chain to create individual hotspots at their resorts. The same is true at Marriott's Siro Urban Italian Kitchen, where the goal was to create a restaurant that looks more like a trendy New York City bistro instead of a formal dining experience travelers choose to max out an expense account.
Siro's Chef de Cuisine Anthony Burdo says the antipasti platters, roasted bone marrow and veal meatballs were installed on the menu for customers who want to share lots of smaller, more affordable plates. As with Jack Dusty, ingredients for Siro's menu come from local farms, including Lake Meadow Naturals and Palmetto Creek.
"People are grazing," Burdo says. "When you come to the restaurant, you don't have to leave saying, 'I wish I had that.' The way the menu is designed, you can do this and not feel awkward about sharing."