For corporate meeting planners these days, food is not only essential to creating an entertaining and engaging experience for a private dinner for 50 or an incentive party for 500, but often a destination will be chosen because of its reputation as a foodie city. Menus are no longer an afterthought, no longer the once-routine choice of beef, chicken or fish.
As more attendees become savvy, health-conscious eaters, ready and willing to try new cuisine, meeting professionals must seriously include a destination’s ability to provide a true culinary experience in their site selection criteria.
The foodie destinations below offer hotels, restaurants, unique meeting venues and a plethora of award-winning local chefs and mixologists. In addition, these destinations have nearby farms and farmers’ markets to assure a steady supply of fresh produce, and local caterers and food and beverage directors whose expertise is organizing unique culinary events.
“We work with many national and international corporate planners who bring in employees and customers from all over the world and want Chicago cuisine to be a theme of their events,” says Molly Schemper, co-owner of Chicago’s FIG Catering. “Whether it’s focusing on the ‘typical’ foods one associates with Chicago, like pizza, Italian beef or the classic hot dog, or highlighting Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods, at FIG (For Intimate Gatherings) we always focus on sourcing local and sustainable ingredients so whatever the theme of the event, we try to create a menu that incorporates seasonal produce, locally raised meat, and organic dry goods and dairy. Our corporate clients tend to know and love this, too, and often have our chef and/or bar manager step out to talk to the crowd about where our ingredients come from and why that matters.
“Last year we worked with Avalara (the tax prep software company) to produce an event for 50 of their Chicago clients at Greenhouse Loft, a lovely ecofriendly event venue right off the Kennedy Expressway, convenient to both downtown and O’Hare airport,” says Schemper. “We created a ‘Chicago Neighborhoods’ themed menu, where we included neighborhoods like Argyle, Chinatown, Little Italy and Pilsen. The chef introduced the menu and talked about sourcing. They wanted something interactive and a gift for guests, so we also incorporated a cocktail demonstration and bottles of our in-house FIG bitters that guests could take home to create their own cocktails. Our bartender held small group sessions with the guests and created a cocktail called the Demetrio’s Dilemma, with small batch bourbon from Ohio, ginger beer, lemon juice and FIG bitters, to order.”
“I can say without reservation that Miami is now one of the most exciting and thriving eating destinations in the USA,” says Karen Weiner Escalera, editor of miamicurated.com, a highly ranked food blog. “The Magic City’s offerings go well beyond the famed Cuban restaurants that have been a stop on presidential campaigns.
“Peruvian chef Gaston Acurio at the Mandarin Oriental here started the explosion in fine Peruvian cuisine, joining the dozens of top-notch ceviche venues that are the real thing. Many of the world’s top chefs are represented here, including José Andrés, Daniel Boulud, Stephen Starr, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and soon Joël Robuchon,” Escalera says. “Miami is seen not only as a place where a top restaurant group that’s on the move needs to be, but also as its first outpost in the U.S. to launch a new fine dining concept. Think Enrique Iglesias and tennis star Rafael Nadal’s Spanish restaurant Tatel, which opened this year in The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, or an investor group that owns the wildly popular Zuma and who launched the Pan Asian spot DOA.”
Gloria Rojas, global events program manager for California-based Ruckus Wireless, says, “In September of 2017 we held our ‘Big Dogs Conference’ at the Loews Miami Beach property, an invitation-only event where Ruckus partners have the opportunity to interact with our executives and subject matter experts to exchange ideas, learn, make connections and gain a competitive edge. This 21/2-day conference is held in a different city each year, and we had over 430 people attend our 2017 event.”
Although Rojas says that food was not the main reason the event was held in Miami, it didn’t hurt that the city, and the 790-room Loews property (which describes its dining venues as global cuisine infused with Latin flavors and seafood classics) was the perfect combination for the menu planned for the awards dinner. “The property has six wonderful restaurants, but with almost 500 dinner guests, we organized the awards dinner in the Americana ballroom,” Rojas says.
“The buffet consisted of culinary options from around the Americas, including Cuban, Mexican, Peruvian and other Latin American countries. The food at dinner was exceptional; all of our guests were very pleased with the overall presentation. One of our partners told me during the event that ‘I’m usually not a fan of hotel food, but this is fantastic’ so that was very nice to hear.”
Fresh off a recent $100 million transformation in April 2017, the 1,000-room Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, just north of Miami (part of Hilton’s Curio Collection) is making a splash with two new restaurants. Chef Michael Schulson’s Japanese-inspired Monkitail was recently awarded the Best Hotel Restaurant in USA Today’s 2017 Readers’ Choice Awards, and celebrity Chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s Point Royal, a Coastal American restaurant, is getting raves for its raw bar and fish menu. The hotel also boasts 1,000 guest rooms and suites, 10 different culinary venues, and 209,000 sf of meeting and event space, the largest hotel convention space in South Florida.
Other exciting foodie venues that will appeal to planners include Los Fugeos, featuring the cuisine of celebrated Argentine chef Francis Mallmann. Located in the eclectic, pricey and popular Faena Hotel, the chef’s grilling skills are on full display in the outdoor restaurant. Often credited as a leading force in the revitalization of the Miami River neighborhood, three-year old Seaspice continues to be one of the city’s top waterfront restaurants. Chef Angel Leon’s menu is inspired by Mediterranean and global influences. With 250 feet of private docking privileges, the restaurant offers stunning interiors and views of the Miami River and downtown skyline.
New Orleans is synonymous with Cajun and Creole cuisine. Barbecue shrimp, po’boys, jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish étouffée, beignets, muffuletta, and red beans and rice are all part of the city’s rich cuisine, and prepared at its legendary restaurants such as Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, Galatoire’s, Dooky Chase and Tujague’s. Chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, John Besh and Donald Link have enhanced the city’s reputation as a foodie destination.
Food & Wine magazine says that young chefs are shaking up the New Orleans restaurant scene in a big way, earning the city a spot on Food & Wine’s top 10 food cities in the world for 2017. Some of the new restaurants in the city include Turkey and Wolf, Compère Lapin (Chef Nina Compton was Food & Wine’s Best New Chef 2017), Marjie’s Grill and Part & Parcel.
Mardi Gras World, an offsite venue also known as River City Venues, is located near the Mississippi River. This 300,000-sf space is the brainchild of Blaine Kern, who developed and designed many of the monumental Mardi Gras floats since 1932; he opened up his working studio to the public in 1984 as a tourist attraction and event space for groups of 20–20,000 attendees.
“Our event at Mardi Gras World was held in July, 2017,” says Leah Green, director of Beachbody Global Events. Beachbody is a Southern California-based company and a leading provider of fitness, nutrition and weight-loss programs. “We did two parties back-to-back. Our Leadership Ladder Reception for 1,200 attendees was catered by Centerplate and held in The Grand Oak Mansion, and our Success Club Party took place throughout the entire venue for about 5,000 attendees.” Beachbody worked with BBC Destination Management, a Global DMC Partner, with My Social House handling the culinary end.
“The main objective behind our parties is recognition. Our coaches work all year long to build their businesses, and this is a way to recognize their hard work, celebrate their achievements and cut loose,” added Holly Kasabo, senior manager for Beachbody Global Events. “The attendees loved the food trucks. When we start planning our events, we strive to showcase and celebrate the host city by making sure we have the best local flavors, sights and sounds.”
New Orleans is more than just a foodie town, of course — it offers meeting and convention participants an experience that includes history, music and a wonderful Louisiana atmosphere. “New Orleans is a great convention town and our attendees had a blast taking it all in,” says Green. “We also held an Elite Reception at The Sugar Mill one night, where the theme was Voodoo Masquerade. We made sure to incorporate all the best tastes of the bayou like boiled gulf shrimp, chicken gumbo and lemon ice box pies.”
The Sugar Mill is located directly across from the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center near the historic Warehouse District. The venue specializes in large corporate hospitality events, private conventions and trade shows. Their 22,000-sf main floor and the adjoining 15,000-sf landscaped courtyard can combine indoor and outdoor activities for up to 3,000 people indoors and 10,000 using the adjoining properties.
“New Orleans continues to be an amazing city for foodies, and a good choice for meeting planners wishing to incorporate culinary-related events into their programs,” says New Orleans resident David E. Rome, CMP, DMCP, director of sales for BBC Destination Management, a Global DMC Partner. “One of the great culinary events for corporate clients include having noted chef Amy Sins use the Rib Room in the Omni Royal Orleans to show attendees how to make gumbo or bread pudding, the venue’s signature dishes,” Rome says.
“We also have the New Orleans School of Cooking here, which offers demonstration classes where guests cook their meal and pair it with wine and alcohol. Knowing the city as well as we do, we bring in very unique New Orleans menu items, like a Café Du Monde food truck frying up beignets, the Drago’s Firetruck chargrilling oysters out of the truck, or a sno-ball station with a liquor bar for guests to add to their favorite flavor,” Rome added. “We have talented bakers in town and have brought in Doberge Bites from Debbie Does Doberge, or a trufflemaker onsite from Bittersweet Chocolates, and we have partnered with James Beard Award-winning chef Donald Link to produce a couchon de lait (pig roast) in a South Louisiana swamp location. Groups love to see the pig on the rotisserie and of course enjoy all of the accoutrements like jambalaya, pork crackling, boiled crawfish, shrimp, potatoes, corn and sausage. Our goal is to show our guests what South Louisiana and New Orleans looks like through the eyes of a local.”
Within the next two years, New York City will get two massive food halls, a trend that is happening in several big cities around the country. One of projects, yet to be named, is the Spanish version of Eataly, complete with wine and cheese bars, a tortilla stand and of course, endless tapas. Thanks to José Andrés and the Adrià brothers, the chefs behind El Bulli’s famed molecular gastronomy, customers will be able to feast on authentic Spanish cuisine as early as fall 2018. The new foodie paradise will occupy 35,000 sf of indoor/outdoor space within the larger Hudson Yard complex, located in midtown Manhattan.
In early 2019, Anthony Bourdain’s Food Market will open on Pier 57 along the Hudson River. Part of the pier will also be home to Google, which has signed on for about 250,000 sf of space, while Bourdain Market is expected to take up 100,000 sf on the ground floor and mezzanine levels. There also will be an 80,000-sf publicly accessible rooftop park.
Restaurant openings in New York are always highly anticipated, and the following venues, some within high-end business hotels, are definitely on the radar of many corporate planners. Public Kitchen, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest opening, paired itself with the opening of Ian Schrager’s Public Hotel. Public Kitchen sits on the ground floor of the impeccably designed hotel, in a 150-seat space and an outdoor patio. On the menu are dishes such as truffle pizza, rigatoni with basil-pistachio pesto, and smoked short rib with corn and potato salad.
Located on the top floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Columbus Circle, The Aviary is chef Grant Achatz and partner Nick Kokonas’ New York City outpost of the three-Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant Alinea.
Located on the Embarcadero, the San Francisco Ferry Building is densely packed with restaurants, shops and crowds of people. It’s close to the Marin ferry, and a perfect venue for groups to spend a few hours, especially in nice weather. The Ferry Building is a foodie’s paradise, brimming with organic, local, sustainable, artisan and just plain delicious culinary delights. Highlights include fresh oysters on the half-shell at Hog Island Oyster Company, tasty tamales at Mijita and juicy burgers at Gott’s Roadside. The Slanted Door, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant, is also worthwhile. For dessert, it’s a toss-up between Ciao Bella’s rich and creamy gelato and Miette’s beautiful looking and tasty cupcakes.
Another treat for foodie groups would be the sprawling market held inside the Ferry Building on a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday before 2 p.m. With scores of organic fruits and vegetables, prepared foods and baked treats, the huge market wraps around both the front and back of the building.
Corporate planners easily can find excellent venues here for offsite dining or culinary field trips, including at the city’s famous Pike Place Market; and Seattle is surrounded by some of the country’s finest agricultural and livestock suppliers.
Located in Woodinville, the heart of western Washington’s wine country just 30 minutes from Seattle, the Barking Frog is a highly acclaimed restaurant with innovative seasonal menus and an award-winning cellar of Northwest wines. The restaurant is adjacent to Willows Lodge, an upscale, 84 rooms/suites lodge that is well-suited for corporate events.
Also located within steps of Willows Lodge is the Herbfarm, a five-diamond restaurant that offers a multicourse dining experience rich in the culinary heritage of the Pacific Northwest. Each nine-course dinner is inspired by the season and accompanied by wine pairings. The day’s menu is finalized only hours before the meal to take full advantage of fresh ingredients at their peak, including produce and herbs harvested daily from The Herbfarm’s own kitchen garden. Local growers and producers provide wild mushrooms, heritage fruits, handmade cheeses and other rare treasures.
Another outstanding Seattle-area restaurant is Westward, which Bon Appétit magazine named one of the best new restaurants in the U.S. Located on the shore of Seattle’s Lake Union, this rustic, wood building is hidden from the street by foliage, and shipbuilding and repair yards border the property at each end, a testament to the area’s still vibrant fishing industry.
The recently opened 220-room W Bellevue hotel sits on Lake Washington, 20 minutes from downtown, and offers several culinary options for corporate groups. The Lakehouse, showing a Northwest farmhouse concept, and Civility & Unrest, a speakeasy-inspired cocktail lounge; both venues from the James Beard Award-winning chef Jason Wilson. The hotel also provides 10,000 sf of meeting and event space.
The city is ground zero for excellent Cajun and Creole food, with lots of new spots like Cocha and Kalurah Street Grill, both receiving widespread praise. Local radio talk show host Jay Ducote was a runner-up on Season 11 of “Food Network Star” and runs a taco pop-up called Government Taco that will finally get a permanent space in 2018. “Baton Rouge is really like a gumbo pot of all Louisiana cultures in one place,” says Ducote. “We get the Creole influences of New Orleans, the Cajun culture from Acadiana and the traditional Southern flare from the northern part of the state. It all converges here in Baton Rouge, where finding our own unique culture has been challenging in the past.”
The Boullia Babes Catering Company also does pop-ups and private functions, making incredible sandwiches like its “Sammich” of smoked turkey, capicola ham, Calabrese salami, Muenster cheese, house pickles, onion and lemon rosemary aioli on pressed French bread. One of the most popular downtown dining venues is Cocha, with a menu inspired by the married owners’ Venezuelan and Dutch backgrounds. Fried yucca root with avocado salsa and lavender lamb chops with grilled squash and honey herb sauce are just two of their excellent creations. Other foodie and drink-worthy venues to consider include Zippy’s Burritos with frozen cocktails; and Tacos and More, featuring a row of cocktail-dispensing machines. Arrange to place your meeting attendees on one or more of the locally run food tours of Baton Rouge.
Tucson is rich in heritage foods, with more “historic” food grown within 100 miles than any other city in North America, including black Sphinx dates, tepary beans and chiltepin peppers, to name just a few. Tucson is also home to Native Seeds/SEARCH, a 33-year-old non-profit seed bank and conservation organization dedicated to agrobiodiversity. Near downtown, Mission Garden is a living museum with four acres of dedicated Spanish Colonial, Tohono O’odham, Mexican and American food crops representing Tucson’s agricultural heritage, a great location for an offsite reception.
Many local caterers like to have fun with their corporate food events. “We have done a number of events where we focus on Southwestern flair and do a cooking lesson,” says Wendy Gauthier, the noted chef and owner of Tucson’s Chef Chic Personal Chef & Catering. “We had a group cooking lesson with the Young Leaders of Ratheon, where we had over 20 people come in, work in teams and make different dishes for them all to eat together at the end of the lessons. We made homemade tortillas, flan and other items. We have done events with themes like the ’80s for a group of around 100 people where we made homemade snowballs, from-scratch marshmallows and set up a s’mores station inside so they could roast their own. Some corporations have us make food for them that does not have a theme, just really great food from local Tucson suppliers.” C&IT