Liam Wager has spent the last two and a half years completely revamping Grape & Vine Restaurant and Bar at the Walker Hotel (formerly the Jade Hotel) in New York City. Before that, Liam came to New York in 2008 to go into industrial design. After that did not go as planned, Mr. Wager worked in restaurants before moving to hotel dining. Liam wanted to understand the structural differences and unique challenges of running a restaurant in a hotel. We picked his brain on what’s going on at Grape & Vine and the hotel dining industry as a whole.
Mr. Wager, what are some of the structural differences and challenges that you talked about when it comes to a restaurant hotel?
It is interesting to have an ever changing clientele. We have regulars here for one week a year, every year or maybe for one week every three months. But it is also fun to have somebody show up the first day of their stay and have a regular for seven days in a row.
What has changed with the hotel dining environment is that you’re no longer trying to be a hotel restaurant. That’s a waste of money. Everybody’s goal right now is just to be a regular restaurant that attracts locals as well as hotel guests.
Are you mostly targeting hotel guests or people off the street?
Hotel guests are not our primary target customer. What hotels used to do was cater specifically to hotel guests and serve stuff like shrimp cocktails or club sandwiches, like super old school. Those hotel restaurants have lost millions and are going out of business. There are not ever enough customers in a hotel who are going to come down often enough to support a restaurant.
How has hotel dining and Grape & Vine in particular changed since you arrived?
The original food and beverage director was, in my opinion, behind the times. The restaurant was boring to New Yorkers and they were serving stuffy, bland food.
So we changed up the service style and tossed out most of the original menu. Now we run our space like an independent restaurant that is meant to attract locals. I mean, this is New York City. It is the most competitive food market on earth. So our restaurant is meant to fit in the New York City food scene.
What are the most popular things on the new menu you’ve introduced?
We’re doing a full remodel and relaunch of our menu very soon. But right now, some of the most popular menu items are our fried chicken and our burger. Our fried chicken is for two people, it’s pretty awesome. It starts with Bell Evans chicken and we serve it fried in a thirteen ingredient dry mix after a three ingredient wet mix. The breasts are served boneless and the dark meat is wrapped around thyme as a torchon. It is served with mac and cheese and braised greens. People tend to really like that.
The burger is also pretty spectacular. The chef does a blend of short rib and American Wagyu steak trimmings, sourced from a farm in Colorado doing 100% purebred Wagyu. We do it on a potato bun with avocado, tomato, a paprika aeoli and cheddar cheese.
Are you sourcing your ingredients locally?
Whenever possible we source produce from the markets at Union Square which is right next to the hotel. The cheeses are all from a local vendor and our beer program is one hundred percent local.
Are you going to specific vendors based on loyalty and preference or do you go to bid constantly?
Our chicken is all Bell & Evans which is responsibly raised, hormone and antibiotic free. We get our American Wagyu steak from 7x Farm & Ranch that raises 100% purebred Akaushi cattle. Most American Wagyu only has to be 25% Wagyu and the rest can be Black Angus. All of our other meat is Pat La Frieda. We’re also about to start working with a start-up local produce company soon to buy more from local vendors.
What about wine and spirits? What trends are you seeing in the industry?
The alcohol industry is massive so there is a lot going on but I think it changes in cycles. Right now in the beer world, IPAs are huge and people like craft a lot. Sessions are also picking up a lot of steam lately.
As for wine, everyone is talking organic right now, as well as opening up to less common varietials and regions. Greek wines are very big and New Zealand Pinot Noirs are huge right now.
For spirits it is all about local craft, uniqueness and high quality. Bourbon and Rye hold a prominent spot but Tequila and Mezcal are huge right now. I think I’ve heard more about Mezcal in the last five months than any other spirit.
What drinks are you serving with those unique spirits?
We run a wide variety of drinks. One of our signatures is a classic sazerac that our bartender has a specific recipe for. He lights the absinthe aflame and burns the peel into it. The other one that has not left our menu in ages is a blood orange cosmopolitan. So both ends of the spectrum, one straight spirit and one shaken and light.
We also always have one or two weird cocktails to give us a talking point with our customers and introduce them to new things. Right now we have a tequila and bourbon cocktail with a Mexican fruit called Guayaba and vanilla that comes together really nice.
How do you source your kitchen equipment and supplies?
In New York City we have Bowery Street, South of Houston, which is restaurant supply central for everywhere. Whenever we need front of the house things we go to the Bowery and can source just about anything. For back of the house equipment we use Sam Tell and Sons most of the time.
Thanks for your time and insight Liam!