Certain standard items are on almost every room-service menu: a club sandwich, a hamburger, a Cobb salad. But in this more sophisticated and competitive age, some hotel owners have expanded their room-service offerings well beyond the expected. The Vincent, a 60-room boutique hotel in England, a couple of years ago began including a sex kit in its minibars: massage oil, lubricating gel, two condoms and a vibrating ring. A somewhat more elaborate rig — containing a mask, a whip and bondage tape — can be ordered off the Vincent Hotel's room-service menu.
No local accommodations offer these specialty items so far. Not the Hotel Phillips, where the notorious sex-toy scene in Sacha Baron Cohen's Brüno was filmed, and not even the louche Capri Motel on Independence Avenue, where a maid found a dead body stuffed under a mattress in 2003. (The Capri does offer room service, according to a desk clerk who, when I called to inquire, kept asking me, "But what room are you in?")
But let's focus on what room service does best (and what is more valuable than kinky accessories to holed-up lovers): food. Romance plays a role in room service, but not as much as you might think. A former room-service waiter once told me that he thought he would be wheeling in breakfast trays for post-coital, scantily clad couples on weekend mornings. Not so.
"You want to know who the primary room-service guest is?" he asked me. "A fat, middle-aged business executive who just wants to eat his steak dinner alone, watching TV and wearing his underwear under his bathrobe." And that steak needs to be good in order to lure back the executive and earn his recommendation to colleagues.
It used to be that one of the biggest differences between a hotel and a motel was the quality of its food service. Motels often didn't have restaurants at all, and if they did, they might not be very good. (The Howard Johnson chain, in its heyday, was frequently the exception to this rule.) And if hotels have typically enjoyed a better culinary reputation — one that has waned considerably over the past four decades — they still offer nicer dining rooms and, often, 24-hour room service.
This remains the case in Kansas City, where the classic Raphael Hotel, President Hotel and Hotel Phillips offer in-room dining 24 hours a day. "We're required to have it," says the Raphael's executive chef, Jason Wiggins. "It's how we maintain our four-diamond rating. If customers are checking into a premier hotel property, the amenities had better include round-the-clock room service."
Last year, Wiggins left a less sophisticated hotel operation, the Holiday Inn Aladdin at 12th Street and Wyandotte (which offers room service only when the hotel's restaurant is open) to head the kitchen at the Raphael.
"The Aladdin had almost zero room-service business," Wiggins says. "It catered to a lot of business clientele who either had breakfast meetings on the property or went out of the hotel to eat. At the Raphael, room service can make up as much as 25 percent of our food business. Room service is a very big deal here. We have formal seating in our rooms, and if someone wanted to host a Thanksgiving dinner in their room, we could do it."
Eric Carter, the executive chef at the President Hotel, also changed jobs last year, moving from the Sheraton Overland Park, a big, suburban hotel — one that he says does "very little room-service business" — to a smaller boutique property near the Power & Light District. "Room service is only 10 percent of our food sales, but our customers expect a certain level of room service, available any hour of the day," he says.
Carter's room-service menu, like the Raphael's, is an extension of the one found in the dining room, but it also offers the standard items that all such selections seem to require. "Our number-one-selling room-service dish is a cheeseburger," Carter says, "followed by the chicken Caesar salad. These are dishes that hotel guests almost demand to see on a room-service menu. And we understand why. They're familiar — they're comforting and not too exotic."
A more exotic creation, however, has become a surprisingly popular dish requested by hotel guests at the President: Carter's pan-seared Asian tuna salad. It's a visually beautiful construction of flash-seared tuna slices in wonton sheaths, served with vegetables, rice noodles and baby greens. "Sometimes guests don't want a burger or a club sandwich," Carter says. "They're not comfortable coming down to eat in the dining room by themselves. But even in the room, they want that same fine-dining experience."
It's the sense of decadence — a fine-dining experience served to you in the privacy of your own hotel room as easily as by snapping your fingers — that is so powerfully desirable. I've been lucky enough to order up meals from the kitchens of many four-star hotels — in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago (when I had a different job that permitted such luxuries). When you're on an expense account, why order a hamburger or a club sandwich? My journals of that time are filled with rapturous accounts of beautifully grilled steaks and roasted potatoes, sautéed fish blanketed under some fragrant and evanescent sauce, chocolate mousse in a shimmering shell of caramelized sugar. Yes, I could have eaten all of those items in the formal dining rooms downstairs. But the joy of room service is not having to do the expected thing.
The pleasure of room service is almost always worth the added expense. Most hotels charge an automatic gratuity and a delivery fee on top of the cost of the meal. Those charges, all told, hover around 22 percent. It's not terribly high, by restaurant standards, but it can persuade some hotel guests not to order that midnight snack. The very tasty strawberry shortcake on Wiggins' late-night menu at the Raphael — house-made strawberry ice cream on shortbread with lemon-scented mascarpone cheese, candied pistachios and marinated strawberries — costs a tidy $13 to have it sent up.
I'm not one who craves sweets if I wake up in the middle of the night (post-midnight desserts invariably give me nightmares), but I like something more complicated than, say, Wiggins' Kansas City-style hot dog — even if he insists it's a big weekend seller for guests with late-night munchies. I'd happily recommend another of the Raphael's featured sandwiches: two plump crab cakes (extraordinarily crabby at that) on a hunk of Farm to Market's toasted ciabatta and draped with cheddar cheese and a kicky red-pepper aioli. Delicious enough to make you lazily roll over and fall asleep again until it's time to phone in an order for cappuccino and house-made doughnuts.
For many of us, the earliest "room service" experience was, perhaps, during a childhood illness when a concerned parent brought a tray of food to eat in bed. I think that's why room service touches a certain visceral chord with many people. It's not simply the convenience of being able to eat a meal in one's hotel room but also the feeling of being cared for — even if you're paying for the privilege. In an era when some hotels and motels are watching the bottom line and dropping amenities — turn-down service, daily fresh towels, coin-operated vibrating beds — room service is a tradition, thankfully, that doesn't appear to be checking out.