Picture a room service menu—you know the one, full of comfort food intended to turn an unfamiliar suite into a cozy home-away-from-home. There’s definitely a club sandwich, some kind of burger, a riff on grilled steak, plus a gourmet pizza and a soup or two. Menus like these are so standard that they seem dictated remotely by some central directive. They aren’t, though maybe they should be, since not all room service dishes are created equally delicious. In fact, there are some you shouldn’t order at all.
If you’re six stories or higher, order something that’s already cold. It doesn’t matter what you order if you’re on a high floor in a skyscraping hotel—the food will be cold. Even with dedicated dining elevators, the logistics of delivering from a basement kitchen to a penthouse are challenging. Pause, too, if you reach for the phone whenever the weather turns bad. Everyone else has had the same idea, warns Lisa Brefere, a seasoned hotel chef who now runs her own consulting firm, Gigachef. “You can really get screwed when there’s horrific wind or snow storms,” Brefere says. “You’re hammered in every room, so everyone in the hotel comes to the kitchen to help out, even the front of house manager.” (As you might have guessed, supper tastes better when it’s cooked by someone who, well, cooks for a living.)
Skip the seafood; hold the onions. “[Fish] doesn’t travel well, and it smells,” Brefere continues. “Plus, you don’t know how long it’s been sitting there. Order something like a turkey sandwich, where you know there has been high turnover.” (Likewise, skip onions or blue cheese, which won’t just stink up that suite until the maid appears next morning, but also make you perennially unpopular at breakfast meetings.) Shrimp’s off the menu, too, according to Brefere; after all, that cocktail could have been pre-made hours ago from barely defrosted bulk-bought shellfish. If in doubt, ask the order-taker for intel. “They will be brutally honest in terms of telling you the best dishes to order, because they know it will affect the tip for the waiter.”
When it comes to steak, order it one shade rarer than normal. The trip to the room in the warming trolley, known as a hot box, will continue gently cooking it. As for those gourmet pizzas, they’re unlikely to be house-made, as a frozen version is the easiest thing to keep on hand for busy times—just add a few torn basil leaves and it’s out-of-the-box artisanal. Most room service chefs, though, skip excess NFGs—that’s Non Functional Garnishes. Rosemary sprigs might look appealing, but they’ll only end up under the bed or trodden into the carpet.
If you see pesto or avocado in a dish, decline. Sitting out on the counter in the kitchen, both quickly become discolored or crusty—still edible, but unappetizing. Anything crispy, whether mozzarella sticks, onion rings, or shoestring fries, will be soggier than Jeb Bush’s campaign by the time it reaches the room. If you absolutely must indulge in fries, ask if they’re steak-cut, as those chunky chips are likely to travel better. And never, ever order coffee from room service. Bring an Aeropress if you want a fresh cup. That jug of java has been filled from an urn where the coffee’s been stewing rather than brewing for hours. Don’t be deceived by a French Press, either: To save time, shortcutting servers might just fill that with the same burnt batch, too.
Enjoy those mini ketchup bottles while they last: Room service of any kind is heading for extinction.
Somehow, despite all these tricks and warnings, room service retains a glamorous sheen; it’s an unabashed, luxurious indulgence when staying at a top-tier hotel. In part, that’s thanks to its origins: The concept came from the glamorous Waldorf Astoria New York, which began offering meals in guest rooms in the 1890s. When it moved to the current site on Park Avenue, a special 18th-floor kitchen was built to minimize the time it took to deliver hot food to those rooms.
Now, though, the logistics of room service are far from fancy. Many hotels rely on a line cook in a makeshift kitchen of the banqueting wing to prep in-room food, rather than the chefs working at the name-brand restaurant. There are noteworthy exceptions. Michelin-starred chef Florian Favario oversees every dish served at the The Lanesborough, whether in his restaurant or a room. Then there’s Cipriani offshoot Mr. C in Beverly Hills, which offers almost every dish from the onsite Italian spot—yep, even a freshly made Bellini—or delivery to any room. Even the 1282-room Trump in Las Vegas has the same chefs overseeing the food for in-suite dining as at their regular restaurants.
Enjoy those mini ketchup bottles while they last, though: Room service of any kind is heading for extinction. In the last six years, though the number of hotel guests overall has risen, the use of room service has plummeted by 25 percent. In part, it’s the price: Even business travelers might balk at paying $16 on average for a club sandwich—essentially, a BLT with a high opinion of itself—especially as budgets have tightened after the Great Recession. It doesn’t hurt that hotels aren’t often keen to allocate resources to room service, either. It’s always been a drain on resources, often an overhead hotels endured because offering 24 hour in-room dining was considered a crucial factor in earning four or five stars from the various competing rating agencies.
Those constraints, though, are loosening. See how three years ago, New York’s Hilton Midtown the second-largest hotel in the city, cut room service (and 55 jobs) without suffering a downgrade. It replaced the program with a grab-and-go fridge, and the rise of a new kind of snack-centric minibar also threatens those fresh-cooked fries at 4 a.m. Many guests, though, have simply opted for a different kind of in-room menu, one that offers far more than just a burger, club sandwich, and steak: Seamless.