In Defense of Room Service

Hotels are phasing out the iconic amenity. But delivery will never live up to truly great room service.

Room Service.
Room service can become a delicious, even localized experience with some personalization and thought.

Photo by ruidoblanco/Shutterstock

Back in 2013, New York City’s largest hotel, the Hilton Midtown, discontinued room service to its 2,000 bedrooms, replacing it with a one-size-fits-all café. They weren’t the first or the last to ditch the tradition. Chains across the world from Embassy Suites to Hyatt have been cutting back delivery hours, adding grab-and-go markets, or forgoing room service all together. Even some designer boutique hotels, which theoretically home in on individual customer experience, are reassessing their dining strategies. A hospitality consultant from PricewaterhouseCoopers told Reuters that room service is “a drain on [a hotel’s] ability to perform” due to cost ineffectiveness. (This imbalance is why hotels charge such an astronomical amount for everything on the menu—they are trying to make up for the even more astronomical cost of running a full kitchen all hours of the day.)

Yet critics who focus purely on cost are missing the point, which is right there in the name in case anyone forgets it: service. This is room service’s greatest appeal. It’s what calms you when you receive the $20 bill (plus a 20 percent service charge and $5 delivery fee) for a grilled cheese and a Diet Coke. After a long flight and a conference, or a day of sightseeing, room service might not be your only option. But it is one that comes to you laid on a literal silver platter that you can access without putting on your shoes or abandoning your pay-per-view movie.

At its best, room service’s job is to make everything available to you—to make you more than comfortable. Think of the standard set by Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel or the singing candlestick in Beauty and the Beast. If you’ve ever experienced great room service, you know what I’m talking about. It’s like being coddled by your parents if your parents had gone to hospitality school and worked in a five-star restaurant most of their lives. Once, while staying at the Crillon in Paris, I was down for three days after eating an undercooked soufflé in a restaurant. Room service saved me—and actually anticipated my needs—by supplying a steady stream of crushed ice and chicken soup (both off menu). It really felt like home—and like real hospitality.

Not all room service is quite this extraordinary. But most four- or five-star (and some three-star) hotels follow the same philosophy of catering to guests’ needs and desires, whether it’s shown by accommodating a special order or by specially arranging the fresh flowers on the food trolley. And while they are never going to make a profit toting pizza and salad door-to-door, many see it as a vital amenity that raises their profile with clients and ensures them a certain rating. (Stars are awarded by various national agencies and travel guides. Although not totally unified in their criteria, it’s generally accepted that you can’t achieve four- or five-star status without room service.)

“I don’t know any of our guests who would stay with us if we didn’t provide it,” Amy Finsilver, the general manager of Fifteen Beacon, a luxury hotel in Boston, told the New York Times in a recent interview. “We have a lot of international travelers—people arriving at all different times from all over the world. They might want a burger at 5 in the morning because it’s actually their dinner or lunch time.” For many travelers, that burger is key. It’s an amenity they may or may not always take advantage of, but they like to have it available nevertheless.

When it comes to pure convenience, room service’s main competitor and feisty, adventurous cousin is, of course, delivery. Some hotels place menus from local restaurants in their rooms. Others encourage front desk staff and concierges to offer curated recommendations. And, of course, companies like Seamless and Postmates are always there for anyone with a smartphone and opposable thumbs.

While delivery is a viable alternative in New York and similarly buzzing cities, it’s more complicated anywhere else. Availability, geography, and language can all get in the way of summoning a solid meal to the door of your hotel room. In Paris, good luck finding anything that’s even open past midnight. When I studied abroad there, I settled for unsatisfactory treks to a hole-in-the-wall dubbed Snack Time when late-night cravings hit. In Beijing, the challenge of finding and communicating my order to room service was hard enough. I didn’t dare try calling a third-party restaurant. And Seamless doesn’t exist in places like the Faroe Islands or Chiang Mai (yet).

Delivery also rarely allows international travelers the variety that room service does. In Istanbul, after a steady weeklong diet of doner kebab and manti, my quarter-Italian blood was craving pomodoro sauce so intensely I practically had the shakes. My hotel gladly provided the fix. I know what you’re going to say—and yes, experiencing a country’s local cuisine is an unmissable part of travel. It is probably my favorite part of travel, actually. But after two weeks of exploring Europe or a grueling mountain hike or a devastating breakup with your Spanish boyfriend, sometimes all you want is your very own homespun comfort food. Americans like me aren’t the only ones who think that. Many room service menus feature common dishes from around the world, which is most evident in the morning, when you can order breakfasts that are actually labeled “Turkish” or “Japanese.”

What’s more, hotels are making an increasing effort to distinguish their culinary offerings, turning the cooking that comes out of their kitchens into a reason to visit in and of itself. The room service at the NoMad Hotel in New York City comes from its eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant. Le Royal Monceau in Paris serves Pierre Hermé’s fetishized pastries to guests. Meanwhile, at the Public Chicago, owned by iconic hotelier Ian Schrager, guests can receive meals created by Jean-Georges Vongerichten (whole wheat flatbreads, slow cooked salmon) in less than 10 minutes, left it in a brown bag on their room’s doorknob. At Le Taha’a Island Resort and Spa in Polynesia, a dude in a canoe delivers dinner while playing the ukulele. Room service can become a delicious, even localized experience with some personalization and thought.

All of this isn’t to say that room service shouldn’t be open to reinterpretation depending on the hotel, its base clientele, and its location. Last month Hilton’s CEO Christopher Nassetta said as much at a hospitality conference, confirming that some Hilton properties will continue to offer traditional room service, depending on local demand, while others (such as that Hilton Midtown) will see a new focus on grab-and-go. (The Hilton Midtown actually now offers limited delivery from its new café.) The way we order is seeing updates, too. The Four Seasons recently launched an app at all 94 of its properties that allows guests to choose room service directly from their mobile phones. (No more awkward phone calls with a stranger a few floors below you.) These facelifts all add to the comfort and ease of the experience, which in the end, is what room service is all about.

Also, those little ketchup bottles. They’re pretty great, too.