Hotel work, for some chefs, is like a retreat. Because of the size of the staff, the hours are generally more kind (not shorter, necessarily, but allowing for actual vacations and days off). The kitchens are enormous — single departments (pastry, garde-manger) taking up as much space as is sometimes allotted for the entire back of the house in a normal restaurant — and the well of money available (both for payroll and for supplies) can be very, very deep.
True, there is also the soul-killing drudgery of spending entire days arranging brownie trays for the Consolidated Widget Manufacturing convention or writing bar menus that are nothing more than any protein available, fried hard and served with salad dressings. There are many hotel restaurants that exist only to tempt lazy travelers into not going out and exploring whatever city they happen to be, the honey-trap variety with the generic names and menus designed to be all things to all people and impressive to precisely none. But there are other varieties.
When I was talking with Ian Kleinman at O's (see review), he told me stories about opening the line at the Rialto (in the Marriott on the 16th Street Mall) back in the day with Eric Roeder and Duy Pham — a frankly unbelievable all-star crew that went unnoticed only because, back in the day, these guys were all just starting out and no one had heard of any of them. There are places like the Palace Arms that have become famous in their own right and developed identities completely separate from the hotels in which they exist. And then there are Kevin Taylor's restaurants — joints that have always been inextricably linked to their parent hotels (or art museums, or opera houses) and exist primarily to serve them, but still transcend the standard notion of the "hotel restaurant" and do business on both sides of the fence: servicing the captive audience of hotel guests as well as those who wander in off the street.
At Prima, Taylor has best balanced these two influences. Here, guests of the Hotel Teatro will drop in and out, stop by for a cocktail or a sandwich, maybe dinner. But the dining room is also partly the reserve of high-minded local Italo-philes who've come to trust Taylor and his staff for the baseline goodness of their ever-changing menus and to look forward to some of his stranger flights of culinary oddity. Black squid-ink pasta in a sauce of the same? That wasn't so good. But ravioli filled with the meltingly delicious yolks of soft-boiled eggs was one of the greatest triumphs of the pasta-maker's art I'd ever had the pleasure of tasting, and when I dropped by recently, I was pleased to find soft-egg ravioli still on the menu, as well as a halibut with favas and saffron-shot tomato broth and a super-farmhouse gnocchi with braised rabbit and Portobello Bolognese that was perfect for a windy autumn afternoon. Still, I went for the homemade spaghetti with San Marzano tomato sauce just because, after a long few days spent considering the usefulness of chemical caviar and playing in liquid nitrogen, a kitchen capable of confidently knocking out a simple Italian classic was precisely what I needed. No gimmicks. Just lunch.