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Icons & Innovations: Four Seasons: Canada's Colonial Power

Patricia Harris

When isadore sharp opened the now-defunct Four Seasons Motor Hotel in downtown Toronto in 1961, he had no intention of creating the world’s premier hospitality brand. “My background was in real estate and construction,” recalls Sharp, the chairman of Toronto-based Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. “I was just trying to put a business deal together.”
Sharp envisioned his foray into the hotel industry—which he based on the simple concept of “a comfortable bed, a quiet room, and a good shower in the morning”—as the first in a succession of real estate transactions. By 1970, however, Four Seasons had evolved to the point where Sharp was confident enough in his prowess as a hotelier to take on the grand palaces of London. “The stiffness of the service was so old-world,” Sharp says of the competition when he opened the Four Seasons Hotel London. “I wanted to get more down-to-earth and break the formality into something that would be today’s style.”

Sharp’s style of casual but comprehensive service would become the hallmark of his budding brand, which focused exclusively on midsize hotels to ensure a consistent standard of quality. Four Seasons soon began to open new hotels around the world, an expansion that paralleled a rise in consumer demand for first-class amenities. In 1986, the Four Seasons in Dallas opened the group’s first full-service spa—a feature that since has become a requirement at any upscale hotel or resort. The Four Seasons also initiated a public offering on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1986, at which time the company stated a new goal of concentrating on hotel management rather than hotel ownership. “I decided that a brand name synonymous with quality would be more valuable than real estate,” says Sharp.

In 1990, after nearly 30 years of developing city hotels for business travelers, Four Seasons launched its first destination property, the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea. A resort on the Caribbean island of Nevis followed shortly thereafter, and Four Seasons since has colonized Bali, Thailand, Mexico, Florida, Costa Rica, the Bahamas, and other vacation locales. In 2004, Terre Blanche opened in Provence as the company’s first European resort.

Although Four Seasons has yet to establish a significant presence in South America or Australia, the company has several properties in the Middle East (thanks in part to Prince Al Waleed, who purchased 25 percent of the company’s equity in 1994) and continues to expand in Europe and the Far East. Four Seasons now operates 68 properties in 31 countries, and Sharp foresees a steady growth of from five to seven hotels and resorts per year. Among them will be a new hotel located close to the company’s flagship property in Toronto, which it opened in 1978 after shuttering the original motor lodge. “It will be everything that Four Seasons is doing worldwide,” Sharp promises, “in our own hometown.”

LOCAL FLAVORS
a drenching rain sweeps across Boston’s Public Garden, but inside the Four Seasons hotel, Aujourd’hui is nearly full by 7 pm. Dining room manager Simon de Swaan nods in recognition to his customers as he circulates among the restaurant’s tables. He comments that about 90 percent of Aujourd’hui’s diners live in greater Boston—and then excuses himself for a proper French kiss-kiss with a grande dame in full evening regalia. 

One of the best measures of a hotel restaurant is the loyalty of local diners, who, unlike hotel guests, are not just seeking a convenient meal sans umbrella. Although Four Seasons occasionally turns over its fine-dining venues to celebrity chefs—Philippe Legendre in Paris, Charlie Palmer in Las Vegas, Joël Robuchon in New York (due to open this spring)—most of the chain’s restaurants, like Boston’s Aujourd’hui, are home-grown. “We pay attention to what our diners want,” says Alfons Konrad, Four Seasons’ senior vice president of food and beverage. “We look at the interior design, then we hire the right chef who will be able to bring the culinary concept together.” Konrad’s approach helps avoid cookie-cutter monotony and results in unique restaurants, including Aujourd’hui and the five featured here, in which you will always know where in the world you are.

The Spice Market, Four Seasons Bangkok
Its spice-shop decor, silk-uniformed waitstaff, and nightly vegetable-carving demonstrations might suggest a tourist haunt, but the Spice Market is a favorite with Bangkok locals. The restaurant’s all-female team of chefs keeps clients coming back for such dishes as Gaeng Phed Ped Yang, a red curry with roast duck in coconut milk.

Quattro, Four Seasons Houston
A $3 million renovation transformed the Four Seasons Houston’s haute French DeVille and casual Terrace Café into the contemporary Italian Quattro. Patrons can sit in the main dining room or the sleek antipasti bar, or enjoy a private meal at the chef’s table, away from the Bellini drinkers and smooth jazz.

Fountain Restaurant, Four Seasons Philadelphia
If any venue could rescue the cheesesteak from culinary ignominy, it is the Four Seasons Philadelphia, where a Philly cheesesteak spring roll is a staple on the bar menu. The hotel’s fine-dining room, the Fountain, has delighted diners and critics for more than two decades with such dishes as Jersey blue crab and sweet corn soup, and poussin stuffed with haricots verts, hazelnuts, and foie gras.

Aramara, Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita, Mexico
Aramara’s Chinese-Latino cuisine includes a spring roll appetizer served with a serrano chile ponzu, and a plate of seared salmon and wild black rice spiced with a tequila–guajillo chile sauce. Instead of wrapping its Peking-style duck in pancakes, this Mexican beach resort restaurant serves it in flour tortillas.

The Blvd, Regent Beverly Wilshire
When you see the dozen entries on the Blvd’s bottled water menu, you will know that you are in the heart of Beverly Hills. Four Seasons, which assumed management of the Beverly Wilshire in 1992, recently revamped the hotel’s casual restaurant and hired Scott Thomas Dolbee as chef. The hotel plans to open a more formal Wolfgang Puck room this spring.

Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
www.fourseasons.com

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