Robert Puccini

Ted Gachot / May 2000

Food Arts presents the May 2000 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Robert Puccini for the inspired blend of art, science, business acumen, and intuition he has brought to redefining the nature of the hotel restaurant and the vocation of designer/restaurateur.

Dexterous as he is prolific, Puccini has been an exemplary force in transforming the hotel-restaurant landscape from one of occasional peaks separated by wide and colorless badlands into an enticing realm hardly distinguishable from that of its independent cousins. "The minute they start talking about f&b, you know they don't get it," he says. "Restaurants are about filling people's emotional needs, not just their stomachs. Most hotels have simply dressed up their food and beverage to look nice, not appeal to their diners' emotions."

After 20 years of managing and establishing independent restaurants and spearheading "turnarounds" of troubled concepts, Puccini spent 11 years with the Kimpton Group perfecting the art of creating restaurants that both serve the needs of hotels and remain enticing independent destinations. While there, he developed, designed, and opened 24 restaurants in five cities, including Grand Cafe at the Hotel Monaco San Francisco and The Painted Table at the Alexis Hotel in Seattle.

A tour of the restaurants he has created since would take one to Gallic-sultry Mossant in the Hotel Monaco Chicago, postmodern Ponzu at the Serrano Hotel in San Francisco, and the Madame Butterfly–esque Oritalias at the Juliana Hotel in San Francisco, Westin Hotel Portland, and Sheraton Le Soleil Vancouver. At all, atmosphere thick enough to cut with a cake knife leaves one tempted to think of Puccini first and foremost as a designer. But that designation only scratches the surface of what he does.

Since establishing Robert Puccini Consulting, Design, Development in San Francisco in 1997, some of the other descriptives that pinpoint Puccini's particular flair are right up front. He consults on projects and provides management services, and is a financial partner in most of the restaurants he's designed. "He not only designs them, he can operate them, too," Kimpton Group president Bill Kimpton observes. "It's a rare combination. He ran $100 million business for us while developing new projects at the same time."

Puccini's development style owes something to his degree in political science from San Diego State University and the year he spent in Brazil with the Peace Corps. He approaches each new project with the quizzical open-mindedness of an anthropologist studying a remote indigenous tribe. Through observation of the project's physical criteria and the "psychographics" of the population, he develops restaurants that are perfectly adapted to their locales.

"People are equipped with a sense of cognitive dissonance," he explains. "They might not recognize what, but they know when something's wrong." For examples, that they're getting Schoenberg when they want Puccini. It all comes down to a simple questions, he says, "Is the hotel restaurant cool enough to eat in?"