Food Arts presents the November 1995 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Timothy P. Kirwan, general manager of The Westin Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island, for his role in elevating modern hotel dining.
Perhaps it's the hotelier's penchant for risk taking—Kirwan flies gliders for fun—that has fueled his love of innovation. But all along his career path, Kirwan has dared to jog along the cutting edge.
As opening manager of Copley's restaurant and assistant f&b director of the renovated Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, he was instrumental in introducing the city's first 360-degree raised stand-up bar (similar to the now defunct Maxwell's Plum in NYC), which was an instant hit with the young single professionals in 1973. "It was very hot. We literally had lines out all three entrances and into the street for a couple of years," Kirwan recalls. There was also a salad bar and an open kitchen at Copley's restaurant. "It's ancient history now," Kirwan says, "but these things just weren't being done in Boston in the early '70s."
Then it was on to the Hyatt Regency Cambridge, where he quickly earned a reputation as a creative banquet and catering manager with such zany stunts as staging mock gangster-style gun battles, introducing a dozen penguins as surprise guests at a nautical party, and erecting a full-size circus tent in a hotel ballroom to create a carnival atmosphere.
On the heels of his Hyatt success, Kirwan went on to become managing director of the Bostonian, which opened in 1982. Here, along with Jasper White, he created a signature restaurant, Season, which helped pioneer the concept of contemporary hotel fine dining and launched some of the Boston area's finest chefs—Lydia Shire, Tony Ambrose, Bill Poirer, Gordon Hamersley, Michael Gray—who ultimately revolutionized the dining scene in the Northeast. This star-studded lineup demonstrates Kirwan's uncanny ability to spot and develop talent.
But an even more radical concept than this homegrown cuisine was Kirwan's promotion of American wines: "Remember, prior to this time, you were supposed to be importing Dover sole and Montrachet," he explains.
Today in Providence, Kirwan is once again testing the limits. The Westin opened in December 1994, as part of a major convention center designed to renew downtown Providence and enable it to compete with New York and Boston as a business and meeting center. (Though the hotel is operated by Carnival Hotel and Resorts Corp., it's actually owned by the state of Rhode Island.) Once again, Kirwan is making fine dining a big part of the draw. This time his signature restaurant, Agora, is dedicated to seafood, and is a cross, he says, between New York City's Le Bernardin and San Francisco's Aqua. His culinary team includes consultant chef Frank McClelland, chef/owner of Boston's L'Espalier, and chef Casey Riley, former sous chef of L'Espalier. "I've felt since the late 1980s that Le Bernardin was a stellar restaurant," Kirwan says. "It was amazing to me there wasn't a comparable restaurant in the New England area.
"But remember, I'm in the business of selling rooms," he continues. "You have to differentiate your product from everybody else's. Some hotels develop occupancy with architecture, some with clubs. I've chosen to associate myself with hotels that do it with nationally recognized fine dining." The fact that food was his hobby even before it became his career no doubt fueled this trip after college. Then when the former music major was working his way through broadcasting school as a waiter at the Parker House, he was inspired by the f&b manager there and made the switch.
As for the future? "I'm playing with a national club concept for people with an interest in fine food and wine but also other interests, such as art," Kirwan says. "What it you could come to an extraordinary evening with fine wine, good food, Ports, cigars, and someone like Picasso would be there to talk art with you?"