As a child, Bill Kimpton loved Monopoly. As a grown-up investment banker and entrepreneur, he now gets to play on a much grander scale. Kimpton’s formula of buying up run-down historic buildings and transforming them into intimate, idiosyncratic hotels with stylish adjoining restaurants has made his Kimpton Hotel and Restaurant Group one of the fastest-growing such enterprises around. The most recent additions to the Kimpton family are the Hotel Burnham and the affiliated Atwood Cafe, both in the Loop’s landmark Reliance Building.

Twenty years ago Kimpton was working on his second hotel transformation, the Vintage Court in San Francisco, when his concept took shape. “Masa Kobayashi, one of the finest chefs in the country at the time, was searching for a prime space and I had it. We struck a deal and the success of the restaurant brought a 90 percent occupancy rate to the hotel, a rate unheard of for a privately operated small hotel.” His first restaurant, Masa’s was a hit with both guests and locals. At most hotels “guests feel alienated and rush out for a meal rather than eat at the hotel–one reason that hotel restaurants, in general, usually operate at a loss,” Kimpton says. “By keeping our restaurant standards high, we’ve reversed this process.”

Today the Kimpton Group operates 28 hotel properties on the west coast and in Denver and Chicago. Most of them are moderately priced boutique hotels with fewer than 200 rooms, filling a niche in big-city markets dominated by large corporate hotels and convention centers. The hotels are warm and inviting, with fireplaces and comfy chairs in the lobby and bright, colorful room furnishings–a far cry from the utilitarian beige and brass anonymity of many larger hotels.

The three Chicago properties–the Burnham, the Hotel Monaco, and the Hotel Allegro–have their own distinct styles. The Burnham has a clubby, early-20th-century feel, while the Monaco has a French art deco flair and the Allegro is colorfully theatrical and contemporary. But what really set them apart are their restaurants.

The Hotel Allegro, the first Kimpton Group Chicago hotel, inhabits the former Bismarck Hotel, which was built in 1894 at Randolph and LaSalle. After a massive renovation the 18-story, 483-room hotel, by far the largest of the three, opened in March 1998. The adjoining 312 Chicago opened that May, serving Italian-inspired American cuisine created by executive chef Dean Zanella (Grappa, Charlie Trotter’s). Zanella finds the work gratifying, saying, “The Kimpton Group’s philosophy of treating the restaurant as a freestanding business gives me the autonomy and input I would have at any other privately operated restaurant.” Most important, he adds, there’s a separate kitchen in the hotel that handles room service and banquets, responsibilities he’s happy to sidestep.

Mossant Bistro, on the ground floor of the Hotel Monaco, at Wabash and Wacker, also opened in 1998. It’s a French bistro featuring the cuisine of William Eudy, who’s both the executive chef and general manager. A Culinary Institute of America graduate, he’s been with the company for three years, and came to Chicago after working at several of the Bay Area Kimpton restaurants. Like Zanella, he has autonomy over the menu and the freedom to show off his ingenuity with daily specials. But, unlike Zanella’s, his kitchen also provides room service and banquet meals.

The Hotel Burnham, Kimpton’s newest (and smallest) Chicago project, opened in October 1999. Atwood Cafe is actually in the main lobby, rather than adjacent to it, but it still maintains two entrances–one into the lobby and one onto State Street–to encourage local traffic. Executive chef Heather Terhune trained at the New England Culinary Institute and with Jean-Louis Palladin at Palladin restaurant in Washington, D.C. Like Eudy, she moved to her position from within the company–she was previously the pastry chef at 312 Chicago. “The company is great in that way,” she says. “There’s a lot of room for advancement and they’re big on hiring from within.” She enjoys total freedom over the menu. “They don’t put any limits on me so it’s great from a culinary standpoint.”

Her fare is strictly American. For breakfast there are buttermilk biscuits with gravy, French toast with warm blueberry compote, and malted waffles. Lunch and dinner are a bit more daring–there’s house-cured salmon on sweet corn and scallion waffles with a mascarpone cream, daily soups such as a silky cream of mushroom studded with chanterelles, and a daily pot pie with a buttermilk crust filled with anything from classic chicken to vegetable chili. Salads and sandwiches have flair–a baby spinach salad is topped with a crumble of blue cheese, candied walnuts, and juicy slices of pear. The grilled chicken club is served on foccacia with applewood-smoked bacon, melted fontina cheese, and pesto, then freshened up with peppery arugula. The homemade bread is served in conical wire baskets with roasted shallot butter, and the french fries that come with most sandwiches are a nice, minimally greasy side dish. Other main courses include maple-glazed pork chops with a cabbage-apple ragout, lemon-rosemary roasted chicken with garlic mashed potatoes, and a fish of the day. Desserts range from a chocolate-pecan brownie sundae and a warm apple-cinnamon tart to a decadent devil’s food cake with coffee-toffee ice cream–all prepared by Terhune.

Ever trend conscious, Atwood also has a distinctive afternoon tea service. The hand-blended loose leaf tea comes from Tea and Company, a small premium tea shop in San Francisco, and is served in pretty jewel-toned, custom-designed teapots. For $15, you get the tea of your choice plus a three-tiered tea caddy loaded with finger sandwiches, dried cherry scones, tart lemon bars, and lacy coconut cookies. It’s a refuge for shoppers on State Street and way more fun than the Ritz.

Atwood Cafe is at 1 W. Washington, 312-368-1900.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.