Just another hotel restaurant?

In the alternative-food canon, various genres of restaurants make an appearance. There’s the successful chain, the hallowed mom and pop, the dive that delivers and the popular mainstay that has lost its way. Seldom mentioned, however, is that rare breed of dining establishments: the hotel restaurant.

This is for good reason, really. Hotel restaurants fall into one of two categories. Either the dining is exquisite and attracts visitors near and far regardless of its affiliation with a hotel, or the dining is serviceable to good, in which case the restaurant is simply a convenient place for travelers and business types to obtain sustenance. The latter is what deserves to be called a “hotel restaurant.”

It’s not that these restaurants are so terrible. It’s just that the quality hardly merits the higher menu and drink prices. No self-respecting city native would eat there for pleasure’s sake.

Where, then, does Dawson’s American Bistro and Martinis in the Hyatt Regency fall? With its classic looks—dark wood, elegant artworks representing the Capitol, large-scale floral arrangements and a stylish horseshoe bar—Dawson’s could be a dining jewel in any power-brokering city. The menu is largely old-school, as is the service. Male waiters wear stiff vests, along with a demeanor that suggests a rigorous knowledge of fine dining’s finer points.

Adding to Dawson’s pedigree, the state’s chief executive has made a temporary home in the hotel. The last time the hotel got this much attention was for its decidedly non-union ways.

Politics aside, can regular city dwellers enjoy a dining experience that transcends the hotel-restaurant designation? On the first visit, the answer was a resounding, “Yes!” Our starters were flawless. We had an excellent Caesar salad with crisp interior romaine stalks tossed with a lively lemony dressing and just a hint of anchovy. Large shavings of Parmigiano-Reggiano and pesto croutons added further flavorful notes. The lobster bisque was rich and earthy, with a beautiful hue. A dollop of crème fraîche added the perfect tang.

From a selection of classic entrees, such as New York steak, prime rib, filet mignon and shrimp scampi, we chose the rack of lamb and fillet of sole. The rack of lamb was cooked over a mesquite fire. The rack totaled six shanks in all, served in a trio of twins. Served medium with a delicate pinkness on the inside, its flavors and textures were rich and succulent. Sometimes the lamb is local, our waiter told us, but that evening’s creature had come all the way from New Zealand. The lamb was complemented by fluffy garlic-herb mashed potatoes and perfectly firm asparagus and carrots.

Encouraged, we went a second time—for appetizers. Given how praiseworthy the entrees were, the appetizers were shockingly poor. Of four plates, not one was hot, which raised our suspicions that none was prepared to order.

The crab cakes were the most laudable: two smallish pucks with crabmeat, tiny diced celery, red onion, parsley and bell peppers, moistened by a delicious roasted-red-pepper sauce. The macaroni and cheese—fusilli pasta with white cheddar and goat cheeses, topped by fried onion crisps and one tiny, roasted, deflated tomato—was a unique and pleasant rendition.

In a turn for the worse, the pot stickers were absolutely dull. The pork and cabbage had no detectable seasoning, except for pepper. Oddly, the exterior wrappers seemed to have been cooked in butter, and the sweet plum dipping sauce did nothing to enhance the flavor.

The spicy sesame chicken strips were the worst. Over-marinated, their flavor was cringingly salty, and their texture was possibly even poorer. Overcooked and dry, these strips seemed more fitting to a fast-food restaurant. The dipping sauces provided no enhancement and failed to match the flavors that the chicken was even attempting.

It’s unclear why Dawson’s would offer Asian-themed appetizers and then mangle them so. But it’s even more puzzling that the restaurant would give so much care to its entrees and not give a whit about the appetizers. Do bar patrons not matter? Ah, well. At least the bar pours a stiff drink, perhaps to stifle the palate.

It’s too bad, really. Restaurants with classic staples, modern flourishes and snooty waiters do have an appeal in every city. One could do a good bit of powerbroker role-playing there. But Dawson’s doesn’t offer enough appeal on the light end to be a worthy draw to the city’s natives. In the end, its lack of consistent execution makes it just another hotel restaurant.