From eggs benedict to the minibar: eight food and drink game changers that became hotel hits

<span>Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

One of the most exciting aspects of arriving at a world-renowned hotel is exploring all the wonderful food on offer to guests. Over the years, hotels have been at the forefront of innovation in dining, creating exciting new ways to prepare and present food to offer guests a truly unique experience on their travels. Some of the creations to emerge from hotels over the past century have gained iconic status.

Here are six dishes and drinks, and a couple of other culinary innovations that we have hotels to thank for bringing into our lives.

Walnut or wal-not? The Waldorf salad
The Waldorf-Astoria New York is among the world’s most storied hotels. A byword for luxury, it has welcomed countless famous people through its doors, from US presidents to stars such as Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. Its renowned – and perennially popular – Waldorf salad was invented in 1896 for a charity ball in honour of the St Mary’s Hospital for Children. The maitre d’hotel, Oscar Tschirky, created the original dish, consisting of apples, celery and mayonnaise, and, some time later, walnuts were added, giving the salad its satisfying crunch. Modern versions usually include grapes, and sometimes chicken, while the dressing can be made with the addition of lemon or orange zest, or with yoghurt instead of mayonnaise.

Stack of homemade brownies with chocolate and coffee glazing
The chocolate brownie, reportedly the creation of the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

Squidgy comfort: the brownie
If there’s one sweet treat that signals comfort, it’s the squidgy, chocolatey brownie. The gooey confection has many origin stories, and one suggests it was created in the kitchen of the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago in 1893, at the direction of Bertha Palmer, a socialite and philanthropist whose husband built the hotel.

As chair of the Board of Lady Managers for the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, she tasked pastry chef Joseph Sehl with creating a new dessert that would be easy to box and transport.

The first reference to the word “brownie” appeared in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, published in Chicago in 1897. The hotel still serves brownies made to the same recipe, consisting of semi-sweet chocolate, butter, sugar, flour, eggs, vanilla extract and crushed walnuts.

The brunch behemoth: eggs benedict
This classic brunch recipe is another Waldorf creation. According to a story first published in The New Yorker, in 1894 Wall Street broker Lemuel Benedict arrived for breakfast at the hotel feeling hungover. He ordered “buttered toast, crisp bacon, two poached eggs, and a hooker of hollandaise sauce”.

It must have gone down well as, soon after, Tschirky, known as “Oscar of the Waldorf”, added the new creation to the hotel’s breakfast and lunch menus, but with his own twist. According to The New Yorker, “Oscar’s version of eggs benedict substituted ham for bacon and a toasted English muffin for toasted bread” – a change Benedict himself wasn’t keen on, claiming: “English muffins are unpalatable, no matter how much they are toasted or how they are served.” Millions have disagreed since.

The national drink: pina colada
Just the thought of this creamy, tropical cocktail brings to mind golden beaches and sun loungers – which is fitting, because the pina colada was first created at the beachside Caribe Hilton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1954. The hotel’s bartender, Ramon “Monchito” Marrero, was experimenting with a new recipe that blended rum, coconut cream and pineapple juice with ice. After spending three months perfecting his creation, he named it the pina colada, which means “strained pineapple” in Spanish, and began serving it at the hotel’s Beachcomber Bar.

The pina colada became so popular that in 1978 it was named the official drink of Puerto Rico. Today, it remains among the most requested cocktails the world over.

An intergalactic treat: the DoubleTree cookie
Barron Hilton, the hotel group’s late chairman and CEO, used to speak passionately about the company’s vision of a Lunar Hilton, which would one day welcome guests on the moon. It hasn’t quite happened yet, but for Hilton’s 100th anniversary in 2019, the company found an innovative way to bring its hospitality to space.

DoubleTree hotels are known for the warm chocolate chip cookies given to guests on arrival (more than 30m are eaten every year), and in January 2020, the cookies became the first food ever to be baked in space. On the International Space Station, astronauts used a prototype Zero G Kitchen oven to prepare a test batch of the cookies, made with oats, flour, semi-sweet chocolate chips and chopped walnuts. Their experiments produced perfect cookies, just like the ones at DoubleTree hotels.

The next big drink? Simia sour
In 2020, Pernod Ricard, owner of Monkey 47 gin, partnered with Hilton to host a digital cocktail competition across Europe, the Middle East and Africa to find the hotel brand’s “next big thing”. A mixologist at the Cloud 9 Sky Bar & Lounge in Hilton Prague created the winning entry, simia sour, inspired by the Earth’s tropical rainforests and exotic wildlife. It contains Monkey 47 dry gin, egg white foam, a refreshing twist of fresh lime juice and cranberry juice for the “perfect sour taste”, and is shaken over ice and served in a martini glass. It is now on the menu in 350 Hilton hotels across 29 countries.

Press 9 for… room service
The Waldorf-Astoria isn’t just known for its culinary firsts – it also pioneered the concept of room service, so guests didn’t even need to leave the comfort of their rooms to eat. When the art deco hotel opened on New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1893 (the hotel’s original site became the Empire State Building), it offered an immediately popular innovation: room service to cater to the privacy demands of its VIP guests. The idea of world-class cuisine brought straight to your room soon caught on at hotels around the world.

The ultimate nightcap: the minibar
Anyone who’s had a craving for a late-night snack or drink while in a hotel will be very familiar with the minibar, the tiny fridge stocked with diminutive versions of food and beverages and situated in the room for the guest’s convenience. The minibar made its debut in 1974, when it was introduced at the Hong Kong Hilton by manager Robert Arnold. In the months that followed, the Hong Kong hotel’s in-room drink sales increased by 500%, and its overall annual revenue went up by 5%. That’s a lot of late-night cravings.