The historic Canterbury Hotel has hosted its share of celebrities. Robert Duvall, Michael Jackson and Mike Tyson are among the most famous or, in some instances, infamous.
But the downtown hotel may be more elated to welcome back Daniel Emerson, a veteran of the local hospitality industry who is a star in his own right to the guests he pampers with his trademark flair.
Emerson, 50, returned to the Canterbury on South Illinois Street July 24 as its food and beverage director. This time, however, the stakes are higher. His task is to reinvigorate a restaurant that is striving to remain relevant among stiff competition in the crowded upscale dining market downtown.
McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant-Emerson's last stop-the Restaurant du Soleil in the Conrad of Indianapolis and St. Elmo Steak House, whose owners will open a second restaurant this winter, are contributing to the crush.
Also within blocks of the Canterbury are chic restaurants the Oceanaire Seafood Room, Dunaway's Palazzo Ossigeno, 14 West, Palomino and Mikado Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar, as well as highend beef eateries Morton's The Steakhouse, Shula's Steak House, Ruth's Chris Steak House and Mo's A Place For Steaks.
"We want to separate ourselves from all the steakhouses that are downtown and to restore some of the history of the restaurant," said Mark McClure, general manager of the Canterbury. "We're trying to get someone who can take care of that and promote it better than what we have."
Indeed, there may be no candidate more qualified than Emerson, who some say has made pleasing the most demanding guests an art form.
Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, to parents who operated a resort on the tourist bastion of Bali, he received an early introduction to the world of hospitality.
As a seasoned professional, his confidence could be mistaken for brashness, if not for his ability to back up his statements.
"The reputation is here and the tradition is here," he said. "But you need to have someone who knows how to please the people of Indianapolis. I've earned my respect by delivering, and by knowing each individual's name who comes through the door."
Emerson approaches his job similar to how an attentive bartender would when recalling a patron's preferred libation. A certain state official, for instance, never needs to pester him for a side of broccoli.
At the Canterbury, for which he worked upon arriving in Indianapolis in 1998, Emerson will oversee changes designed to "resuscitate and revitalize" the hotel's restaurant.
Renaming the venue, now known simply as The Restaurant at the Canterbury, tops the list. A few of the names under consideration include the Legend, Landmark and Crown Room. The idea is to create a new identity and renewed interest in the hotel and restaurant.
With a limited seating capacity of 34 and no room to expand, the object is to offer something unique, McClure said. To that end, the dining area will double as an art gallery by displaying the work of local artisans and offering shows during certain dinner times.
Seats will be placed in the parlor area as an extension to the restaurant, which should bring additional revenue, Emerson said. Sidewalk dining could be in place, as well, by spring.
And perhaps most important, he intends to make the afternoon atmosphere less formal to attract larger lunchtime crowds. With room rates starting at $229 a night-among the city's priciest-the hotel can seem a bit stuffy to some.
Count Carolene Mays, publisher of the Indianapolis Recorder and a Democratic state representative, among them. She frequented McCormick & Schmick's during the last Legislative session and came to know Emerson, who was serving as director of catering. His influence, she said, may be enough to lure her to the hotel.
"I see the Canterbury as highly regarded, but it seems pretty exclusive," Mays said. "I know that I would patronize it more often, just because I know he will do a great job."
The objectives Emerson outlined in a strategic document he submitted to McClure also include his supervision of the hotel's banquet hall and catering department.
Renovations to the hall that should be finished by the end of October will feature new chandeliers, paint, carpet and room for about 10 more tables, boosting its current 150-person capacity above 200. Offsite catering should be available sometime next year, he said.
The document says the hotel's effort must be a "systematic, continuous chain of events that will keep fresh eyes focused on the Canterbury's renewal and re-emergence onto Indiana's dining and hospitality scene."
The accolades from Mays are the type Emerson has earned since arriving in Indianapolis eight years ago. In that time, he has catered to the top dogs of both political parties at the city and state levels, as well as international dignitaries.
"I love this hotel. This hotel has a special place in my heart," he lamented. "It needs a person like me to go out and get the politicians using our venue again."
Emerson first met Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson when he hosted a fund-raiser at the hotel during his first run at the office. During his re-election bid, Emerson sported a "Republican for Peterson" bumper sticker on his vehicle.
Had national Republicans chosen Indianapolis to host the party's convention in 2000, former Mayor Steve Goldsmith had hand-picked Emerson to entertain delegates at the Canterbury.
He actually did do that for a contingent that arrived years ago from Cologne, Germany, sister city to Indianapolis.
"I vividly recall the excellence that Daniel helped make happen in terms of the attention to detail and the quality of experience," said Caterina Cregor Blitzer, executive director of the International Center of Indianapolis. "It is indeed a pre- mier location in Indianapolis, and I can well imagine with his leadership and international flair, the Canterbury should be well-considered."
Emerson's interest in business and politics led him and his partner, Douglas Emerson Jr., to found the Indonesia-Indiana Alliance in 2002.
The alliance and the U.S. committee of the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce signed an agreement then to promote exporting opportunities for smaller enterprises, notably in agribusiness. Heavyweights such as Dow AgroSciences LLC and Eli Lilly and Co. were among the corporate supporters.
While corporations still support the mission, Emerson's travels to Indonesia have nearly ceased due to the growing influence Muslim militants exert there. In Bali, where his parents owned a resort, a terrorist bombing killed 202 people in October 2002.
Emerson left there as a young man to study first in England before arriving in the United States and later earning a degree in international business from Cornell University. He speaks four languages-Dutch, Indonesian, Spanish and English.
He worked at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta and owned a restaurant with Douglas in Anaheim, Calif., called the Restaurant Indonesia. Eventually, a position at the Radisson Hotel brought him to Indianapolis.
He arrived at McCormick & Schmick's from the Five Seasons Country Club after he, the chef and the restaurant manager were recruited last year to get the Oregonbased restaurant chain's Indianapolis location off the ground. While Emerson has bounced around a bit during his time in Indianapolis, he said he plans to stay at the Canterbury a while.
An unlikely Hoosier, to be sure. But his travels as a youngster have helped him adjust to life in Indiana, he said. Now if he can only help the Canterbury do the same in the ever-changing downtown dining scene.
"It's easy to get people in the door the first time, but how are you going to get them to come back?" he asks. "You have to make that first and last impression. It is one guest at a time."