Until recently a hotel restaurant was someplace you ate when you were in a strange city and didn't want to go out in the rain. That's changing. Nowadays you have to reserve for dinner at some hotels earlier than you have to reserve a room.

Hotel restaurants such as Campton Place, Masa's in the Vintage Court and Forneau's Ovens in the Stanford Court in San Francisco, the Bel-Air in Los Angeles, The Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Seasons in Boston's Bostonian Hotel, the Meurice at the Parker Meridien and Le Cirque at the Mayfair Regent in New York, Jean-Louis at the Watergate and Aux Beaux Champs in the Four Seasons in Washington are in themselves reasons for foodsters to visit those cities.

They are among the best restaurants in their cities -- and in the country. At hotel restaurants such as these you can expect far more than the old conservative menu that stayed unchanged year after year, an absentee executive chef, or a kitchen that cares more about banquets than your dinner.

But it is an uphill battle for hotel restaurateurs. Most of them serve three meals a day, seven days a week. In a kitchen that is open 24 hours a day you don't have time to experiment, said Bradley Ogden of Campton Place.

In addition to doing banquets, hotel restaurants are responsible for room service, and some serve afternoon tea. It is only a lucky few such as Masa's and Jean-Louis that need serve only lunch or dinner, and close on Sundays.

Not only are the time demands great, hotel restaurants must accommodate more needs than do free-standing restaurants. As Lydia Shire of Seasons noted, a hotel restaurant has to be willing to serve what the hotel customer wants even if it is not on the menu, and the menu itself must be broad enough to encompass the taste for a plain steak as well as the chef's fancies.

Even so, Shire actually finds it easier to develop a fine restaurant in a hotel. "Generally speaking, hotels have larger work areas and more equipment and the money to buy more equipment" than do individual restaurants. And they have a built-in clientele. Hotel managers, now realizing that good dining rooms help sell guest rooms, will go to any lengths and expense, she said. As Seasons' executive sous chef Gordon Hamersley explained, hotel chefs have "financial backing to buy what we need and have lots of it," including the best ingredients.

Hotels can often afford larger kitchen crews than independent restaurants -- day and night crews, and enough to give employes two days off a week. Thus, the Mansion on Turtle Creek can make its own croissants and danish pastry, and have one person just to clean and cut fish, another to make stocks and soups, a separate chef for lunch sauces and for dinner sauces.

Seasons has become nationally recognized for such luxurious and labor-intensive dishes as polenta in corn husks with artichokes and white truffles, crispy air-dried duck with tamarind, dover sole and cockles imported from England and served with cider butter and deep-fried sage. Ogden serves cornsticks made with fresh corn, veal chop with shiitake mushrooms and beet greens, shellfish on a bed of fresh seaweed, and a very homey and quite wonderful apple or peach crisp with fresh ginger. And as Ogden pointed out, these days "there are too many good restaurants, too much competition for restaurants to get away with lousy food."

The size of the crew in itself, though, can become a problem, as the executive chef finds himself managing paperwork and people more than food preparation. Dean Fearing of the Mansion on Turtle Creek, which has a kitchen staff of 45, anticipated the problem when he was hired. "I told them I wasn't an office chef," he recalled, and insisted on continuing hands-on kitchen work.

Ogden also stresses the importance of the chef's autonomy and a hands-on relationship. "In your own restaurant you deal with everything yourself," he said; in a hotel you typically have to work through a purchasing department. New hotels, though, are more aware of why hotel restaurants haven't worked well, thus "are setting up so the chef can order and receive his goods rather than a purchasing agent," explained Ogden, who himself goes to the market three times a week and has farmers grow foods specifically for him.

Hotels in many cities now have outstanding restaurants. As for finding them, said Ogden, "Take one good look at the menu. If it still has beef wellington on it, you're in big trouble." And ask questions about the restaurant at the front desk; if the hotel staff knows what is going on in the kitchen, that is a good sign.

In hotels even more than in free-standing restaurants, the biggest problem is not opening a good restaurant, but maintaining it. As Ogden stated it, "You can be a great restaurant for a year, but it is the second, third and fourth year that tell the story." Tabletalk Until now there has been only one major national cookbook award, and now there is none. The R.T. French Co. has dropped its sponsorship of the Tastemaker Awards, so until a new sponsor is found, the cookbook world goes without its version of the Academy Awards.

*American pride is taking root in our restaurants, but French chefs continue increasingly to seek footholds here. Latest are Paris' Le Bernardin, planning a sister restaurant in New York early next year; Gerard Pangaud, ex-two-star chef from Paris, planning Aurora, a joint venture with New York restaurant consultant Joe Baum; Paris' Alain Senderens, who already supervises the Parker Meridien Hotel's Meurice restaurant, starting another Manhattan restaurant; and four chefs with seven Michelin stars among them (Michel Rostang and Yan Jacquot of Paris, Michel Chabran of Pont de l'Ise re and Jean-Paul Lacombe of Lyon) heading to Los Angeles next year.

*At last an antidote to wine snobbery has been discovered. Cribari & Sons, a California winery, has put out a food-and-wine chart that matches its wines with the likes of fish sticks, low-cal lasagna and TV dinners. Not to mention leftovers, which of course go with any Cribari wine in any color. To get a copy, write Cribari & Sons, Dept. Q, P.O. Box 27846, Concord, Calif. 94527. BRADLEY OGDEN'S APPLE AND GINGER CRISP (6 servings)

5 cups apples, peeled and sliced (about 5 large apples)*

1/2 cup brown sugar

5 tablespoons flour

1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and grated

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Zest of 1 lemon

FOR THE TOPPING:

3/4 cup flour

3/4 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground ginger

6 tablespoons sweet butter

Place fruit in a bowl and toss gently with brown sugar, flour, fresh ginger, cinnamon and lemon zest until lightly coated. Set aside.

Mix all topping ingredients except sweet butter by hand. Cut in butter until mixture resembles a coarse meal.

Place fruit in a buttered baking dish, cover evenly with topping and bake at 375 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes or until the fruit is soft and the topping crisp.

*Be sure to save this recipe for peach season, since it is also wonderful with peaches instead of apples.