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Manhattan’s Dining Center of Gravity Shifts Downtown

Manhattan’s Dining Center of Gravity Shifts Downtown

Jun 23, 2015
By By: Jeff Gordinier | The New York Times | The New York Times


For restaurateurs along the southwest waterfront of Manhattan, from lower TriBeCa down through Battery Park City and into the financial district, the last few decades have been a challenge, to say the least.

They’ve seen the area pulverized by the 9/11 attacks, swamped by Hurricane Sandy and reflexively derided by food-loving New Yorkers more likely to mount a culinary quest out to Red Hook, Brooklyn, or Flushing, Queens, than to some shiny new pack of malls and condos clustered around the hull of 1 World Trade Center.

But now those restaurateurs are beginning to see something else: people. Thousands of them.

Crowds are snapping up charcuterie and rotisserie-juicy meats at Le District, the new French-themed market in Brookfield Place, and floating up the Winter Garden escalator for noshes from Black Seed Bagels, Mighty Quinn’s Barbeque and Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar in the Hudson Eats food court.

Throngs are mobbing the corner of Vesey Street and North End Avenue, steps from the Irish Hunger Memorial, as they pour into El Vez, Blue Smoke and North End Grill for workday lunches and post-punch-clock cocktails.

On North End Grill’s rooftop garden in Lower Manhattan, the sous-chef Matt McCarthy, left, and the executive chef Eric Korsh. Credit: Karsten Moran for The New York Times

And editors from Condé Nast are wandering north to bring fresh chatter to the tables at the Odeon, the 35-year-old TriBeCa bistro that had flirted with dowdiness since the days when its vampy neon sign graced the cover of Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel, “Bright Lights, Big City.”

The change hasn’t happened overnight; the Downtown Alliance has been pushing for revitalization since 1995, when vacancy rates in the area were punishingly high. But for the restaurant owners and downtown advocates who have been making this bet for years, a sudden validating tang of “if you build it, they will come” lingers in the air.

With development booming, and media companies like Condé Nast starting to populate the area’s skyscrapers, Lower Manhattan’s Neil Patrick Harris-like image turnaround seems to be in full swing.

It’s as if the island’s center of gravity has shifted, as it has a habit of doing.

“It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” said Peter Poulakakos, a restaurant entrepreneur who has invested in this swath of downtown since 1999. It has gone from sliding toward becoming a ghost town, he said, to “a neighborhood that competes with all the major developing cities in the world.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, municipal and state governments offered enticements and incentives to get companies to plant a flag close to the perimeter of ground zero.

Now, the rush for space by top chefs and entrepreneurs can look like a sprint to Sutter’s Mill, and the gold-dust ardor is spilling over into the dense Dutch-planned streets where the City of New York was born.

Nobu, which is extracting itself from a more northerly location in TriBeCa, is planning a move here, and a new version of Eataly, from the chef Mario Batali and his business comrades, is in the works.

The owners of the Four Seasons have talked about leaving their Midtown sanctuary for a new start downtown. And to the east, April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman, of the Spotted Pig and the Breslin Bar & Dining Room, are mapping out a towering palace of a restaurant that would take up four stories of an apartment complex at 70 Pine Street.

Keith McNally, the impresario of Balthazar and Cherche Midi, is planning to open a restaurant in a forthcoming financial district spot called the Beekman Hotel. So is the Craft chef Tom Colicchio, while the modernist trailblazer Wylie Dufresne hopes to check in to the A K A Wall Street hotel early next year. And the revered French chef Joël Robuchon is scheduled to move into Brookfield Place in the fall.

James Gersten, the president and chief executive of the BR Guest Hospitality restaurant group, whose portfolio includes Dos Caminos, Isabella’s, Blue Fin and Bill’s Bar & Burger, said his team was eager to set up shop, too.

“We’re looking aggressively,” Mr. Gersten said. “Tastemakers are moving. And those are people that we have catered to before, and want to continue to cater to.”

Those big names will be showing up with their gold-prospecting gear only to find that early adopters like Danny Meyer, Andrew Carmellini and Stephen Starr have already set up camp. They built restaurants in anticipation of a growth spurt, and since Condé Nast started moving into 1 World Trade Center in November, they’ve been adjusting their menus and schedules to fit the eating habits of editors from Vogue and GQ.

The Odeon has added a breakfast service. Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair, Dan Peres of Details, Pilar Guzmán of Condé Nast Traveler and Michael Hainey of GQ can be spotted there on a regular basis, commanding tables or phone-tapping privately at the bar.

“I hadn’t been to the Odeon in probably 10 years, but I’ve been three times since we’ve moved down here,” said Andrew Knowlton, the restaurant and drinks editor of Bon Appétit.

“It’s a nice choice when all you really want after a hard day’s work is a 50/50 martini, an omelet and a plate of French fries.” (He added: “Our new home in the financial district beats the heck out of our old home in Times Square when it comes to food options. Chinatown delivery!”)

Le District, in the former World Financial Center, has a liaison on staff, Lucie Rizzi, to set up wine tastings, shopping outings and corporate dinners in record time. Her work is only getting started.

“You have to remember the building right above us is empty right now,” said Mr. Poulakakos, an owner of Le District. “Time Inc. and Bank of New York will be there by the end of the year.”

Some chefs have engaged in acts of outright courtship. Marc Forgione, who is behind three kitchens in TriBeCa (Restaurant Marc Forgione, Khe-Yo and American Cut), introduced himself to Vanity Fair by dispatching a heap of his “everything” biscuits over to the staff.

Racines NY, a Chambers Street offshoot of the wine-fixated bars in Paris, will roll out lunch this summer, with an array of light options that are intended to woo salad-loving editors from Condé Nast and Refinery29.

“With everybody moving in, it definitely makes sense,” said Arnaud Tronche, an owner and the sommelier at Racines. “And it’s a good crowd for us.”

Certainly, magazine editors are not the only hungry people in Lower Manhattan. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum has vastly increased on-foot tourist traffic since it opened in May 2014. Apartment towers seem to be sprouting on every other block (there are now about 60,000 residents, up from about 14,000 two decades ago), and the streets still teem with brigades of suits from Wall Street.

The area has long been notorious for clearing out at dusk, as workers fled their cubicles and caught the ferry back to New Jersey. But barkeeps and maître d’s are noticing a sizable uptick in cocktail and dinner business, from Racines NY and Warren 77 in TriBeCa down south to the Dead Rabbit bar on Water Street.

Kevin Richer, the general manager at North End Grill, stood in the restaurant’s rooftop garden the other day, while the chef Eric Korsh plucked herbs and strawberries for that night’s dinner service. Mr. Richer pointed out the surrounding skyscrapers, both new and old, and checked off the names of their high-profile tenants: Goldman Sachs, American Express, Condé Nast.

“The neighborhood in the last few months has just exploded with people,” Mr. Richer said. That afternoon, North End Grill had served about 200 customers for lunch. On a recent weekend, he said, there had been 1,300.

“It seems like people are no longer afraid to come down here,” he said. “There are more people out there saying, ‘Actually, it’s not that hard to get to.’ ”

Such was not the case when Mr. Meyer opened North End Grill in 2012, having already hatched a Shake Shack branch nearby. Although “it’s almost like we were greeted with rose petals from residents” in the area, Mr. Meyer said, coaxing customers to cross the wide car-clogged gulf of West Street from the east proved to be a puzzle. “Emotionally it’s like the Mississippi River.”

And Mr. Meyer said his team had “a tough time convincing other New Yorkers that Battery Park City was not Cincinnati.” The scrubbed, gleaming, Dubai-like newness of Battery Park City can be a source of cognitive dissonance to New Yorkers who are accustomed to traditional stimuli like fire escapes, brownstones and piles of trash.

What started persuading diners to cross town, or just the street, was critical mass. “We started to get some company,” Mr. Meyer said, like El Vez, Mr. Starr’s sprawling tribute to Mexican food. Hudson Eats and Le District opened in Brookfield Place, a short walk away, helping foster the feeling of a gastronomic destination.

Mr. Meyer had been “pulling out my hair for three years,” he said. “Now there’s nowhere else I’d rather have the restaurant.”

Ask various editors and publishers from Condé Nast, and they’ll list their favorite spots: Little Park, where the chefs Mr. Carmellini and Min Kong are serving fare in which vegetables play a starring role, as well as the Odeon, North End Grill, Tiny’s and the Bar Upstairs, Warren 77, P. J. Clarke’s, Khe-Yo and Blaue Gans.

“I do think Carmellini was smart to get ahead of the game by opening Little Park,” said Adam Rapoport, the editor in chief of Bon Appétit. “Lends itself to business lunches — subdued vibes, not-too-heavy food, et cetera.”

Tatiana Boncompagni, the lifestyle editor of Self, wrote in an email that “Little Park is editor central at breakfast time. Fresh-pressed juices, organic oatmeal and an omelet stuffed with seasonal veg — what more could you want?”

The Odeon, meanwhile, has the benefit of four decades of urban folklore, dating from the days when neighborhoods like SoHo and TriBeCa (as captured in Martin Scorsese’s 1985 romp “After Hours”) were still viewed as delightfully dodgy precincts of bohemian mischief.

“That’s a very helpful thing,” said Judi Wong, part of the team that manages the Odeon. “Everybody has a story about the Odeon, because it’s been around for a long time.

Mr. Poulakakos, the man behind numerous restaurants in the area (including Ulysses’ and Harry’s Italian) as well as Le District, has vivid memories of a very different time, back when the destruction of the twin towers turned block after block into a soot-shrouded wasteland.

“It almost became a mini war zone down here,” he said, while grabbing lunch at a bar counter in Le District. “You couldn’t get your vehicle down here for I don’t know how long.”

Mr. Poulakakos glanced around at the throngs of shoppers elbowing their way through the aisles at the French marketplace, which opened for business only two months ago. His mother died in 2003, Mr. Poulakakos said. “She would be in shock if she saw this,” he said. “It is psychedelic. It really is. It’s a new downtown.”

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