December will be an all-or-nothing month for many Midtown restaurants stymied by the slow lunchtime business, but they’re not sweating it at Le Bernardin.
The Fish Palace on West 50th Street, which Michelin recently confirmed a valuable three-star rating, has just been named the world’s best restaurant for 2023 by La Liste, the increasingly influential Paris-based ranking. The results are based on the analysis of thousands of travel guides, media reports and online reviews worldwide, while Michelin relies on anonymous inspection visits.
Eric Ripert, Executive Chef at Le Bernardin and co-owner of Maguy Le Coze, hailed Le Bernardin’s second award (it was also number 1 on La Liste in 2019) as “excellent news for us. La Liste, which is only seven years old, is beginning to catch on,” and was widely followed by visitors to the Big Apple from Asian countries including Japan and Korea.
Le Bernardin hardly needs another boost. It shares No. 1 billing with Guy Savoy in France and Frantzen in Sweden.
“We’ve never been this busy,” Ripert said — at both lunch and dinner.
But while tables are hard to come by before the end of the year, the Michelin and La Liste double win is “much more important for us in January and February”.
However, not everyone in Midtown, the heart of Manhattan’s restaurant industry, is ready to pop the champagne. Bank holiday celebration bookings were unexpectedly resilient, but sluggish midday traffic remains a lump of coal for places still recovering from the pandemic.
Though beautiful spots like Fasano, Le Rock and Simon Orens have opened up vibrant new Monterey, and old favorites like Fresco by Scotto and Polo Bar seem like non-stop parties, the pandemic has crushed the fabled 21er club and more are on the brink.
Times Square Alliance President Tom Harris said he was “watching December closely.” He said restaurant business in the region was down 9% overall from 2019 levels. Due to reduced demand for lunch, places like Jasmine’s on Restaurant Row stayed dark before 4pm
The turbulent scene keeps experienced owners on their toes. Jeff Bank, CEO of Alicart Restaurant Group, which owns Carmine’s and Virgil’s, said operators “need to acknowledge the tremendous shifts in demographics and timing.”
Before COVID, “you pretty much knew what was going to happen at lunch and dinner,” he said. But now: “We have to be flexible. It’s easier for [better-established places] who have multiple legs to stand on. We know that Friday is dead because of empty offices, but we can resume tourism at the weekend.”
Owners or landlords of Gallagher’s, Bryant Park Grill and Nobu 57 all say their earnings are 20% to 25% higher than 2019. But Andrew Rigie of the New York Hospitality Alliance said, “For restaurants that rely heavily on office workers , it is difficult when the building upstairs is less than 50% occupied.”
The new Avra on Sixth Avenue always looks packed, but partner Nick Tsoulos says its three restaurants are only “about 60% to 70% down” compared to pre-COVID levels.
“I’m waiting [what happens] this Christmas season,” he said. That
The “power lunch,” where the main players went about their business over their meals, “has faded,” he added.
Ben Grossman, CEO of Fireman Hospitality Group, said the company’s overall business is “close to pre-COVID.” But lunch is a little softer at Italian eateries Bond 45 and Trattoria Dell’ Arte.
Dinner still rocks, especially at the Trattoria across from Carnegie Hall across Seventh Avenue.
“What’s missing in the area is lunch,” Grossman said. “Friday, which used to be our best lunch day, is now our worst.”
Some of the lunchtime traffic is site-specific, based on office occupancy in the same buildings as the restaurants. Porter House Bar & Grill on Columbus Circle has fewer lunchtime customers because the Deutsche Bank employees who replaced Time Warner upstairs appear to have more meals in their cafeteria than their media predecessors.
However, chef/owner Michael Lomonaco said, “Our private events have never been stronger than they have been since the summer,” and its 260-seat capacity fills almost every night.
The frenzy of private events offsets slower midday trade – half what it was in 2019 – at Dino Arpaia’s Cellini on East 54th Street. The popular spot has recently hosted parties for the Santander Bank, Jefferies, KPMG, Blackstone and Black Rock.
But: “They are all compressed to Tuesday to Thursday because they don’t come in often on the other days,” said Arpaia. “I’ve never been under such pressure” to accommodate corporate customers in a tighter time frame.
At the elegant Hutong Chinese restaurant, Raafet Olian, maitre’d and head of guest relations, also cited strong dinner and events business but called lunch “still a struggle” — in part because Bloomberg employees, who are headquartered in the tower, come less regularly than in the past.
Like Deutsche Bank, Bloomberg has its own grocery facilities. Some bank employees have even offered leftovers to Hutong employees they meet in the elevators.
Olian joked, “Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”