Danny Meyer has been at the forefront of nearly every trend in New York dining, from Greenmarket menus (Union Square Café) to haute Indian (Tabla) to southern barbecue (Blue Smoke). Although his ventures may seem superficially disparate (one guy’s behind the Modern and Shake Shack?), each is an expertly executed elaboration on his original easy-to-love blend of highbrow and lowbrow, of the casual and the fancy—in other words, the dominant trope in restaurants today.
Yes, Batali reinvented Italian cuisine as we know it, introduced legions of New Yorkers to beef cheeks and testa, and injected a welcome dose of Falstaffian indulgence into the post-nouvelle-cuisine world (lardo, anyone? A quartino of Barolo? A double-cut pork chop?). But walk into Babbo, the signature venue among Batali’s far-flung restaurant ventures, on a Saturday night, note the indie actors in the corner, the U2 pumping from the speakers, the party-happy attitude of the staff, and you’ll see that the one thing that Batali did that trumps the rest is this: He gave high-quality uptown cooking a big splash of downtown cool.
Not so long ago, eating at an haute French restaurant was a hidebound affair—decades-old elegance, preserved in aspic. It was Jean-Georges, trained in both France and Thailand, who opened up the four-star palate, lightening sauces, bringing Southeast Asian ingredients into the mix, and hiring hotshot designers to glam up his dining rooms. Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant and main laboratory, Jean Georges, set a new standard for high-end eating, and Vongerichten has built an empire of four-star restaurants—from Rama in London to Dune in the Bahamas to Jean Georges Shanghai—becoming, in the process, the iconic jet-lagged super-chef.
McNally’s restaurants have an almost mystical ability to please. You certainly wouldn’t call Balthazar, Pastis, or Schiller’s Liquor Bar an authentic French bistro—with their uniform tiled floors, big mirrors, and steak-frites, they’re more like Disneyfied New York re-creations. But that’s not the point. The secret here is the glamorous patina—the illusion of European cool—along with familiar, comforting, and always tasty food. McNally has also become something of a de facto real-estate developer. He doesn’t invent the next hot neighborhoods, but he has a seemingly psychic ability to jump in at just the right moment (Pastis in the meatpacking district, Schiller’s on the Lower East Side). And where he goes, the masses follow.
Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar upped the ethnic-food ante. In a city with some of the best Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food outside of China, Japan, and Korea, how do you raise the bar on a simple bowl of noodles? Answer: Momofuku. By adding luxurious ingredients (Berkshire pork) and Boulud - and Craft-honed techniques (he trained at both places) to formerly humble Asian staples, Chang has brought a new level of skill, and deliciousness, to inexpensive ethnic food. Given the crowds that keep lining up on First Avenue, there’s not a pizza-maker, hot-dog vendor, or mu-shu slinger who isn’t, or shouldn’t be, taking notice.
David Rockwell and AvroKO
Big-box restaurants—think of Buddakan, Del Posto, Morimoto —are as much a part of the New York dining scene today as pork belly and tilapia. They’re vast, dramatic spaces designed for a memorable, almost theatrical evening, and they’re all derived, to some degree, from Rockwell’s templates: Nobu, Tao, Rosa Mexicano. The AvroKO team (Adam Farmerie, William Harris, Kristina O’Neal, Greg Bradshaw), meanwhile, has emerged as an innovator of the intimate. The leading-edge design firm’s handful of restaurants—Public, Stanton Social, Sapa—express fanatic attention to detail: the just-so brick walls, the vintage-style lamps, the painstaking selection of a font for the menu. It’s as if you’re in the home of an architect-designer couple who’ve made their apartment their life’s work.