The aroma of Eastern spices wafts from Café Gray as a dark-suited throng—attorneys from Fried Frank who’ve booked the restaurant for a private party—files into the long-awaited Time Warner Center restaurant from Gray Kunz. “Here is lavender-etched glass with a Central Park scene,” manager Frannie Rabin says. A perky blonde, she gestures into the chaos like a revved-up Vanna White. And the space, in theory, is breathtaking, with giant windows overlooking the park. But no amount of visualization can change the fact that the walls are papered with blueprints, coils protrude from planks, and the wood paneling from Australia is up in partial strips, as if workmen had suddenly stormed off. “We didn’t know we would be the emperor’s tasters,” sniffs a summer associate. “It wasn’t described that we would be guinea pigs. They are trying to put a positive spin on it.”
If you can’t impress a summer associate in New York City, something is wrong. And something is definitely wrong at the Time Warner Center complex of restaurants. The center, which officially opened in February, was heralded as a world-class food mecca, the pinnacle of culinary sophistication. On the fourth floor would be sushi master Masa Takayama and his $300 prix fixe lunch; Thomas Keller’s estimated $16 million temple, Per Se; and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new steakhouse, V. The third floor would be home to Kunz, who had received four stars at Lespinasse but had not found a suitable stove since, as well as Chicago’s most famous chef, Charlie Trotter.
But six months after the launch, this recipe for culinary greatness appears to be seriously flawed. Kunz’s restaurant still has no opening date, and Trotter’s is even further behind. Vongerichten and Keller have been doing juggling acts with their various projects; Keller had shuttered the French Laundry for a four-month renovation so he could spend his time in New York, but because of the fire six days after opening, both restaurants were closed simultaneously. And Masa, while excellent, is perhaps not as excellent as it is expensive.
As it happens, Masa is often not open during the day. “We are only open for lunch when we get reservations,” explains a hostess. The casual offshoot, Bar Masa, is sparsely populated at lunch, and at dinner, the somber Masa itself, with only four tables and ten bar seats, is rarely at capacity. “It has very little overhead. He only needs to fill 60 seats a night to break even,” says Kenneth Himmel, president and CEO of Related Urban Development, a division of the Related Companies, the developer of the building.
Vongerichten’s steakhouse seemed to be off to a more promising start—until the New York Times awarded it one star (see Adam Platt’s review). He’s never before received less than three. “Unfortunately, we ran into the opening of Spice Market and our restaurant at the same time, and the same sort of situation with Thomas Keller,” says Himmel.
“They were very upset about the review at the Related Companies,” admits Vongerichten. “But at the end of the day, we are the biggest-grossing restaurant up here. Eighteen years in New York, and I never had a one-star review; I don’t even know how to do a one-star restaurant. The hardest part is the staff. Nobody wants to work in a one-star place. In a way, it’s easier, though,” he continues. “When I got three stars at Spice Market, the expectation was so high and people said I had an affair with Amanda Hesser.” He laughs. “Now they have no expectations.”
Café Gray was set to open last winter, but spring came and went. Kunz posted an enticing summer menu; now it’s been replaced with an Indian summer menu. A new opening date has been announced each month. “The trades walked off the job,” says a worker on the project. “Different unions walked off at various points. We had some funding issues.”
Across from Café Gray, a huge banner announces the coming of Charlie Trotter’s this fall, the fifth and final restaurant. “That’s a mistake,” says Himmel.
“Charlie was going to have one of the signature restaurants, but he had decided not to do it,” says the architect for Michael Graves who’s working on the project. “Then they came back to him, and he’s back in. Now we’re hustling. We’ll probably be open in the spring.”
Then there’s Keller. His Per Se got off to an inauspicious start when he was forced to close for months because of a fire six days after the opening. And as another thorn in the side of his landlord, the Related Companies, he has reportedly disparaged the building’s atmosphere and asked for a private elevator so his diners don’t have to go through the shopping area. Last month, the building installed a separate doorman by the 60th Street elevator to shuttle diners directly to the fourth floor. “Per Se is the biggest challenge,” says Himmel.
Both Keller and Vongerichten were given princely deals in which they barely put up any capital and were handed rooms tailored to their every whim. Reactions to the food and service at Per Se have been ecstatic, but the pressure is really on to get four stars. And with the French Laundry in the midst of a tenth-anniversary celebration, he’s here only one week a month. Some say his perfectionism has ruffled the feathers of his landlords.
“All restaurants are plagued by problems, and five restaurants with high-profile chefs compound the issue,” says Keller. “Ken Himmel and I are partners. I have no problems having disagreements with my partners. Sometimes we run into roadblocks and challenges, but we are ironing them out.”
“Vertical retail and restaurants together is an idea not natural to New York,” says David Rockwell.
Keller, the temperamental genius, has a sensitivity to match his taste buds. “You work all your life to reach a certain level, and why don’t people say ‘Congratulations!’? Does anyone say ‘Why does Alex Rodriguez get $25 million, or Tom Cruise?’ Why do people begrudge that? Look at Alain Ducasse. That broke my heart. Everyone says they love him, and then he comes to New York and they beat the shit out of him: ‘Come to New York and we’ll kick your ass.’ ”
Unlike Keller and Vongerichten, Kunz and Trotter had to come up with their own backing, and in the case of Kunz, it’s not hard to see where the money went. Café Gray’s kitchen has five walk-in refrigerators and freezers, two European “combis” (combination stoves that cook with both heat and steam), and cutting boards custom-made to fit each sink. “He likes to have everything nice, smooth, and clean, so it looks like nobody works here,” explains Alana Henning, his pastry sous-chef.
One afternoon last week, Kunz sat around a table with the full team of architects from David Rockwell’s office and contractors from Bronx Builders. “The fact of the matter is that this is my first project on my own and I want it to be right, and I should ask for it to be perfect,” he said. “We had issues. There were design issues that held back the project. If there are problems, I have the right to solve them—and we’re going to open these doors no matter what.”
Last week, during lunchtime, the fourth floor was practically deserted. At night, the scene is slightly more active, though at eight, only two of Masa’s ten sushi-bar seats are occupied, and by nine, the four tables have takers but the bar is still about half-full. Meanwhile, “the third floor is like a ghost town,” says an owner of one of the fourth-floor restaurants.
The most bustling spot in the evening is Stone Rose, which, according to sources in the building, is having a few problems that have to be dealt with. “What I can tell you is that it’s all cosmetic and totally normal upkeep for a bar,” says Andrew Wintner, Stone Rose’s special-events and promotions director. But how much work should a new bar need? The place is filled with young suits on cell phones, but not the types likely to spend hundreds per person on a meal.
“The idea of an upscale food court is a new concept and a different kind of sell for New York,” says Paul Frumkin, editor-at-large for the weekly trade Nation’s Restaurant News. “It doesn’t speak to the way New Yorkers live and work and shop. But people outside of the city are seeing it as a destination.”
It’s hard to imagine how a $16 million restaurant could make a profit with sixteen tables and dinners that can last four hours. “It would have to do phenomenally well to recoup that outlay,” says Michael Batterberry, editor-in-chief of Food Arts.
At this point, the restaurants are loss leaders, adding cachet to the stores and to the condos upstairs, which have sold extremely well—one penthouse brought $40 million. “It’s smart strategy to bring an extraordinary group of restaurants together,” says Tim Zagat. “It would have been better if everything had come together a little earlier. It doesn’t matter if they make money as restaurants. Instead of being some property too far over on the West Side, suddenly you’re in fancyland.”
“This wasn’t done to sell ten more condos at a greater price per square foot,” insists Himmel. "The restaurants and bar are living up to our expectations. They’ve only been open a couple of months. It takes three to six months to go through a ramp-up period.”
“Vertical retail and restaurants together is an idea not natural to New York,” explains David Rockwell.
“Well,” says a smiling Vongerichten, “they call it vertical retail; I call it a mall.”