The Atlantic Grill is so busy on this wintry Tuesday night that it's nearly impossible to squeeze through the bar to get to the hostess. But owner Stephen Hanson, stopping by as part of his nightly rounds of his seven restaurants, doesn't seem pleased at the sight of the hungry throngs here on the Upper East Side. Instead, his eyes dart around, searching the room as if he were playing the child's game What's Wrong With This Picture?
"The lights are too bright," he tells the manager, noting that the carefully calibrated romantic ambience is slightly off.
Hanson confers with the hostess over where to seat Rudy Giuliani, who has a reservation later that evening. Next, the restaurateur scans his customers, trying to analyze their moods in shrink-to-patient fashion. As a divorced 49-year-old bachelor who knows all too well the perils of dating, he instructs his waiters to pay attention to body language, and if it's evident a couple is not having fun -- staring into space awkwardly, conversation at a standstill -- to put a rush on their food order. "They don't want to be here anymore," he says, "and we want to help them." Tonight, however, it's a happy crowd, and Hanson's only concern is a few women who have their arms crossed awkwardly as if chilly. Urging the hostess to turn up the heat, he says, "I want this place toasty."
In an era when most new restaurants in Manhattan scarcely last as long as the foam takes to cool on a cappuccino, Stephen Hanson has built a restaurant empire that now feeds 35,000 people a week, the equivalent of the entire population of Hoboken -- and he's done it in little more than a dozen years. His company B.R. Guest (inspired by the Chicago restaurant chain Lettuce Entertain You) grossed more than $40 million last year. Hanson, a former commodities trader and garment-industry executive, has a simple formula: fun and sexy neighborhood restaurants where dinner for two is safely under $100. Sure, dropping $300 at Le Bernardin offers a culinary thrill, and snagging a reservation at BondSt gives you bragging rights, but most nights, people just want a hassle-free, value-for-money meal. Or as Hanson puts it, borrowing a phrase from his retailing past, "I'm the bridge designer of food."
And he caters to Manhattan's notoriously fussy eaters: Hanson doesn't advertise his cuisine as spa food, but he's sensitive to the waistline concerns of his customers. "Steve's challenged me to try to thicken sauces without roux or butter," says Atlantic Grill's chef Joseph Boyer, an enthusiastic 25-year-old. "He figures everyone's into looking good, so let's help them.
Hanson's newest venture on the Upper West Side, Ruby Foo's, cost $3.5 million and features a dramatic David Rockwell-designed interior -- a startling red-lacquered wall of Asian artifacts, handsome mah-jongg tiles backlit at the bar -- yet the Pan-Asian food runs a mere $30 per person. The restaurant has been open only a few months, but it is already a West Side sensation, filled to overflowing. "Steve's restaurants aren't about high-end food," says Tim Zagat, whose survey ranks Hanson's Blue Water Grill in the top twenty of New York's most popular restaurants. "They're about getting thousands of people to come again and again and again."
As king of the one-star-restau-rant world, Hanson may be the best social observer in New York today. "I'm just the bozo," he jokes. "If I like something, I figure a lot of other people will too." But it's not quite that simple. "I don't buy that act," says an amused Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Cafe is just around the corner from Blue Water Grill. "Steve is a hell of a lot smarter than anyone gives him credit for." He makes it his business to know who his diners are. He has discovered, for instance, that people who hang their hats in different neighborhoods abide by different body clocks: His two Upper East Side restaurants start filling up at 6:30 p.m. and empty out well before midnight, while customers at his West Side and Union Square establishments get started later and party on longer. He can guess how long people are likely to linger over their espresso. "If two people go out, they'll stay 90 minutes, but for a party of four, it's two hours," he says. Eating habits are surprisingly predictable: 25 percent of diners always order the special, whatever it is. And when customers return to a restaurant for a third time, Hanson says, "70 percent order the same thing they had before."