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Welcome Back, Conran

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"I was always enchanted by the big brasseries of Paris like La Coupole -- their democracy of old and young, rich and poor, people who dress formally, people who wear jeans and T-shirts," Conran says. "It's a place where people are almost insulated by the big buzz around them."

Along the north wall, Guastavino will feature a 42-foot-long, Spago-style open kitchen, among the biggest in Manhattan. Upstairs, on a mezzanine built along the south wall, platinum-card diners will gaze down on the bustle from the pricier, more exclusive 100-seat Club Guastavino. Commanding both kitchens will be Indiana-born, La Grenouille-trained Daniel Orr.

In England, Conran has done more than anyone else to help bring back pride in long-maligned British cooking, emphasizing veddy British game like woodcock and Scottish lobster. Regardless, Conran and restaurant co-owner Joel Kissin decided against bringing over a British culinary star to do an haute British menu. Kissin wanted someone familiar with the New York palate, and somebody well connected to the city's best bakers, produce suppliers, and sous-chefs-for-hire. Orr will be doing a few English charmers, like bread-and-butter pudding. But he says he'll be relying more on flamboyantly contemporary creations, such as a Cuban tripe stew with chorizo, short ribs, and oxtail.

Critics insist that New York's style crowd is unlikely to frequent Bridgemarket because of its Siberian First Avenue setting ("The location is a disaster," says the Vinegar Factory's Eli Zabar). But the Bridgemarket bunch eagerly points out that the complex is happily situated on the border of the 10021 and 10022 Zip Codes, the best retail quadrants in the world. And if you build it, they will surely come. Right?

Conran seems uniquely suited to make good on Bridgemarket's promise. In the past fifteen years, he's adopted an interesting subspecialty, buffing chipped architectural jewels -- ten restaurants in London, currently -- into noisy and grandiose Valhallas for the young and flush.

The first turnaround occurred at the lovely, decrepit Michelin Building on London's Fulham Road. Once Michelin's British headquarters, the building had fallen into disrepair before Conran bought it in 1985. Two years later, he started up his first Conran Shop on the ground level. Upstairs, behind the exquisite blue-and-yellow stained-glass windows featuring the puffy-armed Michelin man, Conran opened Bibendum, a rare London restaurant sensation that was quickly celebrated as an end to the twee squiggles and Dickensian portions of the nouvelle cuisine era.

But Conran's defining London restaurant is probably his enormous, two-story reinvention of Quaglino's, a red-velvet dowager dating back to Wallis Simpson days. Quaglino's mated the oddly populist, pitched-volume frenzy of a Carmine's with the high-design Euro-cool of a "44." Even after seven years, you can walk straight through the door into a jet-engine blast of energy.

Most of Conran's spaces are elegantly gallerylike, with ivory walls, curvaceous blond furniture, and bold, monochromatic banquettes. Still, the restaurants seem to share a reputation for catering to the "naff" set: "He's packaged glamorous, metropolitan restaurants for the London analogue of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd," says Jonathan Meades, restaurant critic for the Times of London. "But it's true that he has also brought a lot of attention to the business because he covers all sorts of things, from the smart end of retail through design through restaurants. He's kind of a sensitive Donald Trump."

For years, it was possible to walk past one of Manhattan's most arresting architectural spaces and not even know it existed.

"You maybe knew about it only if you did drugs," says Barry Schneider, chairman of Community Board 8, whose district abuts Bridgemarket to the north. "Some people used to walk all the way over to Second Avenue to avoid the scary tunnel under the bridge there on First."

Bridgemarket opened as New York's own open-air Les Halles in 1916. The market, however, couldn't survive the Depression; sealed off with windows, it spent the next 40 years as a Department of Transportation sign-painting workshop and storage facility. Finally, in 1973, the city's Board of Estimate approved a plan to turn Bridgemarket into an I. M. Pei-designed movie megaplex -- 50,000 square feet containing three movie theaters, a film museum, and a film archive. But the plan was scrapped after the developer, American Cinemathèque, couldn't raise enough money.

Not long afterward, a dashing 33-year-old Colorado developer named Harley Baldwin -- who got his start selling crêpes out of an old circus cart in Aspen -- rolled into the picture. At the time, Baldwin said he was willing to devote his life to rescuing the space. He quickly sewed up political connections and secured rights to build what would have been, essentially, a midtown Chelsea Market: a multilevel mall featuring butchers, bakers, fishmongers, and six ethnic-food restaurants. In 1981, Baldwin partnered with deep-pocketed Los Angeles developer Sheldon Gordon to form Bridgemarket Associates. Pushing the project through the thicket of those swank, throng-wary Sutton Place residents who would be its neighbors took years. Finally, in 1987, Bridgemarket Associates broke ground on what had now ballooned into a $42 million project containing some 50 mom-and-pop food vendors and restaurants. "Basically, it was going to be a giant farmer's market," Gordon says now. The Sutton Area Community, a private civic group, filed suit, charging that Bridgemarket Associates had started to build a project much larger than the one agreed upon. The lawsuit and its two arduous appeals dragged on for years. Finally, the city came in as a co-defendant, and after losing the first two rounds, Gordon won his lease back on appeal in 1994.


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