Some of New York’s top rated restaurants are embracing elevated bar and lounge menus in order to attract a wider array of customers who shy from a 3.5 hours, $300+ menu commitment.
— Jennifer Parker
The crème de la crème of New York’s top rated restaurants can be intimidating. Though meals are considered an art form, high prices, pre-charged reservations, and pressed-shirt pretension have all contributed to an all-too common critique: the 3.5-hour, $300+ tasting menus offered in these establishments are anachronistic.
There is an easier way to enjoy these vaulted venues—for less. This year’s three-starred Michelin award winners, including Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, and Le Bernardin, are countering critics with shorter and cheaper, yet superbly executed menus designed to be served in their lounge bars, where walk-ins are welcome.
“The bar is an important part of the business, in that it’s an opportunity for us to get more people in the restaurant who wouldn’t ordinarily come in,” said Eleven Madison Park’s General Manager Billy Peelle, sitting comfortably on a plush, caramel-colored banquette, dressed in pristine suit and tie.
We’re seated in a soaring art deco space known as Manhattan’s Metropolitan Life Building across from Madison Square Park. After last fall’s full-scale renovation by architect Brad Cloepfil, the restaurant is an impeccable light-filled aria, while the darker, gold-leafed lounge bar feels like it belongs to a corporate-chic hotel. The lounge seats just 16 guests, accounting for less than 20 percent of the 90 available seats in the restaurant.
It’s small, but significant in restaurant business terms, where set-menu revenues typically run parallel to the number of guests seated.
Given that it’s happy hour on a summer Friday, the restaurant’s after-work crowd is buzzing with the first blush of a long weekend. The last thing Peelle wants to do is alienate them. “Our biggest regulars, a lot of them never step foot into the dining room. They’re here to have a drink after work,” he said.
Many of Peelle’s colleagues are currently out in East Hampton, where EMP Summer House, the second iteration of Chef Daniel Humm’s picnic playhouse, is stealing the season with oversized tiki cocktails and DIY tacos. It is not what you expect from one of the world’s top chefs. It is the opposite of intimidating.
“The number of courses, and the length of time is intimidating to a lot of people. I understand it,” says Peele of the flagship dining experience. Just last year, Eleven Madison Park held the title of World’s Best Restaurant, but has since fallen to fourth place. Maintaining knockout success at the fancy flagship may now require extra effort.
Thus, in tandem with their luxe competitors, EMP is embracing the business of approachability. On July 10, EMP rolled out its summer tasting menu at the bar. It comprises only five courses, and is less expensive ($175 versus the formal $315 per person, 8-10 course experience). This bar menu does not, however, skimp on quality or craftsmanship.
The menu is shorter, but it’s still Humm. Which is to say, butter isn’t just butter, and bread isn’t just bread. Here, the starchy staple is a perfectly circular white and wheat flour croissant served with a thin layer of Dorset cheddar cheese crumble on top.
Since butter set the tone, I’m expecting excellence. Sure enough, it comes in the form of my own personal smoked sturgeon caviar tin, served cold and light as air over a bed of eggs Benedict. The tin is accompanied by a marching fleet of warm, miniature English muffins, presumably meant for dipping into the thick runny egg, which tempers intermittent gulps of Austrian gold-colored wine, imported from the Groiss winery reserve.
Suffice it to say, the “signature” main course—which is also served in the dining room—is a triumph. A carefully cut triangle of honey and lavender-glazed duck stares up from an oversized plate, otherwise adorned with a warm compote of summer blueberries and charred onion… And I won’t even start on the dessert, which involves a deeply satisfying orb of sweetened condensed milk ice cream. Because that would be indulgent.
Per Se Prices
At chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se at Columbus Circle, the Salon tasting menu was created in 2016 for similar reasons: to offer a lower-priced version of chef Keller’s greatest hits. Salon guests can experience his signature “oysters and pearls” appetizer and his perfected charcoal-grilled Miyazaki Wagyu without ever stepping foot into the the dining room.
Encased in floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Central Park and Columbus Circle, the lounge at Per Se is an attractive selling point for local epicureans and international visitors who want a more casual fine dining option. The deal is clear cut: it’s $195 for the Salon’s tasting menu, versus the formal $340 per person in the main dining room.
The Salon space has existed since the restaurant opened in 2004. But management only started serving food in the Salon in 2009, after the financial crisis hit. “At that time, we needed to be as accessible as possible. We were worried. All luxury markets were worried,” said Per Se’s general manager, Sam Calderbank. Today, the five-course Salon tasting menu is designed to meet client demand.
“The Salon is a significant and consistent revenue stream for the restaurant,” he said, making it important to not alienate would-be customers who hear the restaurant’s famed name and assume it’s out of reach. “We have to make sure we’re accessible to new markets,” he added. Four of the five Salon tables are available for reservations; a fifth is dedicated to walk-ins. Per Se serves only 20 guests on average per night in the Salon, compared to the main dining room’s average of 80 guests per night.
Though the Salon is physically small compared to the 66-seat main dining room, Calderbank says it accounts for at least 15 percent of total revenue on average. “The beauty of the salon is that you don’t always know where the revenue is going to come from. Someone could just be really excited about our wine list, and spend way more than we expect,” he added.
This high-end bar model has proven itself so important for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group that the company is currently forging ahead with the Martin Brudnizki design of a new ‘30s-era piano bar and lounge space as part its newest outpost, The Surf Club Restaurant, in Miami. Slated to open in the fourth quarter of this year, it too will have its own special bar menu.
Make It Accessible
It isn’t a new concept, of course. Back in 1994, Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern was thought to have reinvented the American luxury restaurant by offering a cheaper bar menu in the front room. Accessibility was, indeed, the true key to its success. And its guiding tenet could not be more important for today’s most celebrated restaurants: never alienate a guest.
Eric Ripert, co-owner and chef of Le Bernardin since 1994, lives by this rule. “If you offer only one menu, you narrow down the potential clientele you could have,” says Ripert. A practicing Buddhist and frequent world-traveler, Ripert has famously managed his outsized success for decades without losing his subtle sense of chill.
Located smack in the middle of the financial heart of midtown Manhattan, Le Bernardin is a sophisticated luxury for discerning diners. It is also home to serious artwork. In the main dining room, a massive oil on canvas painting by Ran Ortner depicts dramatic ocean waves. Above the bar, a painting of a fisherman who looks a lot like a French John Goodman, sitting slumped in a red tracksuit. He is actually the grandfather of Maguy Le Coze, co-owner of Le Bernardin, who was born in a small fishing village in Brittany, France.
He tells you something about this place. Over a cacophony of middle-aged people three glasses in to their dates, this French patriarch purveys the scene, silent but jolly – as if to say: I have been here long before you, and you will join me soon enough. So, enjoy your time here to the fullest.
This, I think, is precisely why Ripert’s light, seafood-focused lounge menu featuring Golden Osetra caviar and pretty little cups of “Lobster Cappuccino” soup, is the most accessible of the Michelin masters. His lounge menu is served completely a la carte. For about $125 per person, with wine, guests can order a modest meal. Of course, if you’d like to order the full Chef’s tasting menu with wine pairing, it’s available in the bar at $370 per person.
Sit where you like. Jacket not required.
Jennifer Parker is a writer and reporter based in New York City, covering culture, travel, and the travel industry. Her work frequently appears in esteemed publications such as Bloomberg Pursuits, Saveur magazine, Watch Journal, and the Washington Post.