Can a Revamped Rockefeller Center Lure New Yorkers to Midtown?
Those behind the Art Deco landmark’s recent refit by INC Architecture & Design are hoping new restaurants from the stars behind King, Olmsted, and Atomix, and a McNally Jackson flagship store, will convince New Yorkers and tourists alike to look forward to coming around.
To anyone paying attention, a tectonic shift is taking place at Rockefeller Center. It started when Ignacio Mattos debuted Lodi, a Milanese-style aperitivo bar and cafe at the New York landmark in September 2021. Opening a new restaurant is always notable for a chef and restaurateur of his caliber, but the fact that it was Mattos—a bellwether of downtown culture who dates the chef-turned-designer Laila Gohar and whose culinary prowess draws everyone from Chloë Sevigny to the fashion designer Emily Adams Bode Aujla to his restaurants—meant something big was happening.
Soon after Lodi opened, word spread of new restaurants from the chefs behind Atomix (a winner of two Michelin stars), King, and Olmsted. By early 2022, the New York Times had deemed Lodi “too good” for Rockefeller Center: an oasis of expertly pulled espresso and Italian pastry during the mornings, with a considered edit of lunch and dinner entrées and infallible martini service. In May, the nomadic Mexican gallery MASA Galeria made its United States debut as the kickoff to NYCxDesign, luring a crop of discerning aesthetes to the shuttered federal post office near the skating rink.
Then, as late July rolled around, Le Rock, a swanky Workstead-designed spot from Frenchette’s Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, threw open its doors across the plaza from Lodi and a McNally Jackson flagship, complete with a Goods for the Study stationary shop, was planned for somewhere between the two. Also nearby: cult-favorite record store Rough Trade, which migrated to the city from Williamsburg; Girl Knew York, a gallery and shop from artist Mira Mariah who has inked the likes of Ariana Grande with her signature style of tattoo line art; and Lingua Franca, the West Village’s cashmere purveyor of choice.
To anyone who had passed through Rockefeller Center in the past decade, the confluence of destination restaurants and tasteful, independently owned shops at the tourist hotspot seemed ambitious.
The addition of Five Acres, from Olmsted chef and owner-operator Greg Baxtrom; Jupiter, from King’s Jess Shadbolt, Clare de Boer, and Annie Shi; and Naro, from Atomix and Atoboy’s Ellia and Junghyun “J.P.” Park, stand to define a new era of the landmark’s former concourse level, replacing the Sea Grill and a Starbucks kiosk. Rockefeller Center owner Tishman Speyer brought in INC Architecture & Design, whose stylish hotels and restaurants often embrace biophilic design, to remake the newly coined “Rink Level” into a destination for city dwellers whose presence there isn’t office-mandated. And if anyone can pull it off, it’s INC: together with Brooklyn Bridge Park, the firm’s design of the nearby 1 Hotel played a considerable role in rejuvenating the Brooklyn Heights waterfront.
At the Rink Level, floor-to-ceiling windows flood the formerly dark, uninviting interior with ample natural light and democratize views of the skating rink—previously a perk limited to those paying a premium for a sit-down meal at the Sea Grill. Limestone, bronze, and glass finishes convey warmth and nod to the space’s deco roots without feeling kitschy or period.
The firm is also behind Baxtrom’s restaurant, Five Acres, which, save for the private dining room and kitchen, is wall-less and open to the Rink Level.“At the beginning, I was pretty skeptical about how it would play out,” Baxtrom told Surface. The chef and owner-operator of Five Acres, Olmsted, Maison Yaki, and Patti Ann’s hadn’t previously worked with a design firm and admitted to a degree of uncertainty about the wall-free concept.
Seeing the Rink Level completed and the dining “room” full for mock service and friends-and family-dinners has brought the space to life for him. “It has an after-hours, ‘night at the museum’ vibe,” he says. It’s also empowered him to cook more decadently than he does in Brooklyn, where his other properties are. His Five Acres menu includes dishes like lobster three ways, and a dramatically plated smoked oysters Vanderbilt, with the same transformative attention to farmers market fare his Olmsted diners expect. “We’re not obnoxiously farm-to-table in the way that you’re only going to like the dish if I give you a five minute spiel about it. I cannot stand that, but we do cook the same way as some of those restaurants. For us, it’s enough that we know that all that work is going into that rangoon, and you just need to think that it’s something cheesy and fried.”
Baxtrom wasn’t the only person caught off guard by the prospect of Rockefeller Center. “It was never in our strategy to open a subterranean restaurant,” Jupiter’s chef and co-owner Jess Shadbolt says. “It was appealing to us because it spoke to something very different than where we are now,” she says of the contrast between Jupiter and King, the white-tablecloth Italian restaurant she co-owns and oversees with fellow chef Claire de Boer and Annie Shi.
Anyone familiar with Brooklyn-based design firm Workstead knows that Jupiter’s upstairs neighbor Le Rock, with its deco-inspired lighting and moody mix of black leather and wood furnishings, is well within the studio’s wheelhouse. Jupiter’s vibrant palette of primary colors, however, is a departure. “We’re inherently Italian; we serve pasta and wine, but we didn’t want the space to echo that classic Italian feel, or for it to become a caricature of something that it’s not,” Shadbolt said. “It’s Italian in spirit, but not in design.”
Though the Rink Level and other restaurants pay homage to the site’s rich history, Jupiter’s design is purposefully contemporary. “We wanted it to feel fun and joyful above all and to be a place that feels vibrant and inviting at all times of day. We’re open from 11 to 11 so we didn’t want only a night feel,” de Boer says. An espresso bar and pasticcini—a type of tiny Italian pastry—is equally suitable in the morning or after dinner, while mains like rabbit-stuffed pasta and seafood risotto cooked in prosecco offer tantalizing afternoon and evening options.
For the owners of independent restaurants, galleries, and shops like Rough Trade and McNally Jackson, most New Yorkers’ gripes about Midtown—the foot traffic, the tourists—represent unparalleled opportunities: “Being located in a historic landmark, buzzing with tourists and locals alike, we feel honored to have the opportunity to introduce traditional flavors of Korea’s rich history in hopes of contributing to Korean cuisine’s impact on the world’s dining scene,” says Naro’s Ellia Park. Jupiter’s Annie Shi echoes the sentiment: “Everyone passes through Midtown, whether they realize it or not. We’re just trying to give them a reason to stop and enjoy a plate of pasta and a glass of wine.”
Revitalizing the Midtown landmark on such a massive scale to attract well-heeled city dwellers whose spending is governed by a perception of good taste is a bold commercial real-estate maneuver. The rebuilt South Street Seaport, which sustained more than $19 billion in damages during superstorm Sandy a decade ago, may be the closest comparison. Since then, McNally Jackson unveiled a two-story bookstore there, and Andrew Carmellini’s extravagant steakhouse and seafood restaurant debuted to rave reviews last year and snagged a Michelin Guide mention soon after. Earlier this year, the Tin Building—Jean Georges’ 53,000 square-foot mashup of fast-casual and sit-down dining spots—took over in the old Fulton Fish Market, and Vogue hosted the CFDA Awards after-party at the Casa Cipriani members’ club nearby. The question of whether Rockefeller Center—or either area, for that matter—can snag the elusive ‘cool’ cachet remains to be seen.
Ahead, find more photos of the new Rink Level and its restaurants.