This strange new gravitational pull toward midtown Manhattan started with a crab and a cocktail at Le Rock’s packed-on-a-Tuesday-night bar, where an open stool presents the opportunity for what could be considered the perfect solo meal: dressed whole Dungeness crab, escargot, snappy red radishes with butter, baguette slices and a Green Chartreuse–laced Bijou Blanc. And the simmering vibe at the new Rockefeller Plaza brasserie, from Frenchette chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, is as much a draw as its wide-ranging, artfully executed menu of bistro favorites. I shared a snail with the diner next to me, ordered a second cocktail and damn if my icy New York heart didn’t melt. This is the midtown we’ve always deserved.
“Midtown was the last neighborhood in Manhattan to come back to life,” says Jeff Zalaznick, co-owner of Major Food Group, whose portfolio includes The Grill and The Lobster Club, in the Seagram Building. “There was a cream-rising-to-the-top effect. You saw lots of people who couldn’t withstand a period that was really devastating to restaurants—that made room for the next generation.”
Plenty of noteworthy newcomers were in the works pre-Covid, including Daniel Boulud’s remake of Le Pavillon inside One Vanderbilt and John Fraser’s Mediterranean Iris, which was planned as part of a redesign of 1740 Broadway. Tishman Speyer began redeveloping Rockefeller Center in 2019, hoping to push out chain eateries and attract local talent.
Then the pandemic happened, pummeling commercial real estate and shifting the developer-restaurateur relationship. “The folks who rent buildings recognize that food and beverage is important to community building. Then restaurateurs are recognizing the opportunity—what used to be considered a little staid is exciting,” explains Fraser, who also runs the New York Times three-star 701West in the Times Square Edition hotel. “Those two waves are hitting one another and creating a moment.”
In that ecosystem, you can enjoy tender whole quail slathered with sage butter at Iris, or truffled chopped cheese, with Juvenile’s “Slow Motion” bumping in the background, at Tatiana in Lincoln Center. Diners vie for one of just 10 counter seats at Jōji, Daniel Boulud’s new omakase spot below Grand Central, or a way into the eight-person private dining room. At Rockefeller Center alone, you can fight over the last bites of Jupiter’s pasta with chicken liver while watching tourists ice skate or dip hunks of crab cake into bone-marrow aioli at Five Acres—and that’s if you haven’t already filled up on aperitivo-hour antipasti at Lodi.
Naro, from Ellia and Junghyun Park, serves $195 tasting menus dedicated to traditional Korean cuisine. The abalone mandu, composed of steamed abalone and shrimp-tofu mousse draped with thin sheets of zucchini and finished with a tableside pour of beef shank–kelp broth, is pure softness and subtlety—definitely not designed for the accidental Rock Center tourist walk-in or old-school expense-account meal.
Midtown restaurants have always relied on the area’s captive audiences, and the neighborhood’s bread-and-butter diners are trickling back. Tourism has reached 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels, and office workers are once again warming their desk chairs. Even if those nine-to-fivers are working from work fewer days than before, Fraser says, they’re dining out more often and spending more, too.
Despite some initial concerns that area tourism would impact Le Rock’s cachet, Hanson and Riad ultimately decided it was “mostly a no-brainer,” according to Hanson. “We thought, ‘Let’s just build our kind of restaurant that New Yorkers like, and hopefully they’ll come.’” On a second visit to Le Rock, I sat at a two-top with just a few inches on either side. With the couple to our left, my husband and I discussed the downfall of FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried, while from the right, a trio of gentlemen were compelled to make sure we ordered the fries. It felt like we could have been downtown or in Brooklyn, crammed into a 40-seat space and sharing a meal with neighbors, but there we were on 50th Street instead, half a block from Saks, feeling like it was once again the center of the universe.