How NYC's Financial District Became America's Most Alluring Restaurant Market
Lower Manhattan arguably has more marquee chefs now than Las Vegas. Hardly a day goes by that another boldface chef doesn’t hang his toque in FiDi, the acronym for the Financial District that could just as easily stand for fine dining. Headliners include chefs recognizable by their first name only: Nobu, Daniel, Mario, Jean-Georges, Wolfgang.
An area that was once devoid of varied menu or late-night options is now the buzziest restaurant area in the city. The latest wave of openings was motivated by a spate of economic development including an increase in the number of residents; an influx of tourists attracted by the World Trade Center, the 9/11 Memorial, and the Santiago Calatrava–designed Oculus; and the move downtown of such creative businesses as Condé Nast and Time Inc.
Jessica Lappin, president of the Alliance for Downtown New York, comes armed with statistics at her fingertips: The number of residents tripled since 9/11, growing from 20,000 to 60,000. There were 14.6 million tourists in 2016, and the number keeps increasing. “There’s a younger more creative workforce working and living here now, and they want to go out to dinner, to have an experience,” she says. “Before, it was just [people working in] financial services who would come in before the market opened and then be gone.”
In the restaurant scene, the most notable recent stand-alone opening is Nobu, the iconic Japanese/Peruvian fusion restaurant co-owned by Drew Nieporent, Robert DeNiro, Nobu Matsuhisa, and Meir Teper. The owners, who have 30 branches worldwide, relocated the flagship to 195 Broadway in April, after a successful 23-year run in TriBeCa. Yes, their lease was coming up, the deal was good, and there’s now a private space suitable for private events. But there’s also an allure to being part of the revitalization of Lower Manhattan. Nieporent pioneered the TriBeCa dining scene when he opened Montrachet in 1985. Now he has a chance to move another dining scene, yet farther downtown, forward.
“The move downtown is personal, too,” Nieporent says. “My father worked his whole life in this area for the State Liquor Authority. Walking the streets, I get a huge déjà vu that feels good.” He also notes that the new Nobu is “right across the street from St. Paul’s Church, which was a symbol during 9/11. People hung signs there. People sought refuge there in the shadow of the World Trade Center.”
The former AT&T headquarters is famed for its 50 Doric Botticini marble columns, rising to a 40-foot-high ceiling. In this spectacular but challenging space, architect David Rockwell, who designed the original Nobu, suspended a gracefully floating black wooden sculpture meant to reference Japanese calligraphy.
The menu retains Nobu Classics such as the signature miso black cod and new items called Nobu Now. “We added a make-your-own sushi tray, which is very popular,” Nieporent says. He acknowledges it’s a challenge moving an established restaurant after so many years. “It’s going to take a little time for people to know we moved. There are a lot of families from Battery Park City who visited us in TriBeCa. The kids love the food,” he adds with some amusement. “Our generation never would have eaten raw fish.” Nor, in fact, would most Americans at the time Nobu opened. Nobu played a role in making that food accessible.
Pastry chef Sherry Yard, a 20-something-year veteran of Wolfgang Puck’s empire, is also drawn by nostalgic memories. In her case it’s the South Street Seaport, where her grandfather was a fishmonger at the Fulton Fish Market. “I grew up in Brooklyn, but I would go down there with my mom and dad. I feel a little bit of melancholy for the old seaport days, even the smells,” she says. With barman Adam Seger, she opened the iPic theater and Tuck Room restaurant last winter in the reviving Seaport, which had been devastated by Hurricane Sandy. They are the anchors now, and the pier is still under construction. “That’s where Jean-Georges is going to be next year,” Yard says.
Like a pair of evangelists, Yard and Seger are opening their luxury movie theaters with dinner service around the country. So far there are 16 iPic theaters, and 10 have full-service restaurants. “But we do food and beverage for all of the theaters,” says Yard, who prefers craveable American food like crab cakes and Reubens, which she reimagines as croquettes. “I tell people to come for the food and stay for the movie.”
Seger, who made a name with his creative drinks at Nacional 27 in Chicago, is happy to be back home in New York where he went to high school and college. “This is the fastest-growing residential neighborhood now. We’re seeing an excitement as residents are moving back. There is activity, great places to eat and drink in Lower Manhattan where previously it emptied out at night.” Seger is enamored of the history of the area and proudly points out the references in the décor to the building’s former life as the Fulton Fish Market. He notes that the father of American mixology, Jerry Thomas, opened his first saloon in New York in 1851 at Barnum’s American Museum, nearby on the corner of Broadway and Ann streets. As he talks, Seger discreetly pushes on a bookcase that opens to reveal the Green Room, a private-dining event space replete with art works, his collection of vintage glassware, and his library of Madeira, a wine that withstood the rigors of transport on sailing ships and was used for such historical celebrations as the inauguration of George Washington.
Spreading the gospel of this revitalization comes as easily to the new business owners as the decisions to open here. In a video made by the Downtown Alliance, Mario Batali, clad in shorts and signature orange Crocs, gives a quick walk through the sprawling 40,000-square-foot Eataly Downtown, located in the Westfield World Trade Center mall. Waving his hands at the vast array of Italian products, pastas, cheeses, meats, specialties to eat in or take out, he invites viewers to enjoy “experiential shopping.”
“It would be preposterous not to have a glass of wine while you consider your vegetable options,” enthuses the co-owner of this Italian extravaganza.
Celebrated chefs Tom Colicchio and Wolfgang Puck, and restaurateur Keith McNally, opened new restaurants inside two of the FiDi’s spectacular new hotels. Chef Colicchio presides over Temple Court in the Beekman Hotel. He gives a nod to turn-of–the-century New York classics on his modern American menu. The Beekman Hotel opened in August 2016 in the landmark Temple Court, which was built in 1883 at 5 Beekman Street as one of the city’s first high-rise buildings. It has a rich history and dramatic architectural details, such as a nine-story atrium with filigreed balustrades. This vertical view entrances patrons of the lobby bar. The site originally housed the Chapel Street Theater, where Hamlet was first performed in New York, and subsequently Clinton Hall, where Edgar Allan Poe put pen to paper. Keith McNally of Balthazar fame does what he does best in an adjacent brasserie named Augustine, which reassures diners they’ll always have Paris, as the New York Times review pointed out. Chefs Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla turn out reliably addictive steak frites and airy soufflé au fromage.
Wolfgang Puck made his first foray into New York when his Cut steakhouse at The Four Seasons Hotel New York Downtown opened last September. Located a block from the World Trade Center, the 82-story skyscraper offers stunning panoramic views. Executive chef Raymond Weber augments traditional steakhouse offerings with the likes of Red Snapper Sashimi and Veal Tongue with artichoke, fava beans, and salsa verde.
Philadelphia’s Jose Garces entered the New York City restaurant fray with Amada in Brookfield Place. “In Downtown Manhattan right now there is a wealth of amazing restaurants, businesses making it their home, and new landmarks that people are coming to from all over the world,” Chef Garces says. “I was thrilled to open my first restaurant in New York in this neighborhood and to be a part of Brookfield where all these communities converge. In Philly, Amada has grown right alongside its neighborhood, and I saw that same potential here in Lower Manhattan.”
Michelin-starred chef Eduard Frauneder of Edi & the Wolf and its sister concept, Freud, opened Schilling in a former tenement on Washington Street. In his menu at Schilling, Austria meets the Mediterranean.
Twenty-five-year Blue Ribbon veterans Bruce and Eric Bromberg opened Blue Ribbon Federal Grill this March in the AKA Wall Street extended-stay hotel on William Street and Maiden Lane. Sadly, they had closed their Blue Ribbon Bakery Kitchen a month before, but the saving grace was that they were able to move all the employees to the new location.
David Chang’s Fuku sells fried chicken sandwiches to the millennials at the We Work/We Live building at 110 Wall Street, and he’s slated to open a full-service restaurant next year at the South Street Seaport.
Daniel Boulud is the biggest name holding forth in the Westfield World Trade Center mall transportation hub, which serves New Jersey Path trains and New York City subways. One could say this hub is the Grand Central Station of today. “I could have chosen to open an Épicerie other places, but I felt that this concept was very well-tailored for this part of Manhattan. The life in this neighborhood keeps giving, keeps going. That’s where I find the most pride, in being able to offer consistency and quality to thousands of people every day,” Boulud says, in a charming video he made for the Downtown Alliance. Their slogan “Down is what’s up,” sounds particularly appealing in his French accent.
Visionary restaurateur Danny Meyer had the foresight to open North End Grill, and a branch of both Blue Smoke and Shake Shack, back in 2012 in Battery Park City, shortly after P.J. Clarke’s opening. “We liked the demographics down there. Danny likes to call it the lower West Side,” says Richard Coraine, chief of staff for Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. “I saw more baby strollers per capita than I’ve ever seen, and the families seemed underserved. Blue Smoke faces the financial building where Amex is located, and it’s great for the office people. North End Grill, a new concept commissioned by our landlord Goldman Sachs, serves a number of communities—a lot of locals and definitely businesses are entertaining Monday through Thursday.” Within the next year or so, Meyer is planning to open an event space with a restaurant and bar on the 60th floor of 28 Liberty Street, a mozzarella ball’s toss from Eataly Downtown.
And still to come, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara—of “world’s best restaurant” fame at 11 Madison Park—have plans for 3 World Trade Center.
With all this fanfare it’s easy to forget that the area does have a long history. In fact, the very first fine-dining restaurant in America, Delmonico’s, opened here in 1837. Fraunces Tavern opened even earlier, somewhere between 1762 and 1767. And George Washington really did eat there at a farewell dinner for his troops in 1783.
The Poulakakos family has been tending to the needs of downtown and their ever-growing restaurant empire since Greek emigrant Harry Poulakakos opened Harry’s at Hanover Square in 1972. The Wall Street watering hole was closed in 2003 and reopened as Harry’s Café and Steak three years later. Harry’s son, Peter, started on Stone Street, the block that houses several pubs and a pizza place frequented by hungry throngs sitting outside at picnic tables in warm weather. His HPH restaurant and development company also owns the French patisserie Financier; the French market Le District, in Brookfield Place; the Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, voted “world’s best bar” by Tales of the Cocktail in 2015 and by “World’s 50 Best Bars” in 2016; and Pier A Harbor House, a complex of event spaces, restaurants, and bars including BlackTail, a new Cuba-themed bar by The Dead Rabbit’s Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry. BlackTail was awarded Best New American Cocktail Bar at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail.
“There is no downtown story without Peter Poulakakos,” Union Square’s Coraine says. “He was really the Plymouth Rock of the whole thing. He had the most courage of anybody.”
For his part, Peter Poulakakos says it’s all about a shared vision: “It’s great to see other restaurateurs are starting to see what my father and I have seen in downtown for 45 years. There is plenty of food-and-beverage demand to service with the growing number of tourists, office tenants, and residences in lower Manhattan. As both business owners and residents of downtown, we welcome the diversity and new selections of restaurants in our neighborhood.”