December will be a make-or-break month for many Midtown restaurants hobbled by slow lunch business, but they’re not sweating it at Le Bernardin.
The West 50th Street seafood palace, where Michelin recently reaffirmed a precious three-star rating, was just named the world’s No. 1 restaurant for 2023 by La Liste, the increasingly influential rankings based in Paris. The findings are based on analysis of thousands of guidebooks, media stories and online reviews worldwide, whereas Michelin relies on anonymous inspector visits.
Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin’s chef and co-owner with Maguy Le Coze, celebrated the second time Le Bernardin has been so honored (it was also No. 1 on La Liste in 2019) as “excellent news for us. La Liste, which is only seven years old, is starting to impose itself,” and widely followed by visitors to the Big Apple from Asian countries including Japan and Korea.
Le Bernardin hardly needs another boost.
“We have never been so busy,” Ripert said — at lunch as well as at dinner.
But although tables are hard to come by before the end of the year, the one-two punch of Michelin and La Liste “are much more important to us in January and February.”
However, not everybody in Midtown, the heart of Manhattan’s restaurant industry, is ready to break out the Champagne. Holiday party bookings have been unexpectedly robust, but weak lunch traffic continues to be a lump of coal for places still recovering from the pandemic.
Although fine places have opened such as Fasano, Le Rock and Simon Oren’s buzzing new Monterey, and old favorites like Fresco by Scotto and Polo Bar seem like non-stop parties, the pandemic felled the fabled ‘21’ Club and more are on the brink.
Times Square Alliance president Tom Harris said he’s “watching December closely.” He said area restaurant business is down 9% overall from 2019 levels. Reduced lunch demand kept places such as Jasmine’s on Restaurant Row dark before 4 p.m.
The turbulent scene keeps savvy owners on their toes. Jeff Bank, CEO of Alicart Restaurant Group, which owns Carmine’s and Virgil’s, said operators must “acknowledge the huge shifts in demographics and timing.”
Before COVID, “You pretty much knew what was going to happen at lunch and dinner,” he said. But now, “We have to be flexible. It’s easier for [better-established places] that have multi-legs to stand on. We know Friday is dead due to empty offices, but we can pick up tourism on the weekend.”
Owners or landlords of Gallagher’s, Bryant Park Grill and Nobu 57 all claim their revenues are running 20-25% higher than in 2019. But New York Hospitality Alliance’s Andrew Rigie said, “For restaurants that relied heavily on office workers, it’s tough when the building upstairs is less than 50% occupied.”
The new Avra on Sixth Avenue always looks full, but partner Nick Tsoulos says his three restaurants are only “about 60% to 70% back” compared with pre-COVID levels.
“I’m waiting to see [what happens] this Christmas season,” he said. The
“power lunch” where prime-movers did business over their meals, “has faded,” he added.
Ben Grossman, CEO of Fireman Hospitality Group, said that the company’s overall business is “close to pre-COVID.” But lunch is a little softer at Italian spots Bond 45 and Trattoria Dell’ Arte.
Dinner still rocks, especially at Trattoria across Seventh Avenue from Carnegie Hall.
“What’s missing in the area is lunch,” Grossman said. “Friday which used to be our best lunch day is now the worst.”
Some lunch traffic is location-specific, based on office occupancy in the same buildings as the restaurants. Porter House Bar & Grill at Columbus Circle has less of a lunch crowd because Deutsche Bank staff, who replaced Time Warner upstairs, seem to take more meals in their cafeteria than their media predecessors did.
However, chef/owner Michael Lomonaco said, “Our private events have never been stronger since the summer” and his 260 seats are filled almost every night.
The private events frenzy is making up for slower lunch trade — half as in 2019 — at Dino Arpaia’s Cellini on East 54th Street. The popular spot has hosted recent parties for Santander Bank, Jefferies, KPMG, Blackstone and Black Rock.
But, “They’re all condensed into Tuesday through Thursday because they don’t come in much on the other days,” Arpaia said. “I’ve never been under such pressure” to accommodate corporate customers in a narrower time window.
At elegant Chinese restaurant Hutong, maitre’d and guest relations head Raafet Olian also cited strong dinner and events business, but called lunch “still a struggle” — partly because Bloomberg staffers, who have their headquarters in the tower, come less consistently than in the past.
Like Deutsche Bank, Bloomberg has its own in-house food facilities. Some bank employees have even offered leftovers to Hutong staff they meet in the elevators.
Olian joked, “Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”