Table for Two, With a Side of Drama
In honor of the 73rd annual Tony Awards, which take center stage on June 9, I propose a new award category: Best Theater-influenced Dining.
The revival of “She Loves Me” won David Rockwell the 2016 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Musical for the “jewel-box” parfumerie that gracefully transitioned into a restaurant, an apartment and a hospital room. His three currently playing musicals, “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Tootsie” and “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” are every bit as stunning, featuring sets that track in and around, creating scenes as varied as a theater stage and dressing room, a hotel suite, a streetscape and a skyline. Thanks to Rockwell’s “emphasis on arrival, procession, lighting and the all-encompassing power of a live theatrical experience,” dining in one of the New York restaurants designed by him can have the same immersive, transformative quality as watching one of his Broadway shows.
In stage and restaurant productions, design plays a leading role with storytelling at the heart of each. States Rockwell, “To some extent, both theater and hospitality are centered on scenography and storytelling. They also share the intention to communicate ideas through an experience.” In Rockwell’s vision, theatergoers are transported to a world of fantasy from curtain to curtain, and from scene to scene. Similarly, diners enjoy “acts,” with the plot “choreographed as a promenade through spaces” and cuisine paced into a rhythm of courses.
Like some plays, some restaurants can be construed as revivals. The feeling when you dine at the redo of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe is “familiar but fresh,” according to General Manager Chris Nelson. Designed by Rockwell, the “new” USC is akin to “Kiss Me, Kate,” each returning for an encore after a multiyear hiatus. Both incorporate elements of the past but add new spins. USC’s balcony, with its choice “opera box” seating, recalls the original café as does a portion of the upstairs bar. Wainscoting from the previous “production” has been refreshed in a richer tone, and familiar artwork graces the walls. Like a theatrical revival paying homage to the original piece, the restaurant feels comfortable and current at the same time.
Then there are shows and restaurant designs that stop you cold with their breakthrough quality, charting new territory that wows from the start whether they are “revivals” or totally new productions.
Manhattan’s TAO “part two” is such a restaurant. Taking advantage of its multilevel space in the Maritime Hotel, TAO Downtown plays to its audience with even more drama than the Midtown original. Enter through massive doors studded with lion door knockers, and you’ll encounter a long, vaulted corridor leading to a giant reclining Buddha overlooking a staircase that conjures up “Sunset Boulevard” or “Hello, Dolly!”
You can feel the “Follies” vibe as you descend the shallow steps toward your table. “We looked at how stairs add drama to the audience’s arrival at a performance venue,” notes Rockwell, “and we wanted to mark and celebrate the entry here.” At TAO, Rockwell gives the stairs two additional roles: They’re the location of the restaurant’s premier seating and a theatrically lit line to the 24-arm Quan Yin statue awaiting diva-like adoration at the back of the room.
Successful design also takes into account the culinary orientation of the restaurant. At TAO, food presentations are often as dramatic as the setting. Take, for example, the larger-than-life fortune cookie filled with chocolate and white mousse and adorned with exotic, diced dragon fruit and rambutan. The dessert’s provocative double entendre fortunes are the culinary equivalents of characters with dual parts—Think: Michael Dorsey dolled up as Dorothy Michaels in “Tootsie,” or actress Lilli Vanessi as Kate, her shrewish Skakespearean doppelgänger in “Kiss Me, Kate.”
Also utilizing the device of a Broadway-like staircase but this time heading skyward, Legasea is a buzzy brasserie on the second floor of the Moxy Times Square hotel. Here Rockwell’s nautical world of tiles, lighting and furnishings creates a fun, maritime feel and an immersive “set” for seafood-focused dining. Scattered theatrical cues enhance the experience with lighting shaped like buoys, rope designs on the ceiling and backdrops decorated with fish. A sidewalk-level sign invites you upstairs with the bright lights and neon of a Broadway marquee. Chef Jason Hall describes the Legasea experience this way: “It’s important that the food, menu and restaurant design all flow together. We have a lot of cool moments depending on where you sit; the bar in the front is like the first act, a comfortable booth in back is the main show. The menu is like that, too, with the appetizer, entrée and dessert sequence leading to the final curtain.”
Nobu Downtown is a remake of sorts of Nobu’s now-closed TriBeCa eatery. Rockwell’s goal was to reprise Nobu’s original “exploration of materiality” and cultures within its new, larger neoclassical home in the Financial District. Hovering over the bar and lounge, a Sumi-e ink swirl sculpture points downstairs to the main dining room, where design elements honor the past but give birth to a new and exciting space. Signature ash trees inspire the supports for an undulating wood canopy fashioned kirigami style. Two walls of ceramic sake carafes create an intimate tasting room, a set-within-a-set set like those in “The Taming of the Shrew” in “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Juliet’s Nurse” in “Tootsie” and “La Traviata” in “Pretty Woman.” Creating other scenes within the restaurant “story,” banquette areas accented with Peruvian colors call to mind the Rodeo Drive shop in “Pretty Woman,” while the open sushi bar with its “kimono”-draped seats feels like the busy, interactive lobby of the Beverly Wilshire hotel.
If not as overtly dramatic as TAO or Nobu, Avra Madison gives you a first-class dining ticket to the Mediterranean. Using props like real lemon trees, a seafood and vegetable market mini-set, and an open staircase linking the airy upstairs with a sexy downstairs space, the sequel to the popular Midtown estiatorio is theater on a lighter scale. While the “melodies” may seem familiar, the fresh whitewashed palette informs Avra Madison’s updated “script” for food and service.
Looking for something more intimate but still with a touch of drama? Theatrical dining design doesn’t have to be bold or showy like that of Nobu or TAO, nor does it need to be derivative à la Union Square Cafe or Avra Madison. The Library at the Public Theater, helmed by chefs Andrew Carmellini and John Ramirez and also designed by Rockwell, is a cozy boîte that gives a textured Off-Broadway feel to an unexpected space and a culinary destination for those “in the know.”
And, now, Mr. Rockwell, we’re ready for our dinner.
• Avra Madison, 14 E. 60th St., 212.937.0100
• Legasea, 485 Seventh Ave., 212.268.1888
• The Library, 425 Lafayette St., www.publictheater.org
• Nobu Downtown, 195 Broadway, 212.219.0500
• TAO Downtown, 92 Ninth Ave., 212.888.2724
• Union Square Cafe, 101 E. 19th St., 212.243.4020