Periodically, restaurants like The Waverly Inn or Balthazar open in New York and become magnets for the city's bold-faces. Word spreads from the fashion crowd to the publishing and entertainment worlds and the energy of power in the room attracts diners as much as the food or ambience. Soon, it becomes a particular challenge for some to see if they have the clout to score a table.
As fall kicks into high gear, two such spots have emerged, and they couldn't be more opposite. Though most high-wattage rooms are usually south of 14th Street, this season Avra, which opened last month steps from Central Park, is keeping its following on the north end of town.
One of the restaurants, along with Milos, that pioneered the healthy Mediterranean craze when it premiered 16 years ago, Avra finally unveiled a second, more lavish location last month. In between, the Tao Group, which owns Avra, gained steam opening mega restaurants like Lavo and Tao from Las Vegas to Sydney, as well as smaller downtown spots like Beauty and Essex on the Lower East Side, that garnered them street cred.
Courtesy of Warren Jagger
The new bi-level room complete with real lemon trees and a pool (a nod to the Four Seasons by architect David Rockwell), was immediately packed with personalities. Katie Holmes turned up at the launch party, and in the first weeks, Diane Kruger with Jason Wu, Giuliana Rancic with Elie Tahari, Tony Bennett and Larry Silverstein were among the initial crew sampling Greek salads, crispy octopus and whole lavraki.
Downtown, tucked into the 11 Howard boutique hotel owned by financier Aby Rosen, is Le Coucou, a chic dining room with chandeliers and soft lighting, co-owned by chef Daniel Rose, best known for his Parisian boite, Spring, and mega restaurateur Stephen Starr. It opened in June when the city is a bit quiet, but began hitting its stride at the end of August when Brad Pitt arrived just prior to his divorce debacle.
Each night is a parade of recognizable faces, from Kanye West to Henry Kissinger to Jay McInerney to Jean Georges Vongerichten, all of whom are indulging in Rose's slightly edgy take on classic French fare, such as veal tongue with cream and caviar.
"It's one of the most beautiful restaurants to open in New York in the last few years," says Vongerichten. "The whole thing is really glamorous; the lighting is wonderful and it has a lot of sex appeal. The dishes are delicious, comfort food but modern. The other day Daniel gave me endive with ham that was crispy. He did it right. It feels like La Grenouille for 2017."
Rose is a bit overwhelmed by the juggernaut. "We are so busy getting ready each night, and the last thing we do before we open is look at who is coming in, and we are amazed," he says. "The fact that Jean Georges comes back is a super barometer for me. New York can amplify things in a way I wasn't ready for. I didn't realize how quickly this city could make things explode. Paris is more of a refuge - Catherine Deneuve comes to Spring and people don't even recognize her - but in New York going to restaurants is more part of the day."
Rose says he leaves the reservations juggling to his managers. "We have a nightly waiting list of about 100. We try to be egalitarian: I'm sure they wiggle a bit but I don't want to know about it. I guess I should have opened a larger restaurant and maybe I'll have to open one on the West Coast!"
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.