When surveying eateries in the city’s signature buildings, it seems logical to begin at the architectural beginning.Fraunces Tavern (54 Pearl St., 212.968.1776) is situated in a Georgian house-turned-inn that dates from 1719, one of New York’s oldest surviving structures, and one of its most historically significant: In 1783, Gen. George Washington held a farewell feast for his officers here at the end of the Revolutionary War, a fact that helped enroll the building on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Today, entering the dining room is like stepping into a time machine—the décor is a faithful reconstruction of a late-18th-century tavern, with wide-plank wood floors, long wood tables and period portraits—where guests sample Irish-American classics (shepherd’s pie, haddock chowder) and an extensive list of beer, porter and whiskey. The building also houses a museum, which contains such curiosities as a lock of Washington’s hair, as well as the actual room where he bid the boys goodbye.
Many a private dinner also occurred in what is now Frankie & Johnnie’s Steakhouse (32 W. 37th St., 212.947.8940). The two-story brownstone was once the home of actor John Barrymore, whose classic profile broke a thousand hearts on and off stage and screen. Guests can dine in his former study, with its stained-glass ceiling and mahogany walls; one prized table is set beside the working fireplace. “It’s a romantic spot—Barrymore was a romantic man,” says Owner Russ Panopoulos, noting that the actor was born the day after Valentine’s Day. The menu, too, sets the stage for seduction, with such endorphin-releasing fare as USDA prime dry-aged steaks, crab cakes and Key lime pie.
Barrymore’s film career flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, an era that saw the construction of many a modern icon—including Rockefeller Center, one of Midtown’s most significant architectural sights. Built in the 1930s by the illustrious Rockefeller clan, the 19-building Art Deco complex, which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1987, includes Radio City Music Hall, numerous corporate headquarters, including NBC (whose TV series 30 Rock—short for 30 Rockefeller Plaza—is set here) and the observation perch Top of the Rock. Down on the ground, a quintessential New York experience is to dine at Rock Center Café (20 W. 50th St., 212.332.7620), overlooking the famed gilded statue of Prometheus. “Almost every seat in the house is a good one,” says Executive Chef Antonio Prontelli, “with terrific views allowing for great people-watching. Regardless of the time of year, it’s magical”—but particularly this month, when The Rink at Rockefeller Center, which is alongside the restaurant, is the site of marriage proposals on ice (“People love to witness those”). During the summer, the rink is transformed into an outdoor patio, perfect for alfresco dining. The feeling is festive, courtesy of the eatery’s signature pear bellini cocktails and Prontelli’s contemporary American cuisine, which features roast beet salad, hot crab and artichoke dip with housemade chips, and prime rib.
Though Manhattan is synonymous with mid-20th-century projects like Rockefeller Center, newer skyscrapers have also earned their place on the city’s skyline. The Time Warner Center, identifiable by its sleek, glass twin towers, is an elegant addition to the Upper West Side. The mixed-use development has become a dining mecca with several fine restaurants, and one that really makes the most of its position is A Voce (10 Columbus Circle, 212.823.2523), whose site on the third floor affords a panorama of Central Park. “It’s pretty special whenever I walk into that dining room,” Executive Chef Missy Robbins says. “Every single person requests a window table, and there are only five of them! But my favorites are near the back of the room—you have the energy, plus the view.” Chef Robbins says that the menu changes every three to five weeks as she rotates various Italian regions: Veneto today; next month, Lazio. But one thing that doesn’t change is the way that sitting here makes diners feel—as they savor a cassoncini con prosciutto di parma or ricotta-filled ravioli with pork sugo—as if they’re modern-day Medicis, lording over one of the city’s most cherished vistas.
Some landmarks are as magnificent on the inside as they are on the outside. One of the most commanding is Grand Central Terminal, which celebrates its centennial in 2013. Each year, 21 million people pass through its Beaux Arts portals, from commuters dashing for trains to visitors lingering to gaze upward at the Main Concourse’s famed green ceiling, decorated with a fresco of the constellations. And downstairs the view is just as rewarding, if one dines at The Oyster Bar & Restaurant (89 E. 42nd St., 212.490.6650), with its vaulted ceilings clad in pale tiles by architect Raphael Guastavino. The 400-seat poisson palace opened just after the terminal in 1913; Sandy Ingber, the chef since 1996, is honoring the occasion by offering a new-century dish every week for $20.13 to complement classic fish and seafood stews, pan roasts and platters featuring the namesake bivalve. “We practice truth in advertising,” Chef Ingber says. “We have the largest selection of oysters in America, and we only buy oysters from certified waters.”
Murals help to make the magic at The Leopard at des Artistes (1 W. 67th St., 212.787.8767), located on the ground floor of an illustrious 1918 apartment building that once housed artistes such as Isadora Duncan, Noël Coward and illustrator Howard Chandler Christy, who painted a series of “Fantasy Scenes With Naked Beauties” (completed in 1935) for the walls of what was then a tenants’ dining room. These cavorting, lipstick-sporting lovelies remained a major draw, even after the dining room became a long-running independent restaurant, Café des Artistes. Acquired by Gianfranco and Paula Bolla Sorrentino, it reopened as The Leopard in 2011, welcoming patrons back to “a full gut renovation and restored murals, so they could be seen as they were first intended—brighter,” Paula says. This incarnation features Italian cuisine, with menu standouts including an eggplant and mozzarella timbale and orecchiette with broccoli Romanesco and anchovies.
The Four Seasons (99 E. 52nd St., 212.745.9494) is located in the Seagram Building, a touchstone of International Style architecture created by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Opened in 1959, its then avant-garde design (airy and angular, with a square marble pool, two-story windows covered by rippling metal-chain curtains and a canopy of seasonally changing trees), the restaurant is the only eatery in the city to be officially designated an interior landmark by the New York City Landmarks Commission. But it’s almost as much of a landmark for its august clientele as for its streamlined, Midcentury Modern décor. Alex von Bidder, the managing partner for 36 years, recites a litany of loyal guests who have power-lunched on the minimalist premises: Jackie Onassis, Seagram’s CEO Edgar Bronfman, Barbara Walters. “Henry Kissinger was in today,” he says. And the man who made the building was a daily guest until he died, von Bidder recalls. “In his 80s, Philip Johnson had the same lunch every day: an Americano cocktail, some foie gras and an espresso. He had to be served and out of here in under an hour because he was very busy.” Pity he didn’t take advantage of the fact that the Four Seasons studs its American menu with market-fresh items, one of the earliest places on the Manhattan culinary map to do so. “We were the first locovore restaurant, the first fine dining restaurant that didn’t have allegiance to French cuisine,” von Bidder says. “That was a revelation in the 1950s and early 1960s.”
Much more typical at the time were places such as La Grenouille (3 E. 52nd St., 212.752.1495), at age 50 an icon in its own right—and standard-bearer for the culinary tradition of haute cuisine. “We do French tableside service as it used to be,” says Owner Charles Masson. “It’s almost a lost art to carve the chicken, flambé the rognons [kidneys] and fillet the sole right in the dining room. It’s part of the theater.” Equally old-school is the décor, dominated by dramatic floral arrangements so admired that Masson wrote a book, The Flowers of La Grenouille (Clarkson Potter, 1994), about them. “And you’ll notice that the flowers are in season just like the cuisine,” he points out. “When you see lilacs and peonies displayed, you’ll probably see morel mushrooms and white asparagus on the menu.”
Of course, landmarks not only represent the familiar—they can symbolize a turning point, too. In that sense, Nobu New York(105 Hudson St., 212.219.0500) is an institution, one that introduced the city to fine Japanese cuisine and drew its denizens down to a hitherto deserted-at-night neighborhood. “Nobu helped to put TriBeCa on the map,” declares Co-owner/restaurateur Drew Nieporent. “Eighteen years later, what used to be an industrial area is now one of New York City’s prime dining destinations.” David Rockwell’s minimalist, Asian-inspired design matches Founding Chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s minimalist presentations of such delicacies as salmon sashimi, king crab tempura and the widely copied, but never-replicated, miso-marinated black cod.
Whether they’re famed for their place or their plate, these restaurants are the stuff of which legends are made.