If the New York Jets, a lunch-bucket football team if ever there was one, return to the city of their youth, they will bring with them a more refined sensibility.
In a private dining room at the Four Seasons hotel several weeks ago, a congregation of New York’s best-known restaurateurs and bar owners heard Jets president Jay Cross pitch the team’s proposed West Side stadium as the next hot address for destination dining.
During an hour-long luncheon, Mr. Cross and team owner Woody Johnson held forth to a group of some 25 discriminating diners that included Nobu’s Drew Nieporent, Jean George’s Phil Suarez, Osteria del Circo’s Mauro Maccioni, W Bar’s Scott Gerber, Patroon’s Ken Aretsky, and even filmmaker and Jet fan Spike Lee.
As part of the team’s drive to make the controversial stadium project more palatable to the public, the Jets are trying to stress the supposedly neighborhood-friendly aspects of a structure that critics claim will be anything but. Recently, the Jets announced that the stadium would include a small community theater, museum and adjacent public parks.
But the topic at the Four Seasons luncheon had nothing to do with civic altruism. Topic A was high-end consumption: As part of the stadium project, the Jets want to include five upscale restaurants, five bars and several banquet facilities. The team invited some of Manhattan’s best-known restaurant owners to lunch in order to sell them on a new definition of ballpark dining.
“The Jets were basically saying, ‘We’re putting all you guys in this room to show that you’re all really interested in this project,’” said Mr. Gerber, whose brother, Rande, is married to Cindy Crawford. “They figured that instead of us reading about 14 different sides of the project in the news, they wanted to tell us their side.”
Mr. Gerber said he showed up at the April 26 meeting because he has already been in talks with the Jets about setting up a W sports bar on the stadium’s top level, and he said he left the Four Seasons presentation thinking of himself as a tentative tenant.
“It sounds like a great project, and of course we’d be interested in pursuing it,” he said.
The Jets culled their invite list largely from among a group of people with whom they’ve already had some degree of discussions.
“The ultimate goal is to provide the ultimate private banqueting space in the city, run by what we hope will be the best the city has to offer in terms of restaurant- and saloon-keepers,” said Mr. Cross. “That gives the whole project a distinctly New York flavor and makes the building, both as a sports and convention center, a unique destination.”
By “private banqueting,” Mr. Cross meant that he doesn’t envision most of the stadium’s restaurants or bars to be traditional 365-day-per-year establishments. Rather, he sees the restaurants catering to functions like corporate hospitality events, somewhat akin to Cipriani’s or the Rainbow Room.
At the Four Seasons luncheon, which featured filet mignon, tuna and wine, Mr. Cross gave what has become his standard stump speech for the stadium, which would be the new home for the Jets and the centerpiece of the 2012 Summer Olympics if they are awarded to the city. Meeting attendees also said Mr. Cross emphasized that the stadium would be a good neighbor and a catalyst for the development of the so-called Hudson Yards district, the 59-square-block area that Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff is seeking to transform into the city’s newest neighborhood.
“They made a very impressive presentation on how they want to bring a lot of good things to the neighborhood, and how the stadium will have a positive impact on the community,” said Mr. Suarez, the longtime business partner of famed restaurateur Jean-George Vongerichten.
Stadium opponents view the addition of high-end restaurants and bars to the stadium in much the same way that they regarded the earlier announcement of a theater and museum addition.
“Nothing says ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ like a five-star French restaurant,” said City Councilwoman Christine Quinn. “This focus on high-end restaurants and high-end establishments is just another indication that this stadium is not directed towards helping or being part of the existing neighborhood.”
Ms. Quinn also said that the addition of so many restaurants raised questions about the impact that the stadium would have on traffic. Many critics, including Ms. Quinn, worry that the neighborhood will become congested not only with sports fans, but also convention-goers and, now, upscale diners.
On the other hand, that’s exactly what the city and the Jets are counting on. Mr. Doctoroff and Mr. Cross have long conceded that the stadium, which will require a $600 million subsidy, will make economic sense for the city only if it draws visitors to its convention shows. These visitors will then spend money on Broadway shows, restaurants and hotels. Stadium supporters and critics disagree on whether those convention shows will ever materialize. So if the addition of restaurants ends up bringing more people to the stadium, as Ms. Quinn suggested, that would suit the Jets and the city just fine.
“As someone who grew up in New York, I can be as skeptical as anyone about the problems inherent in trying to do something like this,” said Mr. Nieporent, owner of Nobu and Tribeca Grill. “But they really thought through the process, and they want this to be a win-win for everyone.”
Of course, Mr. Nieporent doesn’t speak for the many urban planners who contend that it is folly to turn three blocks of prime Hudson River waterfront into a largely impassable super-block. Then too, almost every local elected official that represents the area slotted for the stadium-a stretch of the M.T.A. railyards between 30th and 33rd streets, from 11th Avenue to the Hudson-is a vocal opponent of the project, and most economists contend that urban stadiums are generally poor generators of economic activity.
As for the breakdown of the restaurants themselves, Mr. Cross said that on the stadium’s club level, there will be four “zones,” each one with a different restaurant that offers a thematically distinct kind of dining experience. Zone 1 will be “exotic,” where one might find an ethnic restaurant like Tabla or Nobu; Zone 2 is the self-explanatory “steakhouse”; Zone 3 is-believe it or not-”power,” which could include a restaurant akin to the Four Seasons or Michael’s; and Zone 4 is “bistro,” which might be home to a restaurant like downtown fixture Balthazar. (A Jets spokesman stressed that the zone names may be subject to change.) A ground-level indoor/outdoor café and the top-level sports bar-potentially home to another Gerber-styled W establishment-are being envisioned as traditional establishments, open daily to the general public.
The Jets’ push to sprinkle their stadium with high-end restaurants is almost certainly part of Mr. Johnson’s attempt to transform the team’s raucous blue-collar image to something more befitting the billionaire owner’s Park Avenue–esque roots, according to writer Gerald Eskenazi, who covered the Jets as a sportswriter for The New York Times and wrote a book about the team called Gang Green .
“The Jets had the legacy of Brooklyn and Queens,” he said, referring to the Jets’ longtime home at Shea Stadium. (Ironically enough, if the team moves to the West Side, it will be returning to its roots-the team, then known as the Titans, first played in the old Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan.) “The perception then was more of a blue-collar, subway kind of crowd,” he added.
Mr. Eskenazi contrasted the Jets’ image with that of their rivals, the New York Giants. Their fans, he said, were more “P.J. Clarke, button-down shirt, advertising and media types.”
That image of the Jets has changed since the team moved to the New Jersey Meadowlands in the mid-1980′s, but old stereotypes are hard to break. Mr. Johnson, however, is trying to do just that.
“Woody’s a New York guy who wants New York people,” Mr. Eskenazi said. He noted that after purchasing the team two years ago, Mr. Johnson broke with the practice of housing Jets players in a hotel near the Meadowlands on nights before the game, and instead housed them in Manhattan hotels so the players “could taste the nightlife of New York City.”
“Woody is very aware of the Jets’ sorry winning tradition, and he’s also aware of their image, which he wants to bring more into his circle of friends,” Mr. Eskenazi said. “Woody is a Park Avenue kind of guy, and he’s looking to build a Park Avenue type of operation.”
Mr. Johnson was not available for comment.