Gherardo Guarducci and Dimitri Pauli, the two handsome Italian owners of Sant Ambroeus in the West Village, were sitting recently on a spacious leather banquette in the dining room of their latest venture, Casa Lever, under the watchful Technicolor gaze of 10 original Warhol portraits (Bob Colacello, Robert Mapplethorpe, Giorgio Armani) on the opposite wall.
They were recounting the restaurant’s opening party on Oct. 10, during which Madonna stopped by to sing “Happy Birthday” to Paper magazine’s Mickey Boardman, along with Penélope Cruz, Pedro Almodóvar, Debbie Harry and fashion couple Isabel and Ruben Toledo; Madonna later waved to the chefs in the kitchen. Designer Catherine Malandrino raved about the food the next day on her Facebook page. In the month since, Anna Wintour popped in with designers Dolce and Gabbana for lunch. Zac Posen visited three times in one week. And there was Mick Jagger, who dined with L’Wren Scott on pappardelle with wild boar ragout.
All this despite Casa Lever’s address, which isn’t on Doyers or Church Street, down some dark alleyway past a surly bouncer. Nope: It’s on Park Avenue and 53rd Street, situated amid centralized subways lines and hapless investment banking analysts in a monochromatic gray building of its own. In midtown.
“People have been going out with discomfort for a very long time,” said Mr. Guarducci, referring to downtown spots where the music is loud; the seating is snug; and countertops are sticky. “I think there is sort of a saturation of downtown and of the meatpacking district. Everyone knows that on Friday and Saturday, it’s crowded, and it’s not a crowd that for most of us is attractive. And Soho—no one really understands anymore what it stands for.”
In midtown, the discriminating celebrity doesn’t have to wonder “if he’s going to sit down and eat something decent or just be slapped around by somebody that sings for a living and is 19 years old,” as Mr. Guarducci put it, like one might at West Village hot spots like the Beatrice Inn and the Jane Hotel, both recently shuttered by the city.
Waris Ahluwalia, the turbaned jewelry designer and fixture in Wes Anderson films, used to be a regular at Beatrice and Jane. But two weeks ago, he hosted his birthday party at Casa Lever and a party for his new book, To India With Love, in the Pierre Hotel’s lobby bar.
“I don’t make that distinction anymore of ‘Oh I don’t go above 14th Street.’ That sort of mentality no longer applies,” said Mr. Ahluwalia, who lives in the West Village. “Uptown is not that far. I mean, c’mon, I travel to India for a few days, I go to Thailand for a meeting, I go to Paris for a shoot; I think I can make it to midtown for dinner.
“It’s a shift in mood,” he added. “I think we just went through a period of dirty glamour—you know, you’ve got it but you’re hiding it—and now it’s cool to have it again.”
‘YOU COULD DRESS UP AGAIN’
After years spent ducking through secret doorways past relentless doormen, suffering low ceilings, taxidermy, Mary Kate Olsen, the French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld and her beautiful children with mysterious careers, ripped designer T-shirts and the never-ending irony of whatever feels dated and clever (i.e., Truman Capote frames, beards, hand-rolled cigarettes), midtown seems sincere. It’s a land of adults—a place where you can still be served a Manhattan straight up instead of pretending to enjoy your imported absinthe; where you can spread out in a booth without feeling the sharp elbows of a model piercing your side; and where your $40 entree and $15 cocktail look and taste like what you paid for.
“Here’s the truth: When people used to say ‘downtown restaurant,’ I think they meant a place that was quote-unquote edgy and cheap and out of the way and a whole lot of fun,” wrote Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair editor and proprietor of Monkey Bar on East 54th Street, in an email. “Now they mean—with the exception of the Waverly Inn, of course—overpriced and filled with extremely skinny adults dressed like teenagers. The Monkey Bar is the complete antidote to all of that.”
Mr. Carter, whose sophomore restaurant effort opened in March of this year and has attracted an incessant procession of moguls, socialites and celebrities ever since, arguably foresaw and guaranteed the reinvigoration of the longtime social wasteland between 30th and 60th streets.
Subsequently, Michael White’s cavernous Marea opened in May on Central Park South to a three-star review in The Times and a steady stream of notables like Richard Gere, André Balazs and Sumner Redstone. The year-old restaurant Rouge Tomate, opposite Barneys on East 60th Street, has begun hosting after-parties for movie premieres, like a recent one for The Fantastic Mr. Fox, attended by Bill Murray and Meryl Streep. This week, nightlife photographer Patrick McMullan, downtown gallery owner Neil Grayson and chef Devon Gilroy—son of downtown restaurateur Billy—will open East Side Social Club on East 51st and Second Avenue with several other partners. Perhaps the trend was really cemented when David Chang, one of the more famous architects of cramped, casual downtown dining, announced he would open a large French Vietnamese place, Má Pêche, in the old Town space in the Chambers Hotel in January. On West 56th Street.
But midtown’s most-hyped opening might just be the Pierre Hotel’s London import, Le Caprice, which announced its arrival last month with two parties: one hosted by Anna Wintour; the other attended by J. Lo and Naomi Campbell. Socialite (and Ronson matriarch) Ann Dexter-Jones sat at Ms. Wintour’s table at the first party. “Everything is attractive!” she reported of the restaurant, “from the food to the people to the service.” Recalling ’80s mainstays like the 21 Club, she continued: “What I love about going to Le Caprice is that glam has come back. You could dress up again!” Socialite Bettina Zilkha, daughter of financier Ezra Zilkha, also attended Le Caprice’s first opening; she praised its convenience to her Upper East Side home. “It’s actually really difficult during the holidays to travel all the way downtown with the traffic and everything,” Ms. Zilkha told The Observer. “There was a time when no one would have gone to restaurants in Tribeca. And when Warhol was alive, it was cool to be on the Upper East Side! Neighborhoods come in waves.”
And in the new midtown, surf (also turf) is up. “I was having dinner at Monkey Bar recently with my dear friend, the artist Joseph La Piana, and Clive Davis, one of his collectors,” said socialite and Whitney Contemporaries founder Lisa Anastos, adding that the oysters Rockefeller were delicious, and that Carolina Herrera and Calvin Klein sat to her left.
But why is this neighborhood so charming all of a sudden?
“It feels kind of like where your parents would hang out,” suggested Prabal Gurung, a young downtown fashion designer who recently attended a party at Monkey Bar for Demi Moore’s new fragrance. “But it also feels rebellious. It’s like, ‘Shall we?’ ‘Let’s do it!’” After the Monkey Bar party, Mr. Gurung and company found themselves at the Hudson Hotel on West 58th at a party thrown by Interview magazine. The last time he partied at the Hudson: “Oh Jesus … Never?”
That’s the thing, isn’t it: There is something mischievous, a terrific creepiness to being in midtown past 10 p.m., feeling like you could splash in the Seagram Building’s reflecting pool or moon the bored security guards in the empty office buildings. Screw you, bankers!
The district’s boundaries also seem increasingly, deliciously plastic, encompassing everything from the Pierre, on 61st Street and Fifth, to the Ace Hotel, on West 29th Street. On Nov. 18, the Ace (now serving Stumptown Coffee, slurp!) will host model Agyness Deyn, artist Terence Koh, gallerist Vito Schnabel and socialite Arden Wohl at a slumber party for the art organization Creative Time. The NoMad Hotel on West 28th Street, which won’t officially open till 2011, recently hosted a Halloween party attended by Kirsten Dunst, Michael Stipe, Charlotte Ronson and Barneys’ Julie Gilhart.
“The West Village and downtown have gotten sooo cool, now we’re looking for new haunts in edgier parts of the city, which, ironically, is midtown,” said socialite consort Derek Blasberg.
Still, some impresarios of the new midtown denied they were in midtown at all. “We’re on Fifth and 61st; are we not slightly out of midtown?” inquired Richard Caring, owner of Le Caprice, calling from London. O.K., fine, north midtown. Le Caprice’s intimate space features shiny black-and-white surfaces, a piano player and a long bar stacked—on one recent evening—with blondes of a certain age. Mr. Caring admitted that downtowners’ migration to his restaurant has not been entirely organic. “It’s an ongoing process of being able to mix a room, where you orchestrate the room so you don’t have too many, for argument’s sake, suits on one side, or on the other side too young a crowd.”
The proprietors of would-be midtown destinations understand that while attracting uptowners to the East 50s may be relatively easy, downtowners can be a harder sell. Rouge Tomate, trying to create buzz last fall, blanketed certain swaths of Chelsea with fliers advertising its vegetarian-friendly fare. The Rose Club at the Plaza—the Plaza!—has enlisted Tommy Hilfiger’s nephew to perform with his jazz band on Wednesdays.
But many downtowners say such efforts are unnecessary, because they’re more than happy to escape a scene that in recent years has become a Disneyfied version of itself—overrun with waddling Sex and the City tourists inhaling Magnolia cupcakes—in favor of something that suddenly feels, for all of its shrines to capitalistic endeavor, more authentic; more grown-up.
“I guess in today’s culture, a bar has to be quiet enough for you to be able to text the person across the table from you,” said Mr. Grayson, part owner of the East Side Social Club. “That and bottle service killed the conversation. For me, I miss that. I miss the idea of a place that is not only a restaurant and a bar but a social think tank.”
Moreover: “Downtown is supercrowded,” said designer and Washington Square Park denizen Devi Kroell, who makes bags in exotic skins and is a favorite of Sienna Miller and Rihanna. “It seems to have become that mass destination where most people hang out. A lot of designers have opened stores in the West Village and meatpacking district, but I don’t think downtown is that cool anymore. Madison Avenue is just more civilized. It’s like a quaint little village.” Ms. Kroell recently opened her first New York store on Madison Avenue at 63rd Street. (Again, north midtown.)
Mr. McMullan agreed, telling The Observer he was thrilled to discover how many friends actually lived in midtown when he started telling them about his new venture, the East Side Social Club. He attributed its sudden relevance to that reliable trend arbiter, Mad Men. (Also, “it’s been kept decently clean by the mayor.”)
“We all have this subliminal New York–midtowny sense of that style, the style of the buildings in that time,” he said. “That’s why I think people feel a certain comfort in midtown. It seems like there will always be a cab. You can always walk, because you know the area, more or less.” (Whereas Tribeca and the West Village require quick fingers on the MapQuest iPhone app.) Mr. McMullan said he often walks home after jobs in midtown so he can look up and admire the city’s sheer scale.
Indeed, on a recent night, The Observer, instead of competing with swarms of tipsy N.Y.U. girls in their ill-fitting shoes and depressingly deflated ringlets, simply walked out of Casa Lever and onto deserted Park Avenue and hailed one of many available cabs. It felt good.
Meanwhile, the future of downtown, with its ornery community boards and whiplash-inducing trend cycle, remains uncertain: “There is a good chance it’s going to reopen and there is a good chance it’s not going to reopen,” said Paul Sevigny of his dearly departed Beatrice. He added that he would never do anything in midtown.