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.