It’s a big deal that Will Guidara and Daniel Humm are closing their tasting menu restaurant Eleven Madison Park for a renovation this summer. After taking the helm at the Madison Square Park-adjacent restaurant more than a decade ago, the team turned it into one of the top fine dining destinations in the world — all while using a kitchen that hasn’t been updated in 20 years and a space that didn’t originally belong to them.
Eleven Madison Park will close on June 9 for the renovation, after months of offering an 11-course tasting menu that serves some of the most significant dishes through the years. Guidara and Humm sat down with Eater to talk more about what went into the decision-making process for changes in the space, from a total revamp of the artwork to a brand new bar area.
They weren’t 100 percent sure they would be able to stay in the space. Guidara and Humm first took over the restaurant under hospitality titan Danny Meyer in 2006, but the restaurant had been open for years before that. The lease on the space expires next year, and they didn’t think it was a guarantee that it would be renewed at a reasonable rate. Looking at places like Union Square Cafe that had to move due to rent hikes, the two actually went into the lease renewal process with “not a ton of optimism,” Guidara says. “If they had doubled our rent, we couldn’t have continued,” Humm says.
It turned out that the landlord was “super supportive of what we’re doing here,” Guidara says. They reached a deal that would ensure Eleven Madison Park could stay for another 20 years. “I’ll be older. You’ll be an all-out elderly man,” Guidara says, looking at Humm. “Yeah. I think I’ll be happy at that point,” Humm says.
The architect running the renovation is a restaurant regular who never works on restaurants. Brad Cloepfil, who’s designed spaces like the Museum of Arts and Design at Columbus Circle, has been dining at EMP for the last decade. Guidara and Humm picked him specifically because he was intimately familiar with the restaurant. “This place is our home. We love it,” Guidara says. “If we’re going to bring on someone to evolve it, it’s important that they love it just as much as we do.”
They weren’t planning to do much with the dining room at all. Initially, updating the kitchen was the primary concern, and they didn’t plan to do much with the dining room. They are only closing the restaurant because it can’t run while the kitchen is under construction. But Cloepfil approached them with a “just for fun” modest redesign with changes like a more symmetrical layout — and they loved it.
They’re selling all the art, furniture, and several other historic pieces. All the art in the restaurant is by Stephen Hannock, commissioned specifically for the space. The oil paintings depict Madison Square Park, drawn from historic photos. But as the two renovate the space, they want to change the art along with it. “We were so inspired by how the artist and the architects worked together when this restaurant was being built for the first time,” Guidara says. “The two totally belonged together. We wanted to do that again.”
It’s not clear yet what sort of work will be replacing Hannock’s pieces, but it will be respectful of the nearby park and the restaurant’s history. “The idea was always to have the park be a big part of the story of the restaurant,” Humm says.
They do not yet know when or how the existing pieces will sell. “We don’t presume that we’re the Four Seasons and that we can do a full-sale auction,” Guidara says. “But there are a few special pieces that we want to make sure they end up in good hands.”
Some of the changes came out of a brainstorm with all 150 members of the staff. Everyone from the sommelier to servers wrote wish lists of what they wanted to see from a renovation. The most requested changes came for the kitchen, which hasn’t had an overhaul in 20 years. “The kitchen was built for a different kind of restaurant,” Humm says. “In terms of the organization and the flow the kitchen, it’s not intuitive to people.”
Other ideas were a little more wacky. One person suggested a way for lights to go off in the kitchen when a diner gets up to go use the bathroom, so that the kitchen would know not to send out a dish. “We were like ‘guys, chill out’,” Guidara says. “A. That sounds creepy. B. I don’t even know if that’s possible.”
The bar will be revamped with hopes that EMP will have more regulars. When the restaurant reopens in the fall with a new look, the bar will be more of an area for people to hang out and chat. Humm and Guidara want the area to become more lively, with an energy that would spill into the vaulted dining room. “If you go into a restaurant in New York and it feels hush-hush and no one talks to each other, it doesn’t feel very New York,” Humm says. “We want to be a restaurant of the place. The bar is a big part of it.” In the redesign, the physical bar itself will be smaller, making room for more lounge tables. The bar area would be a more inviting place for people to visit more often, without sitting down for a tasting menu meal. “It’s hard to be a regular when you’re serving a three and half hour meal,” Guidara says. “The bar is a good way [to visit more]. We’re here a lot. It’s fun for us to have regulars. We want to double down that.”
Otherwise, the space won’t change significantly. They love the space and wanted to maintain aspects of the restaurant, like the chandeliers, moulding, columns, and marble detailing. “We almost want to make the room feel a more fully realized version of once it was,” Guidara says.
For Humm and Guidara, changes to the space are akin to the adjustments they’ve made in the past regarding the menu — something they define as a “relationship with endless reinvention,” Guidara says. “We’ve constantly found ourselves having to say goodbye to things that we love,” he says. “This is no exception.”