Big trouble is afoot at Related’s $20 billion development for the rich. Last month, the chic shopping mall at Hudson Yards, which remains closed due to COVID-19 regulations, lost its anchor tenant, the luxe department store Neiman Marcus. Now, it’s losing one of its marquee restaurants to the ongoing pandemic: TAK Room by Thomas Keller, a phoned-in midcentury steakhouse where a prime rib for one topped $100.
The economic consequences are tragic: Scores of hardworking people are losing their livelihoods during a time when there are far more restaurant workers than restaurant jobs. But culturally speaking, there’s not much to mourn. New York won’t suffer from the loss of a bland, plutocratic restaurant that failed to have any real impact on the city’s culinary scene.
The TAK Room lesson isn’t that if a famous and well-capitalized chef can’t make it, no one can. The lesson is that even if we lived in a parallel universe where there were no pandemic to grapple with — where people weren’t afraid of hugging their own parents, where the middle class didn’t have to worry about where their next paycheck would come from — TAK Room shouldn’t have opened in the first place.
TAK Room — the name stands for Thomas Aloysius Keller — was a virtual replica of the chef’s Surf Club restaurant in Miami, which opened a year earlier at a property it shares with the Four Seasons. Like the Florida original, TAK Room served French onion dip, tableside Caesar salads, tableside Dover sole, clam chowder, and steaks.
“You think about these dishes which are very recognizable in America and there’s a sense of sense of comfort with them because we have reference points for them. We’ve had them before,” Keller said during a Newsweek interview last year. Indeed, his comments betray a narrow view on what types of cuisines count as familiar to New York’s diverse populace. TAK Room claims to riff on Continental fare, a style of gastronomy that, in its 1950s and 1960s heyday, interpreted French and Italian sensibilities through an American lens. And while that approach to eating might have signaled cosmopolitan flair in postwar New York, Keller’s framing signals a more provincial mindset in 2020, namely that one would be hard pressed to find anything of non-European descent creeping onto the plate.
Or, as Pete Wells wrote in his two-star review, both Surf Club and TAK Room “glorify the strait-laced, spice-free food that rich white Americans used to feed on when nobody was shaming them into being adventurous.”
This wasn’t the first time Keller transferred a concept from elsewhere to New York. When he opened Per Se in 2004, he reimagined his Napa Valley flagship, the French Laundry, for an East Coast audience. That venue wasn’t so much a replica, however, as it was a template for broadening the scope of high-end dining in the city.
Per Se expanded the length of a tasting menu to nine or more courses, imbued the typically French style of dining with a more casual American idiom and internationalist flourishes, ensured vegetarians would have a menu as enviable as the meat-based offerings, and even toyed around with offal tastings. And while that venue’s relevancy has fluctuated over the years — creativity and execution languished for a time while the price of a meal skyrocketed — it initially felt like a place that everyday gourmands seeking culinary enlightenment might save up for.
TAK Room, by contrast, was just a clone, seemingly the second in what felt like a growing chain, another fancy chophouse in a city overrun with chophouses. What distinguished its fare wasn’t refinement — I remember sludgy fettuccine Alfredo and supermarket-quality rib-eye — but rather extraordinary prices. And those prices — more than half the mains exceeded $95 after tax and tip — weren’t so much signifiers of quality or creativity as they were agents of exclusion, a la carte cover charges so the wealthy could happily eat among their own. Its spiritual peers in this regard were overpriced society hangouts like Nello or Harry Cipriani.
When a chef cribs from the country-club playbook at a taxpayer-subsidized neighborhood for 1 percenters — a development that siphoned $1.2 billion from a program designed for poverty-stricken areas — it’s easy to write things off as fitting within the robber-baron ethos. But when an idol to countless young culinarians comes at us with an intellectually bankrupt concept in a place that bills itself as the “new heart of New York,” it’s hard not to wish for a more original and more inclusive restaurant in this brand-new part of the city.
A more generous critic might wonder what TAK Room could have become and how it could have improved with time. The question I prefer to ask however, is what this sprawling 200-plus-seat space (or really, the entire development) could have been used for in the first place. Couldn’t Keller have given the city a more creative, affordable, or even non-European approach to gastronomy? Just as the set-menu Contra begat a more approachable yet equally ambitious a la carte Wildair, couldn’t Keller have tried something along similar lines with TAK Room?
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s indefinite closure of shopping malls — and, quite frankly, the public’s current suspicion of indoor spaces — puts the future of every Hudson Yards restaurant in question. TAK Room, located on the fifth and sixth floors, was simply the first domino to fall. But here it’s worth noting that vertical dining isn’t something that New Yorkers have ever really warmed up to. Placing empty and exorbitant retail stores at ground level while relegating restaurants to upper floors robs nearby sidewalks of their human vitality; even before the pandemic, there wasn’t much streetside energy around Hudson Yards
One can’t help but wonder if the Tenth Avenue entrance to Hudson Yards, which has all the charm of a supermax prison, would feel like a more like a part of the community if Keller opened TAK Room there, as a cheaper and more welcoming brasserie, rather than hiding it in a far corner of the mall. Even the host stand, on a separate floor from the bar and restaurant, sometimes felt like an empty handbag boutique when the dining room was packed.
So will TAK go down in history as one of New York’s great restaurant failures, an Icarus-like affair where a famous chef placed his restaurant too high and charged too much? Maybe. Or maybe not. Keller would be far from the first to try out his luck in this regard, suffering both critical and commercial losses. And in an era when so many other meaningful institutions are closing, in a city with a 20 percent unemployment rate, it’s hard to imagine that many will remember an aristocratic establishment that was accessible to a handful of diners. Its cultural significance, like that of Hudson Yards, is as a cautionary tale. Its culinary significance is that it had none. It opened and it closed.