What do the devoted diners of revered fine dining restaurant Gotham want to eat? The answer was first defined by chef Alfred Portale, who established the restaurant’s groundbreaking approach to fine dining with sculptural seafood towers, feasts of lamb rack, and an architectural tuna tartare that became a cult favorite among legions of regulars. In 2019, the question was tossed to star chef Victoria Blamey, who ripped up Portale’s rulebook and tried to reimagine a Gotham built for the 21st century, to varying degrees of success.
Now, the nearly 40-year-old fine dining institution — resuscitated after an initial blow as one of NYC’s first major restaurant closures during the pandemic — is in the hands of 10-year Gotham veteran Ron Paprocki, the restaurant’s former head pastry chef and the leader of Gotham Chocolates. On November 9, just two years after its first major revamp, Gotham is unveiling its second reboot in its same storied spot at 12 East 12th Street, near University Place, in Union Square.
The latest reincarnation is another attempt at modernizing Gotham, but with fewer fireworks and more soft nudges. The acclaimed restaurant, which the New York Times bestowed six three-star reviews under five different critics, has a new owner in Bret Csencsitz, a former general manager and managing partner at the restaurant. He and Paprocki have been studying Gotham’s diners for combined decades. The bank of knowledge that they have built up about the restaurant’s regulars — a force so core to Gotham that they seem to be as much owners in the restaurant as the actual owners — is informing what buttons will and won’t be pressed when it comes to shepherding the restaurant into the future.
Instead of throwing out Gotham’s lauded-yet-staid menu as Blamey did, Paprocki’s menu is criss-crossed with nods to familiar, Portale-era dishes. A tuna tartare is back on the lineup, updated with a ginger-yuzu vinaigrette and served with gluten-free togarashi crackers instead of its former accompaniment of toasted sourdough baguette. The decision was backed by plenty of informal diner research: Paprocki’s pastry station was situated right next to the garde manger, or cold station, in Gotham’s kitchen, he says. He watched for years under Portale’s reign as diners requested orders of gluten-free tuna tartare and the kitchen modified the dish by simply removing the bread and sending out a lonely mound of tuna.
Other subtle updates include the restaurant’s Niman Ranch dry-aged strip steak, now dialed down to eight ounces per serving instead of 12 ounces, and plated in slices instead of served whole. The bread service is no longer free, as Paprocki is working with a much smaller team of eight people in the kitchen due to staff shortages, he says. Gotham’s kitchen formerly included 18 staffers under Portale.
“That’s kind of my direction now with the food, really understanding and seeing the evolution of Gotham from Alfred through Victoria,” Paprocki says. “Now, the spotlight’s on me. But it’s more about the restaurant and the guests, as opposed to how creative I want to be.”
Paprocki’s stamp is more overt in dishes like the celeriac, a vegan main course that considers the vegetable like a steak, topped with black truffles and sauced in a Bordelaise made with cocoa butter. The chef’s take on foie gras — an ingredient used in Gotham’s former menus — is a savory play on a dessert that he created for Blamey’s reboot. Paprocki, who is trained in German pastry, added a dessert to that menu that involved a baumkuchen — a layered German cake — stuffed with hazelnut mousse. Now, the hazelnut filling has been replaced with a whipped foie gras mousse.
The new pastry department is run by Gramercy Tavern and Hudson Yards’s Peak alum Jessica Lee, and maintains a similar balance between Gotham’s past and present. In a nod to Gotham’s legacy, the apple tarte tartin, a dessert that Paprocki has been praised for in the past, is sticking around as an off-menu special, he says. But Lee has reinterpreted a cheesecake for Gotham as a puree dotted with dried sunchoke skins and a green apple sorbet on the side.
The restaurant space itself holds the same tension. Csencsitz lopped off Gotham Bar and Grill’s name to what scores of regulars already refer to it as: Gotham. The draped, puffy white chandeliers are gone, replaced by fitted, horizontal swaths of light fabric. The art on Gotham’s walls used to be entirely black and white; now, more modern, colorful pieces will rotate in from firms like Snarkitecture. The steps at the front of the restaurant have been removed to make the entryway more accessible, and a lounge has been added with a bookcase curated by neighbor and regular customer Nancy Bass Wyden, the owner of nearby bookstore the Strand.
“We’re welcoming back people who’ve been coming here for decades,” Csencsitz says. “And we hope that we also appeal to a new generation.”
Csencsitz and Paprocki aren’t the first to hope for that outcome, but they say that watching it play out once, during Blamey’s tenure — to some critical success, and some customer complaints — was a necessary learning experience. “I think that it revealed a lot of sensitivity about how grand a place this was to a lot of people,” Paprocki says.
The new executive chef did take one big stand in the desserts department by removing Gotham’s longrunning chocolate cake, but he’s already bracing for the diner blowback. “I’m sure people are gonna ask for it,” Paprocki says. “And, you know — I know how to make it.”
Gotham is open from Tuesday through Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Reservations are available via OpenTable.