On a recent weeknight at 10 p.m., Le Rock hums with life. Office workers order bison au poivre while sipping French wines in a soaring dining room whose floor-to-ceiling curtains block out the sounds of the tourists on the skating rink outside. This space was once home to Brasserie Ruhlmann, a French restaurant built for business lunches. Today it’s one of a handful of high-profile restaurants that mark a new era at Rockefeller Center, one that’s been engineered by millions of dollars and about as many restaurant publicists.
It’s past closing time according to listed hours, but orders of escargot and steak haché fly from the kitchen like it’s a Friday night.
While prime office space and luxury apartments might have been key to revitalizing a Manhattan neighborhood in the past, Rockefeller Center is betting its future on independent restaurants imported from Harlem and Prospect Heights to lure native New Yorkers back to Midtown. This has become somewhat commonplace — take the Market Line food hall on the Lower East Side — but the time and money pumped into this particular revitalization project is next-level.
Le Rock, run by Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson of Tribeca’s famed French bistro Frenchette, is the first of several marquee restaurants to arrive in a head-turning wave of openings orchestrated by Tishman Speyer, the deep-pocketed real estate company that acquired the center for $1.85 billion in 1996.
Other flashy newcomers include restaurants from Ignacio Mattos of hot Manhattan spots Estela and Altro Paradiso, Ellia and Junghyun Park of the Michelin-starred splurge restaurant Atomix, Greg Baxtrom of Brooklyn’s acclaimed Olmsted, and other high-profile chefs. Former Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, an unlikely standard-bearer of hospitality hype, is even throwing his hat into the ring.
Spanning six city blocks and made up of 16 restaurants, the lineup that’s signed on so far is a multimillion-dollar bet that with enough cool, independent businesses hanging around, Rockefeller Center might itself become cool. Could it actually work? New York is about to find out.
The latest rebrand of Rockefeller Center has been in the works for years. Once “the diamond on the belt buckle of Midtown,” the development had started to feel more like “a deserted tankard” in the face of newer billion-dollar Manhattan playgrounds like Manhattan West, says Steve Zagor, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School who also consults on restaurants and real estate developments.
Rockefeller Center was “a destination that didn’t speak to New Yorkers in an authentic way,” says Michaella Solar-March, a chief marketing officer for Tishman Speyer from 2018 to 2021. Its chain restaurants and old-school lunch spots mostly appealed to tourists, and while the Rainbow Room had its own cachet, a bar located above a Starbucks can only do so much.
Tishman saw restaurants — cool restaurants — as a ticket back to the top.
“If you have an incredible restaurant, it amps up all the retail,” Zagor says. “It amps up all the offices. It amps up the entire operation. It turns Camelot back into Camelot again.”
The real estate developer attempted this once before. In 1999, Tishman Speyer caused an uproar among city preservationists after it gutted Rockefeller Center’s underground dining concourse, which was not landmarked, to make room for new locations of Ben & Jerry’s, Starbucks, and a Hallmark card store. The businesses were meant to turn the development into “the center of the universe of Manhattan,” the New York Times wrote at the time.
More than that, they were meant to turn it into “a place to dine” for New Yorkers.
Two decades after the first overhaul, Tishman Speyer began paving the way for another rebrand, ostensibly with the same goal. In 2018, the real estate developer commenced talks with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to increase the number of spaces available to food and beverage tenants throughout the development. The following year, Tishman made headlines after pulling the plug on Sea Grill, Rock Center Café, and Cucina, three restaurants managed by Patina Group that had operated out of the basement of Rockefeller Center for almost four decades.
Patina Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In the years since, a small team of Tishman Speyer employees has been courting popular neighborhood restaurants — including King, Olmsted, and countless businesses who didn’t end up signing on — with the promise of sweetheart real estate deals and unrelenting corporate charm. The company recruited Keith Durst, a big-bucks consultant whose client list includes shopping mall company Westfield and Manhattan development Brookfield Place, to help negotiate leases.
All of the restaurant owners interviewed for this story say they were given some version of the same pitch by employees of Tishman Speyer: “You can make Rockefeller Center the epicenter of food for New York City,” JJ Johnson recalls. The power of those words was enough to convince the award-winning chef to open a second location of his fast-casual restaurant Fieldtrip at the development in March 2021, a time when almost no other food businesses were operating out of the concourse.
“We have a shot to make history,” Johnson says.
In Williamsburg, Matthew Etchemendy had only been running Ace’s Perfect Pizza for about six months when employees of Tishman Speyer approached him late last summer about opening a second location at Rockefeller Center. According to Etchemendy, the real estate developer pushed him to open in time for the holidays — a warp-speed turnaround even for veteran restaurant owners — and he ultimately conceded.
“They were pretty aggressive,” Etchemendy says.
To lure in the development’s bigger names, the real estate company apparently dumped millions into sweetheart lease agreements that cover some or all of the construction costs for tenants, according to interviews with current and prospective tenants and a lease reviewed by Eater.
Construction fees in Midtown can surpass $400 per square foot before the costs of interior design and other expenses associated with opening, sources say. In the case of Jupiter, from the team behind King in Soho, and Five Acres, from Olmsted’s Baxtrom, which are roughly 4,000 and 3,000 square feet, respectively, the makeovers could easily amount to millions of dollars. Baxtrom and Jess Shadbolt, an owner of Jupiter, both declined to comment on the terms of their lease agreements. Tishman declined to comment on specific lease agreements at Rockefeller Center.
The big-money strategy is typically used by developers to lock in higher-profile tenants, according to Zagor. At Rockefeller Center, those who signed on later and with less name recognition say they were left fighting for scraps.
“They’re creating winners and losers right from the start,” according to another restaurateur, who was in talks to open at the development and spoke to Eater on the condition of anonymity because they want to do business with Tishman Speyer in the future. “They essentially invested everything into these places, and then left little for other people to fight over.”
Rockefeller Center’s biggest names open at this time — Lodi, Pebble Bar, and Le Rock — are all located on street level, where foot traffic is the highest. Jupiter and Five Acres, to open next, are tucked underground but border the high-traffic skating rink.
“No one is created equal,” says Zagor, who worked with restaurateur José Andrés on his food businesses at Hudson Yards. “The premier tenant is getting in for less money.” Tishman Speyer declined to comment on its strategy for recruiting tenants.
Almost all of Rockefeller Center’s other restaurants, primarily fast-casual spots, operate out of its underground concourse, a network of artificially lit tunnels that former Tishman Speyer chairman Jerry I. Speyer called “an unpleasant place” amid its 1999 redevelopment. Businesses here subsist on lunch crowds from Monday to Friday, when foot traffic is highest, even if they operate around-the-clock at their other locations in the city. Some wonder whether it’s enough to get by.
Before the pandemic, some 20,000 workers populated Rockefeller Center, and another 60,000 people passed through its subway station each day. Tishman declined to provide exact figures on daily foot traffic at the center during the pandemic, but only 49 percent of the city’s office workers are expected to be back at their desks this fall. As of March, 95 percent of the complex had been leased across restaurant and retail spaces, according to a spokesperson for Tishman Speyer.
“To make the numbers work, we would need to have business all day,” the anonymous restaurant owner says. They were in talks to open at the development last year but backed out of a deal fearing that they would end up saddled with thousands of dollars in debt if they had to break their lease in the “dungeon” downstairs.
“What if it’s not a home run?” they say.
For Samesa, the move to Rockefeller Center has been up and down. Eli Sussman, one of two brothers behind the popular Middle Eastern lunch counter, relocated his restaurant from residential Williamsburg to the rink level of Rockefeller Plaza in March 2021. He had doubts about running a business out of the Midtown development during a pandemic — tourism was at an all-time low, and office vacancies were at an all-time high — but he signed on anyway.
Roughly a year and a half later his restaurant is temporarily closed for renovations, according to a spokesperson for Tishman Speyer, though there’s no reopening date on the calendar. “They want to change the way New York thinks about a tourist destination,” Sussman said in January. “It’s a tall order.”
It’s too early for concrete data, but Angela Pennyfeather, the marketing director for the Fifth Avenue Association at the time of this interview, says that more locals have been stopping by businesses along the corridor this past year. “We’ve seen a huge amount of traffic,” she says. “People are recognizing that there’s something happening all year round,” and not just around the holidays when visitation to the skating rink and its Christmas tree is the highest.
As for a Friday night at one of the center’s hottest new restaurants? The same bar at Le Rock that overflowed on a weeknight had mostly emptied out by 9 p.m. Granted, it was only the restaurant’s second week in a stretch of Manhattan that’s still reeling from the pandemic and waking up from a summer lull. And, if publicists are to be believed, the best is yet to come.