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New York’s financial district gets a culinary facelift

As the new World Trade Center towers reach for the sky, New York’s Financial District is seeing hotels and restaurants give the area an additional lift, writes Mark O'Flaherty

Wolfgang Puck is working the room. America’s most famous chef is in the third week of service at his first Manhattan restaurant, an offshoot of his CUT concept, on the ground floor of the new Four Seasons hotel in the Financial District. Heavy curtains keep the ambience perpetually around midnight, there’s a soft magenta glow from a Tracey Emin neon (Move Me), and an army of waiters circle with barrel-aged Negronis in heavy crystal tumblers and $115 tasting platters of sirloin. Puck stops at each table to say hello. ‘I’d been looking for a long time for the right opportunity to open in New York,’ he tells me, each vowel rooted in his Austrian. ‘Downtown was a place that people went to for work. Now, the neighbourhood is a growing cultural destination.’

‘Downtown’ to many New Yorkers still means SoHo, the East and West Village and LES (Lower East Side). But the Financial District, decimated by 9/11 and reconfigured under a global spotlight for fifteen years, is as downtown as you can get. For tourists, it’s long been defined by the melancholy of Ground Zero and cut-price Calvins at Century 21, while long-term residents talk about the marvels of seeing even a Starbucks or Chipotle open. Change is coming.

It’s not just the skyscraping One World Trade Center and the $4 billion all-white celestial Westfield shopping cathedral of Santiago Calatrava’s Oculus that have redefined the district. There has been an influx of food markets, hoteliers and restaurateurs, drawn to the blank canvas that the area affords, albeit at a price. ‘This is going to be our biggest restaurant, and our biggest financial commitment,’ says Will Beckett of London’s Hawksmoor steakhouses, standing in what will represent, in late 2017, its 14,000 sq ft New York debut. Beckett and his partner Huw Gott want to create something iconic in the Richard Rogers-designed 3 World Trade Center building.

‘We’ve been inspired by modernist landmarks in New York,’ says Gott. ‘We are incredibly happy to have found a consignment of walnut panelling from a Philip Johnson-designed building — almost identical to that which he used in the Four Seasons restaurant at the Seagram Building.’

One of the most exciting recent openings in New York is from Keith McNally, the man behind Balthazar and the Minetta Tavern who has defined the dining scene since he opened Odeon in Tribeca in 1980. For most of that decade, Odeon was a clubhouse for the Warhol crowd and literary brat pack. Now, largely thanks to Condé Nast’s move into One World Trade Center, with a ready-made Manolo-heeled lunch crowd, it’s enjoying a second act. In October McNally opened Augustine in the new Beekman hotel. It’s 100 per cent McNally, with that familiar soft glow: the perfect Parisian bistro refracted through the sharp lens of Manhattan chic.

‘My restaurants might seem similar to other people, but I think they are all worlds apart,’ McNally says. ‘Augustine is an Art Nouveau-inspired restaurant with modern French food. All my places are an extension of an idea I began with Odeon — I only build restaurants that I want to go to.’

But why here? ‘The district is changing,’ he says. ‘But it hasn’t changed enough to truly draw people into the area at night. Not yet…’ When Odeon opened, Tribeca was a ghost town. McNally is a man who can make an area happen.

New heavyweight luxury hotels fly the flag for an area on the up. Each new hotel in the Financial District is bringing a new-destination dining room to define its style. When chef Wylie Dufresne pulled out of plans to open up in the AKA Wall Street, the Blue Ribbon team stepped in with their first Financial District dining room: the Federal Grill. It’s a casual and relaxed breakfast, lunch and dinner spot. At the Four Seasons, CUT is a serious power-lunch citadel — as you’d expect from the hotel it is attached to: corner rooms, furnished with elegant mirrored screens, giant egg-shaped bathtubs and the most comfortable beds in Manhattan, look out and up towards the vertiginous One World Observatory.

The architecture that defines the new Financial District has a visual urgency to it: bigger, better, full of drama. It riffs on the same newness and energy that sent the skyscrapers up in Midtown before the Great Depression. Just like that bygone era, a lot of what’s going on can be attributed to certain single-minded businessmen. Peter Poulakakos is one of them.

‘My father came to New York at seventeen looking for a job raising honey bees and ended up a great Wall Street restaurateur,’ says Poulakakos, 40, who runs the almighty HPH bar and restaurant group with partner Paul Lamas. ‘I was 25 when 9/11 happened, and I saw things change before then. People were moving here. It wasn’t just guys in suits, it was rollerbladers and people walking their dogs. Then the attacks halted that. When we started out, opening our first business in 2002, there were less than 10,000 people living here. Now it’s over 60,000.’

Poulakakos and Lamas have a diverse portfolio. They are behind the success of the Dead Rabbit, the bar created by Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon, who moved from Belfast and settled on the area with the intention of opening a pub themed on the Irish gangs that first populated it. The Dead Rabbit has won so many awards that they encroach on the shelf space in the upstairs parlour set aside for the spirits. Capitalising on their success, Poulakakos and Lamas invited McGarry and Muldoon to open Blacktail, a Cuban-themed cocktail bar. It’s another hit.

Poulakakos’s greatest achievement is Le District, which opened in 2015. Consider it the French counterpart to Mario Batali’s Eataly (which now also has an offshoot nearby). It’s in Brookfield Place, a glass atrium and Escher escalator maze megamall unlike anything else in Manhattan. There’s a Gucci, a Saks Fifth Avenue and a branch of Philadelphia chef Jose Garces’s beloved tapas restaurant Amada, serving Pedro Almodóvar-themed cocktails, sweet vermouths, dry sherries, a Spanish twist on a Philly cheesesteak, and superb wagyu. Around the corner is Poulakakos’s Le District, with charcuterie counters, boulangeries and wine bars aplenty. It’s no tourist trap: New Yorkers have genuine amour for it.

The latest addition to Le District is L’Appart, conceived as a ‘chef’s apartment’ and what Poulakakos calls ‘the most high-end experience at Le District — designed to feel like a private home’. This is where intimidatingly young chef Nicolas Abello, an alumnus of Pierre Gagnaire and Daniel Boulud, has free rein to create a new tasting menu every couple of weeks, while George Thomas — one of New York’s most theatrical maître d’s — holds court with bons mots and Jamaican punch. Abello’s cooking is modern, dazzling and on par with Eleven Madison Park for big, surprising flavours and contemporary flair.

‘We need more places like L’Appart,’ Poulakakos says. ‘We need to bring more people down here. What’s weird is that a lot of New Yorkers don’t even know how close this is to where they are. People make a reservation at L’Appart and arrive twenty minutes early because they got here so quickly.’

When the Calatrava Oculus opened last year, it created a connection from the subway to Brookfield Place. Bit by bit, everything in the Financial District is being connected by design. You need rarely hit street level, which is a major selling point when the skin-stripping freezing winds hit the area midwinter.

‘In twenty years’ time, we’ll probably see Seaport and the east side of the area linked up, too,’ says Lamas. Which is when this newest (although at once oldest) part of Manhattan will really take on a new identity. The weatherproof logistics will echo Tokyo, but it’ll still be 100 per cent New York City. 2017 is just a taste of what’s coming.