Unsung Heroes

Rouge Tomate opened on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on October 28, 2008—18 days after the Dow Jones logged its worst week in history, 14 days after the federal government bailed out nine na-tional banks, and the very day it was announced that the global credit crisis had claimed from inter­national financial firms $2.8 trillion (and counting). Ten blocks south, stragglers from Lehman Brothers were likely still pushing boxes down the street. Amid the dust, a posh new eatery had sprouted up, a massive, vaulting thing, covering 15,000 square feet over two stories and looking less a restaurant than a sort of health spa for victuals. Built on the grounds of the old Copacabana, it was like something out of a different national mood.

Just crossing the main room at Rouge Tomate was an event—you’d pass a backlit triptych of trees and cream-colored banquettes and patches of red Ultrasuede on the walls and dining tables framed like theatrettes. The menu was no less luxurious: $72 bought you a three-course dinner, not including drinks. With its lush textures and outsize ambition, the place was built for posterity. Even Frank Bruni, the New York Times food critic who, in a single tart phrase, can turn grown men into hysterics and who makes a point of ignoring his surroundings in his reviews, effused in an otherwise tepid write-up that Rouge Tomate is “one of the prettiest, airiest dining environments this city has seen in some time.” That it opened at an inopportune moment was just bad luck.

Still, had the architects been able to divine the future, they probably wouldn’t have changed much. Bentel & Bentel—a 25-person firm whose bread and butter has been suburban community centers (churches, libraries, schools)—designs res­tau­rants that could survive the apocalypse. Every­thing, from the materials to the division of space, is built to last. “When we got into hospitality, we took it on as if we were going to design institutions,” says Carol Bentel, a partner who helms the firm with her husband, her brother-in-law, and his wife. “If you think about it like that, our work couldn’t be frivolous. It couldn’t be Disneyland themed, it couldn’t be flavor of the month. That would be the downfall of it.” The firm has become, improbably, the favored architects of Manhattan’s gourmand elite, giving the city such vaunted dining establishments as MoMA’s the Mod­ern, Tom Colicchio’s Craft, Gramercy Tavern, and Eleven Madison Park—all from its perch on the tony north shore of Long Island, which to its restaurant clientele might as well be Kansas.

Rouge Tomate could easily have succumbed to shtick. Its European owners, who run an identically named restaurant in Brussels, were hawking high-concept cuisine based on a nutritional charter called Sanitas per Escam—an arty way to say the food is healthy. In lesser hands, the New York outpost would have been interpreted in literal or trendy terms. “We wanted avant-garde, modern, but we wanted timelessness too,” says Emmanuel Verstraeten, the Belgian entrepreneur behind the space. “I knew, within two milliseconds of meeting Carol, they were the ones.”

The Bentels certainly had the pedigree, and not just because their first restaurant, Gramercy Tavern, for the celebrity chef Danny Meyer, was a smash, all dark wood panels, rich fabrics, and romantic prints, or that the Modern, also for Meyer but wildly different, is more a work of art than half the paintings at MoMA. The firm’s legacy runs deeper. “It’s not a through-line style that they bring from project to project so much as an emotional aesthetic,” says Meyer, who has hired them for five restaurants. “It’s ‘Let me hear what the problem is you’re trying to solve, and then let me dig deep into our past for a solution.’”

The firm was started in 1957 by the Bentel brothers’ parents, Frederick and Maria, who had crashed Walter Gropius lectures at Harvard and, in a more devout American moment, earned their keep designing pared-down churches on a burgeoning Long Island. Strong, basic materials such as bricks, stone, and wood, in addition to thoughtful spatial organization, were paramount to ensuring not only that their buildings would endure but also that they would accommodate daily life in all its variegated forms. The North Shore Unitarian Church School, in Plandome, New York, looked like a campus when it opened its doors in 1966, with loosely connected gable-roofed structures, each built for a distinct purpose (learning, babysitting, praying). The partitioning enhanced a sense of cohesion and expressed a range of uses—it was, fittingly, a house of many mansions. Forty years hence, Bentel & Bentel brings the same ideas to bear on those cathedrals of 21st-century New York. “We think of restaurants as architectural places that need to accommodate many different parts,” Paul Bentel says. “Restaurants are communities. Creating epicenters that reinforce a sense of div­ersity and strengthen the community is very much a part of our restaurant design.”

It sounds a bit lofty, but there’s something to it, particularly at Rouge Tomate, which occupies an old limestone building, at the foot of Central Park, that’s rich with social history. Built in 1902 as a Beaux Arts hotel, it was later turned into the Copa­cabana, the venerable nightclub that helped launch the careers of Henny Youngman and Sammy Davis Jr. and acted as an incubator for yet another great New York institution, the mob. More recently, in the plush days of the early-to-mid-oughts, 10 East 60th Street was a Michael Gabellini–designed Nicole Farhi clothing store and dining room that served rapacious shoppers spilling over from Madison and Fifth Avenues.

To build on the space’s legacy—a tricky task for a new restaurant in a city of more than 20,000 competitors—the Bentels split it up into pieces, creating, as their elders had done four decades earlier at North Shore Unitarian, a sort of compound. The main floor centers on a juice bar (it’s a health-food restaurant, after all) and houses a low-slung lounge for casual eating, a strip of banquettes suited for business lunches and dinners, and a sequestered, semiprivate dining area fronted by two walnut-trimmed booths that hover above an open stairwell like picture frames. The booths are so pretty and romantic that you’d think the architects would have pressed them up against the front windows to show them to the world—or at least to the discerning ladies across the way at Bergdorf’s. Instead, they shunted the booths to the restaurant’s rear, where they enjoy long-distance views of 60th Street without stealing the whole scene. “One of the big things was making sure every seat is the best seat in the house, including those in the back,” Carol Bentel says.

As much as the restaurant is about distinct spaces, it’s also about common ground. Downstairs, there are yet more divisions: a low-lit private suite; another semiprivate dining area that looks out onto a pool indulgently filled with cranberries; a central dining room presided over by an open kitchen. But the Bentels worried that patrons wouldn’t dare venture into a dark, windowless basement, so they drew some of the brightness from upstairs. Oak trees printed on three glass panels, each 18 feet tall, descend from the first floor to the basement, introducing the outdoors into what would otherwise be a sea of place settings. The piece, by the Norwegian artist Per Fronth, unifies the two floors in one sweeping gesture yet still affords each dining component its own peculiar character. You could visit the restaurant eight times for eight different reasons and have eight different experiences, but you’d always come away with an unmistakable sense of place.

“We try to organize spaces so there’s a center and a periphery, so you always have an opportunity for people to be the scene or observers of the scene,” Paul Bentel says. “That is evident in this restaurant. You don’t have static rooms that are designed to be a finite place, but rather parts of a larger experience.” In manipulating its patrons’ attention, the restaurant takes on some of the qualities of the theater—the ultimate experience for any social institution.

Rouge Tomate was an expensive project, and it shows. The budget, initially pegged at $6 million, came out to $8.5 million. Partly at fault were the unforeseen costs of a new kitchen and ceilings, but Verstraeten, a former Mercedes car salesman, also refused to skimp. The textures are sumptuous—no plywood, PVC, or faux leather—and sustainability was crucial to both the overarching vision as a health-food haven and the Bentels’ yen for an architecture of durability. “The one thing my in-laws told me when I was brought into the firm,” Carol Bentel says, “and this was before sustainability was a big deal, was, ‘You need to use authentic materials, period. You’re not going to use laminates; use travertine. Even when it breaks, it looks good.’ So even though we didn’t start out as a firm focused on sustainability, anything we’ve done, we’ve used the real thing.” There’s the requisite green bounty: FSC-certified wood, and Greenguard-certified chairs, tables, and leather upholstery. But sustainability also means preserving history, and the Bentels worked to salvage as much of Gabellini’s shop as their clients, who hated its cold tones and spare architecture, could stomach. The restaurant is full of walnut accents—in the floors, around the juice box and theatrettes—which had less to do with pleasing Verstraeten, who prefers light wood, than with extending the life of a perfectly good material.

The problem with designing for perpetuity, of course, is that restaurants are inherently fleeting, especially in New York and especially now. To outsiders, opening a $10 million food spa, no matter how innovative or beautiful, seems like an act of financial hara-kiri. Already, the restaurant has had to readjust to suit the modesty of the day—instead of $72 prix-fixe dinners, diners select from a long list of cheaper dishes. (As go hemlines, so, apparently, go menus.) On a wintry Tuesday night in February, Madison Avenue, a mecca of boutique consumerism, looks particularly barren. Stores are sparse with shoppers, and “For Rent” signs seem to outnumber “Open” signs. Just around the corner, in the empty lounge of Rouge Tomate, Verstraeten collapses into a leather Lievore Altherr Molina seat, weary-eyed beneath rimless glasses. He has been giving interviews all day—to the Belgian newspapers De Tijd and Het Financieele Dagblad and later to Elle Belgique. He’s working doggedly to promote the place because he knows he has a good thing. Verstraeten even had plans to expand to the West Coast, but now everything’s on hold. “Be­-cause of the economic crisis,” he explains, his voice thickening over the last word, “we wait.” Around him, bands of light radiate from a floating-wall trellis, candles in red glass quiver on the tables, and the theatrettes glow faintly in their walnut trim. It’s nearly 7 p.m., and the restaurant will go shining well into the night, a monument to durability in a jittery provisional age. Here’s to hoping its timelessness endures.

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