There is a majestic magic to New York’s Le Bernardin.
Before arriving in New York in 2008 to attend my first New York City Wine & Food Festival, I preemptively made pre-theatre reservations at the famed seafood restaurant. Dining with my mother, the decor of the room, the bustle of the service staff, and the grandeur of each dish left a marked impression. Meeting chef Eric Ripert during the dessert course, as we enjoyed pastry chef Michael Laiskonis’s signature egg, only added to the magnificence of the visit.
Founders Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze opened the multi-starred restaurant nearly forty years ago in the heart of Manhattan, and upon Gilbert’s passing, Ripert took to the helm as chef and co-owner, continuing the path of ideals and dedication while bringing new visibility and recognition to the beloved restaurant. The latest chapter in the much-lauded history of Le Bernardin – a month long redesign of the dining space – only reinforces the restaurant’s place as a destination of spirit and splendor.
In addition to a complete decor overhaul, the most noticeable change to the space is the build out of the new lounge area, which now includes dishes presented by the restaurant’s “bar chef” and a more lenient dress code where jackets are encouraged but not required. For insight into the preparation and decisions made, I spoke with Chef Ripert about the restaurant’s renovation process, and the reaction of some of its most faithful diners.
Jennifer: I’ve had a great time following the history of Le Bernardin through your tweets and Facebook posts, though early on, you noted there were a few folks concerned by such a major change.
Eric: So far, 99% of the people are upbeat about the renovation. Some of our loyal clientele was concerned that we would make the lounge more of a bistro, I guess. But the renovation – it’s very luxurious, very convivial, very sexy, very contemporary. And our clientele is very, very happy. Before, the waiting area, there was not much. And now we have the lounge. Our dining area is even more comfortable than it was before. It’s very beautiful, I think. So far the response has been very, very positive.
J: Why was it important to implement such a massive renovation now?
E: We were thinking about it for a long time, and it was growing and growing, and we wanted to see it remain a restaurant that is timeless, but at the same time, contemporary. Back in the 80’s, restaurants like ours were much more formal, and we wanted to age gracefully. We were happy with it but we wanted to provide a better experience for the client. So we had to decide to close one day and go forward with the renovation. It’s a five week commitment, and we were thinking about it last year, and it took us a year to organize ourselves, and we closed in August and reopened here in September.
J: What were your goals for the new space? I read that you lost a few tables in the new design.
E: Slightly less seating in the dining room, because we took some tables away, but the space is very similar. The lounge has grown a lot. We’re all the way to the windows, so we’ve gained a lot of space. We made the coat check smaller, so now the clients have more space and the coats have less, but it’s really about the comfort. We have the banquettes, but we still have individual tables, so you don’t feel like you’re eating with your neighbor.
J: Tell me a bit about the expansive painting you’ve chosen as the sole piece of artwork in the new dining room.
E: A friend of mine introduced me to the artist – Ran Ortner – and when I saw the painting, I showed it to Maguy and we both fell in love with it. We rented a car, went to the artist’s loft in Brooklyn, measured it, and bought the painting on the spot.
J: Were there any changes made to the back of the house?
E: We redid the kitchen completely, but it’s entirely the same. (Laughter.) It’s a very organized kitchen layout, and we didn’t want to break what was working. What we needed to do was update the refrigerators and the stoves and now today, we have better, energy-friendly technology. We also redid the floors completely. The look is the same, just more efficient.
*Photo credit: Le Bernardin