Daniel Boulud’s Le Pavillon and the Reopening of New York
By Beverly Stephen
When I take a walk with my millennial son and his dog, I learn things. The hot dog man on his corner is back in business and he and the doormen in his building are thrilled. While we gaped with awe at the soaring 73-story One Vanderbilt tower across from Grand Central Station where Daniel Boulud has installed his new restaurant Le Pavillon, a family of tourists from Argentina approached us so their daughter could take a selfie with his Golden Doodle.
Yes! New York is coming back. We met real live international tourists on the street. We glimpsed the future of New York restaurants. From the hot dog man to oysters Vanderbilt at Le Pavillon, food will be an important force in the city’s revival.
Le Pavillon is the grandest restaurant to open in the city in more than a year. Uber chef/restaurateur Daniel Boulud is showing his confidence in the city with his biggest restaurant to date. The 11,000 square foot dining oasis in midtown is being hailed as a symbol of the city’s recovery.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” he admits in a telephone interview. “But at the same time, it’s exciting to do something new in New York. I didn’t open a new restaurant in New York for maybe eight or nine years since I did Boulud Sud. And I’m working with a partner, SL Green Realty Corp., who is really committed to bring New York and midtown back and to support the industry.”
On the one hand Boulud could be viewed as a risk taker but he’s also a careful businessman. Le Pavillon has been in the works for four years. He moved Café Boulud to Blantyre in Lenox, Massachusetts during the height of the pandemic where the bucolic setting provided spacious seating. Bar Boulud has reopened. Looking ahead, he’s scouting for a new urban location for that restaurant.
Eventually, he would like to add breakfast at Le Pavillon. “Because of its location by Grand Central, it could be a power breakfast,” says the Michelin starred chef who already numbers movers and shakers among the customers of his flagship Daniel restaurant.
He’s confident that both workers and tourists will return to the city. ”The building is already 80 percent occupied and by the end of the year it will be 100 percent,” he believes. “It may be more challenging that a lot of companies use Zoom for their conferences when they used to fly so that may take a bit longer but I’m confident that trade fairs and trade shows will resume.”
“Tourists are important for anyone in New York, for any restaurant. If I’m flying to Tokyo, I’m going to do my research. I want to go to places I don’t know. The same for people coming to New York. They make their lists—their top restaurants, top pizzerias, top Asian, top bars. I don’t think tourism will resume entirely by September but it will come back.”
The city is betting on their return too.
In 2019, the city reached an all-time high of 66.6 million tourists, according to NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism organization, accounting for $39 billion in direct spending and 403,000 jobs. Of those, 53.1 million were domestic and 13.5 international.
“In 2020, tourism came to a grinding halt,” says Christopher Heywood, executive vice president of global communications. “We were the capital of tourism and then we became the epicenter of the pandemic.” The first to return were regional visitors. “This year we hope to recapture more than half of 2019’s numbers, a total of 36.4 million visitors, 31.8 million domestic and 4.6 international. Restaurants are critical to the lifeblood of the city and to the tourist industry.”
And what will they find when they get to Le Pavillon? “A French restaurant in New York today. My first American restaurant,” says the newly minted American citizen.
The name is an homage to La Pavillon which began life at the 1939 World’s Fair, was relocated to West 57th Street, and went on to define fine French dining in New York through the decades until it closed in 1972. To make sure his staff was aware of the illustrious history, he invited noted chef Jacques Pepin, who came to America to work there in 1959, to speak to them.
Diners will find a seafood restaurant with a substantial vegetarian component. And “an amazing roast chicken even if it’s a seafood restaurant. I have a wonderful rotisserie,” says the Lyon-born chef where roast chicken is king.
A signature dish is Oysters Vanderbilt named for the railroad magnate. “Vanderbilt is the name of the building and of the avenue, Vanderbilt built Grand Central Station and the Oyster Bar. Rockefeller had famous oysters named after him but Vanderbilt never got an oyster,” says Boulud, with a hint of amusement in his voice. “It has a chowder base and a hazelnut, herb, and plankton crust. People love it.” Maybe it will become as iconic as his black tie scallops or his db burger.
The menu has a billi bi mussel soup in homage to Lutece where Boulud struggled to get a reservation for his 28th birthday shortly after coming to America. “It was the first dish Andre Soltner served me.” There’s also a “little California homage in a healthy green goddess sauce made with yogurt topping grilled avocado, kale, and grains. Other standouts include a monkfish with red wine sauce, wood-fired octopus, and yellowfin tuna dusted with fennel pollen.
Patrons will also encounter a lush indoor garden adorned with a stand of live 20 foot-tall olive trees filling almost half the space.
Two chefs, Michael Balboni and William Nacev, ride the range here. At the moment, Le Pavillon is about 65 percent staffed. “We won’t get to 100 percent until after summer when we open for lunch,” Boulud says. “Everyone is affected by the labor shortage but everyone is finding ways to make it work.”
Though Le Pavillon is the most spectacular venture, Boulud is not the only believer in the city.
No one is more of a Big Apple booster than super restaurateur Danny Meyer, the owner of numerous spots including Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern as well as the burger empire Shake Shack. He has just been appointed Chair of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. The city is counting on his expertise to help revitalize this crucial sector of the economy. He has been an enthusiastic supporter of outdoor dining as a lifeline for restaurants and is even talking about adding an outdoor component to the Modern in MOMAs sculpture garden. “He’s a visionary,” says Heywood. “He’s been incredibly instrumental in helping the city recover.” In September, Meyer plans to open Ci Siamo, (loosely translated “we’ve arrived”) a sprawling 120 seat Italian restaurant in Manhattan West across from Hudson Yards. It will be helmed by Hillary Sperling, formerly of Vic’s.
Another vote of confidence comes from Chicago’s Mexican food maven Rick Bayless who will make his first foray into Manhattan. In September he’s opening Tortazo, his fast casual tortas chain, in the Flatiron district.
Actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas (The White Tiger) has already opened Sona, a high end Indian restaurant next to Gramercy Tavern. And restaurateur Simon Oren has introduced Mediterranean/Israeli Dagon on the Upper West Side.
Three cheers for Danny and Daniel and the hot dog man and everyone in between. In the words of Mayor de Blasio “Bon Appetit New York!”
Equally optimistic ventures are opening in other parts of the country.
Meanwhile from the West Coast comes the startling news that the mother of California cuisine Alice Waters will open her first new restaurant in 40 years in the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Called Lulu, the concept was developed with food writer and Chef David Tanis.
No one is downplaying the losses suffered by the restaurant industry during the pandemic. Over 110,000 restaurants closed and sales fell by $240 billion. The silver lining is that outdoor dining became a life line for many restaurants and introduced a European style café culture that hopefully will endure in many cities. The pandemic shined a spotlight on the shortcomings of an industry plagued by low wages, difficult working conditions, immigration issues, racism, and sexual harassment. However, awareness brings hope that a more enlightened workplace culture in the kitchen may evolve. Things will never be quite the same. But everyone agrees that cities can’t survive without a vibrant dining scene.
Beverly Stephen, the former executive editor of Food Arts magazine, is a principal of the culinary travel company Flavor Forays. She is the co-author, with Barbara Mathias, of On the Road With Flavor Forays An Insider’s Guide to Four of America’s Hottest Food Cities—Austin, Charleston, Portland and New Orleans.