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In the days before Condé Nast editors ordered their burgers — no bun — in the Frank Gehry-designed cantina at 4 Times Square, their unofficial cafeteria was 44, the restaurant in the Royalton hotel.
That was a long time ago. By the mid-Nineties, Michael’s had replaced the Royalton as the place to see and be seen. More recently, the Royalton’s mastermind, Ian Schrager, has moved on to his own hotel group, while the Royalton’s designer, Philippe Starck, has begun a new hotel project with Los Angeles impresario Sam Nazarian.
But, since everything old in New York becomes new again, the Royalton now has reopened after a quiet facelift. Gone are the all-white furnishings and the long blue runway-like carpet. The lobby has been reimagined as an even darker, yet inviting, place by boutique design firm Roman & Williams. And restaurateur John McDonald has stepped in to take the helm at the rechristened Brasserie 44, which opens next week.
Rejuvenating such a storied place is not for the faint of heart, but McDonald doesn’t scare easily — the Lure restaurant and Chinatown Brasserie owner opened the Lever House Restaurant under exacting developer Aby Rosen’s watch.
“I immediately said yes,” recalls McDonald of the call from Morgans Hotel Group’s David Weidlich, offering him control of not just the restaurant, but also the lobby, Bar 44 and room service.
“It was important to us to work with someone who didn’t have any preconceived notions about what a restaurant in a hotel should be,” says Weidlich.
Indeed, McDonald says he isn’t aiming to re-create the intimidating atmosphere of the restaurant’s heyday, saying instead that he expects hotel guests, Midtowners and trendseekers to peacefully coexist.
The restaurant itself is all polished wood and smooth leather brightly lit by custom-designed round lights, with arches of woven rope that divide the tables and provide a measure of privacy for lunchtime deals.
As for the food, it’s being overseen by Scott Ekstrom, a veteran of Daniel and Oceana. He won out over a dozen other candidates in a sort of cook-off in the Lure kitchens with a slow-poached farmhouse egg with crisp potatoes and pancetta, olive oil-poached halibut and braised lamb shank — all of which have ended up on the Brasserie 44 menu.
But overall, this is not the place for one to make a grand entrance or those looking for a catwalk on which to strut their stuff. “It’s a new era,” says McDonald.