Opening a restaurant in New York City ranks right up there among the world's most difficult jobs: You have to deal with endless streams of red tape, near-constant cash-flow problems, contractors, critics, egos, and a city full of very fickle diners. New York might have 24,000 restaurants, but plenty of ideas go bust long before the front doors open. The grander the scale of the project, the more fun it is to speculate about what could have been. In that spirit, we've put together a list of ten projects that, had they opened, would have changed New York's culinary landscape some for the better, some for the worse (unless you're a fan of huge theme restaurants in Times Square). Here are ten of the biggest projects, in terms of scale, scope, or ambition, that came thisclose to happening in NYC.
David Copperfield's Magic Underground
The Concept: Work on this 30,000-square-foot, 430-seat restaurant — which was to feature disappearing diners and levitating banquettes at the corner of 49th and Broadway — started in 1996. David Rockwell designed it, Joe Baum and David Emil consulted, and Waldy Malouf was in the kitchen. A "death saw" would cut one lucky diner in half every 30 minutes. Copperfield called it "an interactive entertainment experience from which you won't want to escape.'' What Went Wrong: The only thing the project made disappear was $34 million, as costs rose and infighting among the principals magically transformed into lawsuits. The site is now a Sbarro.
Alinea New York
The Concept: In 2008, Alinea partners Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas came very, very close to opening a New York restaurant that shared some of Alinea's DNA (though the duo says the new restaurant wouldn't have actually been named Alinea). "We had opened Alinea, I had just beaten cancer, now what?" Achatz says. "So we looked at twelve spaces." Achatz tells us he and Kokonas loved one space on Broome that was "beautiful — there was an enormous skylight in what would have been the kitchen. Natural light, in the kitchen, in New York City ." What Went Wrong: Second thoughts. Achtaz says he and Kokonas had "the resources, support, money, and the desire to do it," but realized that "if the NY Alinea is better than the one in Chicago, then the Chicago Alinea loses. If Chicago is better, then New York says to us, 'Told you you couldn’t do it!' And if it’s the same, then both places lose. We didn't want to open a throwaway restaurant."
The N.R.A. Sports Grille
The Concept: A restaurant for the National Rifle Association, announced in 2000. Patrons would have been able to play first-person shooter games in one area of the planned 55,000-square-foot complex, stock up on hunting gear in another section, and sup on "a wild game menu and fresh mineral waters from around the world" in a third. What Went Wrong: Senator Schumer condemned the idea, loudly and publicly, while the City Council said no and passed a resolution condemning the idea. Even still, then-Times critic Biff Grimes "reviewed" it.
Andy Warhol's Andy-Mat
The Concept: The first 115-seat location of Warhol's imagined fast-food empire (he wanted 200 locations) almost opened at 933 Madison in 1977. It was to be "the restaurant for the lonely person," the artist once said. "You get your food and then take your tray into a booth and watch television." The menu included dishes like Irish stew, which would be cooked off-site and frozen, reheated to order, and delivered to diners via pneumatic tubes. What Went Wrong: Investors apparently lost interest and parted ways.
Abe Stark Skating Rink
The Concept: When former Brooklyn Borough President Abe Stark put his name on a new municipal skating rink at the Coney Island boardwalk in 1969, the parks department also built a swanky second-floor restaurant on the site that was reportedly used just twice. In theory, it's still there today, its 50 furnished tables untouched. What Went Wrong: Mismanagement. "The Abe Stark Arena is a tribute to the neglect of Coney Island," Brooklyn Daily columnist Lou Powsner wrote last year.
The Concept: Back in 1995, Marvel Comics teamed up with Planet Hollywood to create a superhero-themed restaurant in the converted Times Square Theater space on West 42nd. Think: Spider-Man and Thor serving chicken fingers and hot dogs to tourists. What Went Wrong: Both Marvel and Planet Hollywood overexpanded too fast, and the plans ripped apart faster than Hulk's purple trunks — though a location in Universal Studios Hollywood opened in 1998 and lasted a little more than a year.
Jordan's Lobster Palace
The Concept: In the mid-eighties, Sheepshead Bay lobster patriarch Bill Jordan got a $3.5 million loan to expand his seafood shack into an enormous, 10,000-square-foot palace at the edge of Harkness Avenue. What Went Wrong: The loan-issuing bank was part of the S&L Crisis; Jordan's Lobster Dock went into foreclosure; and Jordan's son eventually made a movie about the ordeal.
David Bouley's Russian Tea Room
The Concept: In 1995, Bouley (pictured here in 1991) and famed restaurateur Warner LeRoy announced they were joining forces to add clout and wealth to each other's projects. LeRoy bankrolled a major Bouley project and it was announced that the chef would helm the revamped Russian Tea Room. Bouley even spent a month in Russia immersing himself in the culture and the food, preparing for the part. What Went Wrong: Bad blood. Shortly after the Tea Room shuttered in 1996, LeRoy took Bouley to court, allegedly for not sharing profits from one of the Tribeca chef's restaurants.
Charlie Trotter at the Time Warner Center
The Concept: In 2003, it was announced that Charlie Trotter was teaming up with designer Michael Graves to open a seafood restaurant in the Time Warner Center. One of Chicago's greatest chefs opens alongside Thomas Keller's Per Se and Jean Georges Vongerichten's ill-fated V steakhouse. The project was to have a main dining room, bar and lounge, and also a "reinterpreted" oyster bar. What Went Wrong: Costs (and probably egos) ballooned, and Trotter pulled the plug in 2005. The chef told the Times, "With construction overruns, the budget was up to, like, 13.5 million bucks."
Charlie Trotter at One Madison
The Concept: Charlie couldn't stay away from New York. In 2007 it was announced that he'd open a signature restaurant in the ground floor of One Madison Park, just a stone's throw from Eleven Madison Park. What Went Wrong: Multiple lawsuits choked all aspects of development. "Charles is still very interested in a New York presence, and preferably to continue to go down that path at One Madison Park," the chef's wife and spokesperson Rochelle Smith Trotter told the Sun-Times in 2010. But it was never meant to be, and now that the chef is closing his Chicago flagship, it’s safe to assume New York will never get a Trotter restaurant to call its own.
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