WHY are two women whose bikini days are behind them sitting down to dinner in the just-opened Hawaiian Tropic Zone in the American heartland zone of Times Square on a Friday night? We certainly haven't come for the two-story wall of plasma TV screens, or the waterfall, or, and especially, the unsettling experience of being waited on by taut young bodies covered in less fabric than our napkins. No, as a certain telegenic host would say, we're just here for the food.
The menu was developed by David Burke, the wild man of New York cuisine ever since his days at the River Cafe in Brooklyn when he sent petit fours to the table still baking on a miniature cast-iron stove. He has bounced around from the Park Avenue Cafe through the Smith & Wollensky steakhouse chain, but his cooking reached a pinnacle at davidburke & donatella, in one of the city's ritziest if stodgiest precincts on the East Side, and survived grafting onto a cafe in Bloomingdale's.
Whatever he attempts is always worth exploring, and especially right now, when the city is in a peculiar state, caught between the moon of Joel Robuchon and the earthbound reality of just how risky adventurousness can be with rents out of control.
Think small and you wind up in Brooklyn anymore, where daring restaurateurs can open idiosyncratic places for less than the $35,000-a-month lease burdening a small space even in the alleged culinary wasteland of the Upper West Side. But if you want a jazzy experience at the table that does not cost more than opening-night seats at the Metropolitan Opera, you might have to think in the box. Big box, to be specific.
Hawaiian Tropic Zone is just the latest in a series of outsized restaurants that have moved into Manhattan, where space is at a true premium but where entrepreneurs who are able to rent huge and sell theater along with food to make it work financially have caught on big time. In the Meatpacking District alone, cavernous, hyper-styled Morimoto and Buddakan are doing numbers that might even make Applebee's envious -- 900 on an average Saturday night for the latter.
Nearby, Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak seats 120 in a space so huge the waiter will walk you to the restroom rather than expecting you to leave a trail of crumbs, while uptown in the space-is-no-object Time Warner Center, Michael Romano has just opened another sprawling steakhouse, called Porter House, that can seat 250 in the dining room, bar and private room. And word is that the famed Russian Tea Room is about to be reincarnated, in a multi-floor space in Midtown that seemed ridiculously outsized and doomed to failure only a few years ago.
Everything about the trend should feel wrong, but somehow it connects in this changing city. With the stock market exploding and the rich getting richer, the mood echoes some aspects of the scene before the last crash, in the late '80s, when so many restaurants served the equivalent of a small-town population any night of the week. What makes the trend train worth boarding this time around is that it turns on the food rather than just the scene. There's a much higher level of expectation now, and both Buddakan and Morimoto are not only packed but taken seriously for their cooking. The chef at the latter is Masaharu Morimoto, the "Iron Chef" himself.
SIZE is a big part of these restaurants' appeal in a city where apartments such as my Tropic Zone friend's do not even have conventional ovens, let alone full-size refrigerators. But they also offer the equivalent of dinner and a show. Morimoto has what it calls an "exposition kitchen," but even at places where the cooks are hidden far off, down long corridors, you can almost eat the scenery. Craftsteak is one of the smaller of the new culinary stadiums, but every decorative touch -- leather chairs, wall-size painting, shimmering glass curtains -- is transporting to a bigger, more expansive universe. Tropic Zone demands attention from the second you sit down, when butter is served on a slab of salt. (The table also comes outfitted with a little box containing pencils and ballots to judge the waitress pageant at 9 every night, but women who have learned the hard way that only the firm survive can be forgiven for finishing up dessert and fleeing before it begins.)
There could not have been a better moment for restaurateur Stephen Starr to take his brilliant show on the road from Philadelphia, where he has long dominated the food front with both a Buddakan and a Morimoto, as well as Striped Bass, Tangerine, Pod, Continental and half a dozen other dramatically designed places with food and service on the same theatrically high level. As he knows better than any restaurateur since Rich Melman at Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago, "bigger is not always bad."
Certainly nothing about the appetizers and main courses at Tropic Zone feels suited to a theme park. Burke describes the menu as "straight-down-the-pike American food with my touches." That means swordfish "Benedict," set over chorizo and under hollandaise, all topped off with a fried quail egg, or Burke's signature salmon pastrami with horseradish mousse, or three perfect little crab cakes, each with a different salad. Only dessert is more what you might expect in a roomful of women wearing itsy-bitsy sarongs (designed by Nicole Miller, however), particularly the grown-up banana split with peanut brittle that was cheapened by a scattering of M&M;'s.
At Buddakan, small plates are what the restaurant does best, including deep-fried taro "lollipops," steamed dumplings filled with pureed edamame (hummus straight out of Asia), sweet corn dumplings and, most exceptional, an Asian translation of the classic frisee salad with lardons, with shredded Peking duck filling in for the bacon.
Morimoto is less fusion-y but still whimsical. I had a duck-duck-duck plate that included a fried duck egg, the breast, the leg and a croissant stuffed with slabs of foie gras, while another friend and I shared the tofu made with great fanfare at the table and a tempura calamari salad.
At none of the three meals did it feel as if the kitchen was even breaking a sweat, let alone swamped. But all are set up to crank out volume. Tropic seats 300 and expects to do 700 to 1,000 covers a day. Morimoto, with 200 seats, serves 400 patrons a night, while a low count for Buddakan's 320 seats is 700, according to Starr.
"We do more business in New York [than Philadelphia] because it's New York," says Starr. "We do more covers because people eat late, they're having dinner at 11 o'clock at night."
They speak to the city
THESE are restaurants that conceivably should be more at home in Disney World or Las Vegas, but they reflect big changes in the city. The Meatpacking District, for good or for bad, is the destination du jour for heat-seeking trendoids, while Times Square is now stamping grounds for a cadre of Manhattan professionals working in investment banking and for publishers including Conde Nast. Restaurants tend to fill up not with tourists lost on their way to Bubba Gump's or the Olive Garden but with New Yorkers, or their suburban peers. The bar scene at Tropic Zone on a Friday night a week before the official opening, Oct. 6, was probably 80% guys in suits.
Burke thinks the days of "the 70-seat fine-dining restaurant" are on the way out. "You've got to do turn-and-burn or charge super-high prices," he says. "Once you start paying volume, it gets a lot easier." He says every dish on Tropic Zone's menu is designed to use "high-quality ingredients that can be executed for volume."
The trick is not letting the diner catch wind of the wizardry, but then, that is what dining as theater is all about. Buddakan has multiple dining rooms: a huge, open one hung with chandeliers and set with communal tables, another lined with a Warhol-esque series of icons of Buddha, a third looking like a library. No one who experiences Morimoto leaves without insisting her companions check out the bathrooms. Tropic Zone has so much going on visually you barely notice each under-clad server is supported by at least three male schleppers who set up the ice bucket for the wine and deliver the food.
Tellingly, Starr says the per-person check average is $60 at Buddakan and $105 at Morimoto. The food at the latter is more complex and the turnover slower, and he still comes out ahead. But in either environment, heads are spinning.
Robuchon, the Parisian super-chef who opened a dainty branch of his Atelier in Manhattan's Four Seasons Hotel over the summer, can get away with charging $46 for a bite of lamb. But mere mortals need to turn tables. As Burke notes, PR has gotten to be more essential to getting a restaurant off the ground, and "a small place can't afford" to make a big splash.
Starr certainly set off a tidal wave last December, renting 12,000 square feet for Morimoto and 16,000 for Buddakan. The exposed sushi kitchen alone at Morimoto is the size of an enviable three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan: 1,500 square feet. But neither restaurant feels like a feeding station because each is divided into smaller spaces with design to spare.
Starr, who got his start in the cabaret business, is the quintessential restaurateur as showman. And he has arrived in New York at the perfect time, when diners are essentially looking for a club with serious food. But he is also a realist. He says he would never open a Buddakan in Times Square, and though he has been approached about opening one in Los Angeles, he is in no big rush. Both his Manhattan places "are infants," he says, "a long way from running like machines," and that is the case with him just a train ride away. Tending babies six hours away by plane would be another story.
But for now, the future looks big with the Dow booming, the poor getting squeezed out and a huge audience looking for more than just dinner. As Burke says: "I like to go to a smaller place when I go out, but a guy who has been sitting at a desk all day doesn't want to go anywhere quiet. He wants to eat and hang out and make a night of it."
While some might see it as sensory overkill, Burke also has his own theory of why these restaurants have taken off. "People are hungry for something, hungry for action," he says. "Why do you need two cellphones and a Blackberry?"