In one of my favorite restaurants in the US, it’s not the food that I find particularly remarkable. It’s everything around it. If you’ve ever read me commenting on San Francisco’s lack of interesting interior designs, this is what I’m talking about. Beyond the West/East cost comparison, Lever House’s original and tasteful modern design is second to none.
The restaurant opened its doors in 2003 as part of a renovation project for the Park Avenue building it borrows its name. Lever House, the curtain wall skyscraper, was built in the early 50s to house Lever Brothers’ offices. In the 80s, the soap company’s headquarters was recognized as a New York landmark.
The restaurant was designed from the ground up by Marc Newson, one of the most prolific designers of his generation. Known for his futuristic take on everything from furniture to aircraft design, the Australia-born Newson was hired by NYC’s restaurateurs John McDonald and Josh Pickard to remodel the 6,500-square-foot area once used for conference rooms and company store. Five million dollars later, the subterranean, windowless space was completely transformed. The result is a retro modern design that pays homage to the 50s’ vision of the future while being enviously contemporary.
In contrast to the busy street outside, guests walk down a futuristic tunnel leading to the long dining room. The view is arresting. Newson’s design is marked by curvilinear forms and honeycomb geometry. Raised booths feature curved banquettes and hexagon pattern mirrors framed like airplane windows.
Over the custom designed carpet, 12 tables and beautiful molded wood and leather chairs are surrounded by a long L-shaped banquette. A bright, spacious bar and a private dining room bookend the space.
Much like Oscar Niemeyer’s Brasilia–a remarkable example of modern architecture built entirely from scratch, Newson’s transformation of a subterranean space into an iconic restaurant is spectacular. Granted in much smaller scale.
This review could very well end here. The description above should be enough to get you interested. Don’t get me wrong; you will eat well at Lever House. No question about it. But it seems even the restaurant puts its other attributes ahead of the food–the Chef’s bio is the fifth down the list on the restaurant’s site. All in all, the menu selections are appetizing. Lunch fare is lighter and includes sandwiches and a few salads. Dinner has more varied options of chef Bradford Thompson’s modern American cuisine. Prices are on the steep side though, not all places can charge $26 for a lunch burger. The crowd of yuppies and expense account executives don’t seem to mind.
I dined at Lever House a few times. The dishes on this review are from the lunch menu I tried in my last visit. Both dinner and lunch are very good.
Individually baked rolls are served with soft butter. Unfortunately, the bread is also on the soft side.
Among the appetizers available at both lunch and dinner, a highlight is the Chilled Local Sweet Corn Soup, Lobster Knuckles, Basil, Cherry Tomatoes. A very flavorful, creamy soup poured at the table over a tiny piece of lobster and blanched tomatoes.
For main course, a dish that may peak your curiosity is the Maine Lobster ‘BLT’ on Potato Dill Roll, Tempura Bacon, Oven Cured Tomatoes, Tarragon Rémoulade. It peaked mine, although my palate was left disappointed. The lobster texture is lost in the somewhat dry patty and the roasted tomatoes lack the contrast usually brought by fresh ones. On a brighter note, the tempura bacon is great, thin and crispy.
A side order of Hand Cut French Fries is suggested by the sharp wait staff. They are worth it.
For dessert, Caramel Pot the Crème, Ricotta Beignets, Sautèed Plums and Heirloom Tomatoes. The consistency resembles a flan more than a pot de crème and the tomatoes, despite being an inventive topping, add more color than flavor. But in the end, this is a good dessert. The beignets are fluffy and the plum preserve adds a nice tart balance.
To finish, a plate of house made Biscotti sent by the chef.
Lever House is a great example of how a restaurant experience can go far beyond the food. You will eat well but, most importantly, eat in a remarkably well-designed space. A design that deserves a place in the MoMA (which already made many of Newson’s creations part of their permanent collection). But if that’s not something you particularly care for, it will feel overpriced. At Lever House, service and ambiance are definitely included in the bill, and in this case, the ambiance is worth paying for.
Lever House has closed in April 2009.
It was located at 390 Park Ave.