The New York Palace Hotel Seeks a Makeover

A new restaurant and three bars are set to rise from the ashes of Gilt
Dec 31, 2012

On Saturday, Dec. 15, Gilt restaurant, which earned a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list in 2011, closed its doors for good.

The restaurant, located in the New York Palace Hotel, joins chef Alain Ducasse's Adour at the St. Regis and chef Joël Robuchon's L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon inside the Four Seasons as the third fine-dining restaurant lodged inside a luxury New York hotel to close this year.

In a city where chef's counters are the new fine dining and white tablecloths are practically extinct below 14th Street, upscale hotel bars and restaurants are forced to rethink their approach to drinking and dining.

"Gilt was a restaurant designed at a different time, during a different financial environment," Patrick Cappiello, the restaurant’s wine director told me. "Gilt is not what people are looking for from a hotel experience anymore."

Gilt opened in 2006, in the space that had held Le Cirque 2000. The Prince of Brunei, then owner of the hotel, envisioned a "decadent" restaurant, the sort of place that poured Château Mouton-Rothschild and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti La Tâche by the glass and could rival Per Se. It's hard to blame him. The space within the renovated Villard Mansion, originally built in 1882 as a private residence, begs for some other, grander time.

The New York Palace Hotel's last great heyday was in the 1980s when the Villard Bar, a velvet-clad nook off the lobby of the hotel, was a place for high-profile trysts and $500 glasses of Cognac. The bar, once exclusive enough to become a favorite of the Rolling Stones, is now a storage room with boxes stacked high underneath Louis XIV-inspired chandeliers, its velvet couches crying for a Dustbuster.

But the plan is to restore the Villard Bar to its former glory, although with less cocaine and far better cocktails. And that’s just the beginning.

Above the Villard Bar, a gilded former meeting room will become a private high-rollers lounge with high-end spirits, like rare Scotch and decades-old Cognac. In addition, a secret space under the lobby's grand staircase will become a small wine bar that will feature highly allocated wines—anything from top Chablis from François Raveneau to Domaine Gramenon's Sierra du Sud—by the glass. Finally, the restaurant will reopen with a new concept and a new chef.

Launching a last-ditch effort to prove that opulence isn't over during a time when restaurants are dressing down might seem like nothing short of a fool's errand. But Cappiello, who will take over as the wine and beverage director for the hotel, has already proven that he has a knack for challenging norms.

At Gilt, he developed a wine list that was impressive in size and scope, but was also as progressive as it was grandiose. Fine-dining lists of this size—it offered 3,000 selections—often ignore the funky, more obscure producers from the Loire and beyond that act as poster wines for the non-interventionist movement. But at Gilt, Cappiello placed producers like Agnès & René Mosse and René-Jean Dard & François Ribo as unlikely lead-ins to the icons of Bordeaux. He offered all of these wines at incredibly low mark-ups, another oddity in the world of fine dining.

As a result, Gilt was truly a place to go to discover great wines at low prices. Cappiello hopes to communicate that anew and prove that some of the opulence that both Gilt and the Villard Bar embraced can be repackaged for a changed New York scene.

The restaurant that will take the place of Gilt is slated to reopen under a different name in summer 2013, with chef Michel Richard, of the highly regarded Citronelle in Washington, D.C., behind the stove. Cappiello promises that the restaurant will be more casual, but just how casual—with a chef like Richard in a room that looks like a scene out of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence—is a question that remains unanswered. For years, Cappiello toiled in relative obscurity at Gilt, fashioning what would become one of New York's best wine lists while barely anyone in the New York wine scene noticed. Part of that is because, according to Cappiello, they were "never as connected to New York as we wanted to be."

With the addition of a new chef, three bars and a wine list that will likely expand, the hope is that the Palace Hotel can finally establish itself, among New Yorkers, as the destination it deserves to be for drinking and—why not?—a little decadence.

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