On a steamy, overcast Wednesday afternoon recently, the chef, restaurateur and Bravo TV host Tom Colicchio is standing in the middle of a nine-story atrium in a 19th century building in Manhattan's Financial District. He's staring straight up. As men and women in white masks whir around him, polishing tiles, hammering floors, lugging out stuffed chairs and sofas, the 54-year old’s piercing blue eyes are trained sky high.
“This is what sold me,” Colicchio says. “I walked in [two years ago] and stopped here and said, ‘I want this. I need to do this.’ It’s spectacular.”
"This” is The Beekman, a new hotel project from the Thompson Hotels group that opens for reservations this week. Within its landmarked red brick façade is Colicchio’s latest restaurant, Fowler & Wells. (There will also be a French restaurant, Augustine, from Keith McNally). In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner service in his 90-seat dining room and its adjacent lounge-cum-bar, Colicchio will also be responsible for the hotel’s room service and its banquet catering. It marks the first time he has ventured into a New York restaurant-hotel partnership.
What sealed the deal was the bones of the The Beekman, née the Temple Court. A granite, Philadelphia red brick and Dorchester stone building erected in 1881, the Queen Anne-style Temple Court at 5 Beekman Place boasted a pyramidal skylight and the aforementioned atrium, with Victorian cast iron railings and balustrades bloom with flowers, sunbursts and dragons. Over the past century plus, the Temple Court housed legal offices, hosted the debut New York production of Hamlet and was home to Clinton Hall, a space including The Mercantile Library Association where writers like Edgar Allen Poe toiled away.
Little surprise, then, that over the course of a 40-minute tour of his restaurant and the hotel, Colicchio uses the phrase “what the space wanted” over a dozen times in describing his Old World New York aesthetic and menu. While standing in what will soon be the bustling kitchen of Fowler & Wells, he points out that, “usually, you start with the food and work out." But at The Beekman, “the space is informing not only design choices, but what we’re actually serving.”
Colicchio arrived at The Beekman after interior designer Martin Brudnizki was already attached to the hotel; he loved Brudnizki's vision, and went with it for Fowler & Wells (the name comes from two scientists who worked at the American Society of Phrenology, another former tenant of Clinton Hall).
“He didn’t want to mess with the space too much; he wanted to leave it alone. It made so much sense.”
That epic nine-story atrium overlooks The Bar Room, which will act as the restaurant's lounge area. The walls are bedecked with cheeky vintage tintype portraits by Cathy Cone, one of the many artists whose works were curated, assembled and in some cases commissioned by Katherine Grass as part of the 60-plus strong Beekman Art Collection. And the bar will serve classic cocktails, with some creative license.
“I come in here, I want a Negroni. I want a Manhattan. I don’t need cotton candy balls that melt into… no, no, no!” says Colicchio, who also has strong opinions about the playlist. “We were going to do some kind of playlist and I was like, ‘No, this wants jazz.’ It doesn’t want a techno track.”
The main dining room of Fowler & Wells will feature timber floors, stained glass windows, brass wire and shaded lights. (Or in Colicchio’s words, “It’s just a simple chandelier and some simple tables and chairs... real simple.”). And as for the food, it’s French-based, tapping into the feeling of an old New York stalwarts like Delmonico, or even bygone institutions like Lutèce or La Caravelle, places that dominated the Manhattan food scene when Colicchio first started out as a cook.
“I didn’t think at this point in my career I would go back to what I was doing 25 years ago, but the space wanted it,” he says of old-school specialties such as sole Veronique, beef Wellington, lobster Thermidor and oysters Rockefeller. “It’s more sauce-based and less vinaigrette-based. You’re not going to see vegetable swooshes and micro greens. No foam. But you’ll see consommés, truffle sauces and you’ll see roasts and braises and whole roast chicken for two.”
Speaking of sharing, a less generous restaurateur might think twice about going competing with a Keith McNally establishment serving French food. But Colicchio intends to be a beneficiary of McNally’s Midas touch.
“His restaurants are always packed," Colicchio says. "And he’s great at creating that kind of buzz. I’m really happy he’s my neighbor."
Guests whose nights go a bit longer than expected could consider booking one of the 287 rooms available. A sixth floor example, one of the few finished ones during our walk-through, is a mélange of period furniture, purposely mismatched: a 20's lamp meets a midcentury bedside table meets a sleek, contemporary desk. Sliding barn doors lead to a bathroom with Carrera marble and a commodious rain shower. An open bar with New York-themed alcohol offerings (bourbon, gin, bitters) catches Colicchio’s eye.
“You get this idea like you’re home, you’re going to mix a drink. I have a good bar set up [at my home]. It’s a little more alcohol than that.”
As we make our way back downstairs, Colicchio pauses to point out the balcony railing (raised for safety purposes and curved to discourage guests from resting drinks on it) and point out the restored Victorian tiles. If it seems like his relationship with The Beekman is particularly affectionate, it is in some ways a testament to the surrounding neighborhood. Nearly fifteen years later, it’s impossible not to associate lower Manhattan with September 11.
“Coming down here is part of still saying, ‘F--- you,’ to put it as simply as possible,” says Colicchio. He adds, “It’s also falling in love with the city again, falling in love with downtown again, what this was a hundred years ago, two hundred years ago… there’s something romantic about that.”
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