New York's Changing Restaurant Axis

By: Korsha Wilson, Foodable Contributor

The building at 261 Moore Street in Brooklyn looks almost identical to every building around it. Across the street, parking lots full of sixteen-wheelers sit in endless rows behind shiny, silver barbed wire. On Friday and Saturday nights, cabs and Ubers filled with millennials are continually stopping at this address and emptying their passengers right in front of a non-descript, maroon-colored awning. Most passersby don’t know what’s behind those graffitied walls, but there are plenty of people who do and have travelled from different parts of New York City to this spot for one special reason: inside is Roberta’s pizzeria and its Michelin-starred sibling restaurant, Blanca.

Roberta’s, a loud, punk rock pizzeria, and Blanca, a tasting-menu-only restaurant known for serving high-end, creative Italian and American cuisine, have attracted the attention of Manhattanites and Brooklynites alike. On Friday and Saturday nights, both restaurants’ dining rooms are filled with millennials taking pictures of their dishes for social media and ordering craft cocktails. Not too long ago, the food-loving and Michelin-star hunting restaurant lover who lives in Brooklyn had to head into Manhattan to eat at renowned restaurants. Not anymore. When the 2016 Michelin restaurant guide announced their picks for exceptional dining experiences earlier this year, it included 12 restaurants in Brooklyn, a first for the area. The top tier of fine dining in New York has spread across the river in the opposite direction too. In Jersey City, fine dining restaurants are opening to accommodate the influx of young professionals looking for affordable housing. Across the country, it seems that restaurants are spreading out and chefs are setting up shop in newer, up-and-coming areas.

The Migration Out of Manhattan

The increase of restaurants in new areas is a direct result of the increase in rent in big cities. New York City in particular is a cautionary tale of sky-high real estate prices and rent for restaurant owners. In 2014, diners and chefs were shocked to learn that classic Manhattan restaurants like Wylie Dufresne’s wd-50 and the beloved Union Square Cafe were going to close due to rent increases.

In a previous interview for Grub Street, real estate expert and restaurant lease broker Julian Hitchcock explained the situation that owners in Manhattan are currently facing. “The only place restaurants can go anymore is the perimeter of Manhattan: the Upper East, Upper West,” he says. “And if you're a first-time restaurateur, the East Village or the Lower East Side. That’s sort of the last frontier. There’s still affordable space over there; it hasn't gone totally crazy.” Higher rent means higher overhead for restaurant owners and increased pressure to turn a profit. With lower-Manhattan rent per-square-foot costs running between $60 and $160, it is no surprise that chefs have begun to look elsewhere for places to open a business.

Brooklyn and Jersey City are two areas that have seen a boom in outstanding restaurants because of the high cost of doing business in Manhattan. Critics have listed restaurants like the late Thirty Acres, a farm-to-table favorite opened up by two Momofuku alums in Jersey City, and The Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare as restaurants that New Yorkers should travel to for a great meal. New York City is still one of the best cities in the country as far as fine dining and is home to the most Michelin starred restaurants, but its status as a culinary epicenter is spreading beyond the island of Manhattan.

Fine Dining Spreads Out

A scallop and wild mushroom dish at 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky | Credit: Yelp, 610 Magnolia

A scallop and wild mushroom dish at 610 Magnolia in Louisville, Kentucky | Credit: Yelp, 610 Magnolia

A look at the food scene across the country shows that New York is not the only city with a changing food scene. More and more, chefs are looking beyond well-traveled metropolitan cities when it comes to opening a fine dining restaurant. Cities like Charleston, Austin, and Louisville have become food destinations with excellent restaurants.

In Louisville, chef Edward Lee is creating Southern-inspired Korean dishes at his James Beard Award nominated restaurant, 610 Magnolia. And chef Sean Brock of Charleston has managed to become one of the country’s most visible chefs after his restaurant Husk received praise from critics nationwide.  

In Boston, the migration of restaurants have helped reshape entire communities. The Seaport area, which used to be mostly industrial, has undergone a complete transformation thanks to big name restaurants like Menton, Legal Harborside, and more.

The spread of restaurants might be due to the fact that consumer demand for different food experiences is at an all-time high. Diners want more than a delicious meal; they want an experience and are willing to travel for it. Just look at the rise of pop-ups and tasting menus across the country. Chefs in unexplored areas have the opportunity to introduce diners to ingredients that they may not have tasted before and at a price point that allows them to make a profit.  

In Jersey City, an incredible real estate boom in the last few years has lead to an increase in retail space at an affordable price. In 2014, the city built 18,000 rental units and with them came retail space for restaurants and shops. Celebrity chef Dale Talde is one of the latest chefs to open a restaurant in the area: he brought his Park Slope Brooklyn concept, Talde, to Jersey City last year and opened Bell + Gray two months ago.

Looking Ahead

How far can restaurants spread? Any city or town needs to have customers where a restaurant opens and every restaurant cannot be a destination restaurant. Ultimately, the market will dictate where restaurants open, and retail spaces will open where residential spaces are built. The good news for restaurant owners and operators is that diners are open to new concepts and willing to travel to try something new. The old-guard, dining capitals are no longer the only place to find an excellent restaurant, and new voices and ingredients are being discovered and introduced to the dining public.