If ever there were a restaurant lavatory befitting a bathroom attendant, surely the loo at the Rainbow Room (30 Rockefeller Plaza, 212-632-5000) would be it. Aside from said attendant, however, neither gender’s quarters are what I’d call lavish, hidden one flight up from the landmark ballroom’s perch near the pinnacle of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, accessed by narrow stairways that necessitate an awkward shimmy when more than one person traverses them. The archaic staffing choice still smacks of classism, even in the rarefied air up here. It’s an awkward practice for modern times, but thankfully it’s one of the only retro touches that rings obsolete rather than charming at this newly overhauled bastion of New York style. I have no quarrel, for instance, with the jackets-only policy for men. It classes up the joint a bit, though unfortunately they’re not equipped with loaners just yet, so a surprise call letting me know I’d been upgraded off the waitlist occasioned an emergency shopping trip. Women aren’t so restricted — everything from formal dresses to knit sweaters are allowed. All that said, not even patrons clad in potato sacks could detract from the elegance of the iconic space.
Real estate giant Tishman Speyer, which owns and manages Rockefeller Center, hired architect Michael Gabellini to revamp most of the 65th floor. At night the dining room shimmers, its gray walls softening the glitz of restored chandeliers and newly installed crystal — yes, actual crystal — curtains that symbolically synchronize with the restaurant’s bewitching views. The rebirth is nothing shy of stunning. When the Rainbow Room last closed, in 2009 (this is its third reopening in as many decades), it surrendered as a drab husk of its former self. Its skeleton, wrought in 1934 and host to 75 years of big-band-fueled revelry, sagged under the weight of nightly soirees. Now Mondays are your only chance for dinner and dancing. The rest of the week the room serves as an event space, save for a $95 Sunday brunch where a cog-like formation of buffet tables maddeningly overtakes the rotating circular dance floor with enough options — from sushi to Indian curries, potpies, and raw-bar selections — to give Vegas a run for its money. Scaling back to a single evening’s entertainment might be shrewd, but dinner’s the better deal, if chiefly for the old-school pampering.
With prices for the three-course prix fixe starting at $175 (the tab can elevate to $250 depending on who’s playing that night), the Rainbow Room boasts one of the most expensive menus of its kind. The breakdown’s a lot easier to swallow when you combine chef Jonathan Wright’s energized New American food with an impressive lineup of live acts playing mostly big-band standards or show tunes — though given the price range, you might want to pick your performer accordingly. A white-gloved waitstaff dotes on patrons, the latter a mix of out-of-towners and locals intent on seeing what all the fuss is about. Canapés arrive during the band’s introduction, and once the evening’s set in motion, dinner takes on the unavoidable aura of an event. It’s Great Gatsby dinner theater, where you can hobnob with movers and shakers who do exactly that on the dance floor. And while at times the whole thing feels like an estranged relative’s wedding reception, the meal steers the night to a happy ending.
The British-born Wright earned his large-scale fine-dining chops running hotel kitchens around the world, from Oxford to Singapore, Miami, New Orleans, and now New York. In the past a warhorse like the Rainbow Room might have gotten by on décor and service alone. Now, in an era when fast-casual operations tout their ingredient sourcing and sporting venues have gone gourmet, the Rainbow Room — possibly the most celebratory dining destination in town — ought to provide food that’s relevant and in tune with its atmosphere. Tasked with that mission, Wright has unpacked an arsenal of farm-to-table embellishments to go along with his French-inflected menu.
It’s 2014, so chicken-skin chips support dots of foie gras mousse in the amuse-bouche. A basket hits the table, and what appears to be a quartet of cheese puffs instead turns out to be masterful one-bite hors d’oeuvres of pretzel rolls stuffed with smoked salmon, a decadent way to kick things off. Next to arrive are sake cups of butternut squash topped by a Parmesan foam (all foam, no Parmesan). Then a selection of breads — sourdough baguettes, rosemary-studded potato rolls, and flaky cheese croissants — with whipped butter and bacon jam that feels more Brooklyn than midtown power scene. Suddenly your three-course meal eats more like a four- or a five-.
Service is attentive — not an easy proposition, what with the size of this place — and nearly every table receives a visit from the sommelier. Wines start reasonably (relatively speaking, anyway) at about $60 and reach heights that match the altitude at which you’re dining. They’re a fine compromise to negotiating the cocktail list, which catalogs classic and contemporary drinks ranging from $22 to $32, which isn’t entirely obscene given the surroundings…until you’re asked to part with $26 for a bloody mary. (Another reason to skip brunch.)
Diners choose among four appetizers and five entrées. The former lean toward lighter fare: a salad with seasonal greens and roasted grains, nutty sunchoke soup supported by sweet roasted shallots and crisp chicken “oysters” (those nuggets of tender thigh meat nestled in the hollows of the bird’s backbone). Main courses deliver occasional fireworks, like Wright’s lobster pot pie, a ramekin of oceanic beauty brimming with root vegetables, meltingly soft lobster meat, herbed cream sauce, and an eyebrow-raising amount of sliced black truffles underneath a glossy, brittle crust. Channeling the NoMad (as several establishments have done in recent years), roast chicken mingles with truffles and foie gras — the mushrooms in stuffing, the liver as a luscious plated sauce. Of the three desserts on offer, an apple soufflé (sadly eggy on the night I tried it) baked into a hollowed-out apple is the most ambitious. Molten chocolate cake redeems its cultural inertia thanks to dark chocolate, wine-poached figs, and excellent pistachio ice cream.
Before that most recent closure five years ago, the Rainbow Room was open to the public seven days a week and run by the Cipriani family (of Harry’s Bar fame). Down the hall sat the Rainbow Bar and Grill, a casual offshoot with an à la carte menu. Its replacement, SixtyFive, serves only drinks at the moment (a “tapas-style menu” is on the way, a hostess assures), so for now there’s only one option for a sky-high dinner. Despite a new terror-inducing (for acrophobics, anyway) wraparound outdoor terrace for those who enjoy reduced oxygen along with their sweeping vistas, nothing beats the grandeur of the main event. As a peerless New York City attraction, the Rainbow Room has bounced back better than ever. My bet’s still on dinner.