Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bad Meal at Black Rock

The Ground Floor restaurant
In 1965, the new Eero Saarinen-designed building on 52nd Street at Sixth Avenue — swiftly dubbed “Black Rock” — was CBS President Frank Stanton’s baby.
“Consistent with his own taste in art, the furnishings and fixtures reflected a sleek, modern look,” wrote Lewis J. Paper in his book Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS. “Glass, chrome and modern paintings dominated the interior space. Even the location and quantity of plants received careful consideration.
“The only exception to the master plan was (CBS Chairman of the Board Bill) Paley’s office. It continued to reflect his own (and very different) tastes. The French gaming table remained as his desk, rich paneling still adorned the walls, comfortable couches were placed strategically, exquisite paintings hung on the walls, and various artifacts — an old CBS microphone, the cigar-store Indian and later a photograph of Edward R. Murrow — all helped to provide a warmth that seemed even more pronounced because of its stark contrast with the rest of the building.”
But the urbane and sophisticated gourmet Paley had his own baby —a haute cuisine restaurant on the ground floor, eventually to be called The Ground Floor.
“The notion of owning a restaurant had always appealed to Paley, especially as the years went by,” Paper said. “Decades of culinary experience had only added to his knowledge and heightened his interest in planning a restaurant. It would, of course, have to feature the best in everything — from its design to the food to the service. Friends noticed the considerable energy he put into the restaurant — picking a name, shaping the décor and planning the menu.”
The interior design reflected the exterior of Black Rock, but the restaurant’s manager, Jerry Brody, thought that was a mistake. “He felt the building was too cold and stark for a restaurant,” Paper said. “Then there was the cost of the fixtures. Bill Paley wanted the best, but the cost made it that much more difficult for the restaurant to show a profit. All of which might have been overcome if the restaurant became popular, but Bill Paley’s zest for food was not matched by his success as a restaurateur.”
Brody suggested a northern European steakhouse, but Paley said no. It must be French cuisine.
Paley in his apartment foyer with his Picasso, "Boy Leading a Horse"
“He went to France almost every year, knew the food and it would draw the right kind of customers — sophisticated people, those who appreciated the finer things. But all these plans and hopes and expectations could not guarantee results. No matter how much time Paley spent in the kitchen tasting the soups and other fare (which he did almost every day), The Ground Floor did not produce the business that Bill Paley wanted, that he felt he deserved.”
In 1968, restaurant critic Gael Greene described the chilly ambience. “The Ground Floor is a perfect room to end an affair in,” she wrote. “The tables are far enough apart to announce the break in a firm voice, and the ambiance is stern enough to discourage sloppy emotionalism.”
“But Boss Paley mingles with everyday folk in the dining room. Leonard Lyons moves through the grill, antennae clicking off the celebrities du jour – Donald Pleasence, Sloan Simpson, an author or two drinking breakfast. And good grief! Bob Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman tieless, unjacketed, grizzled gray locks to the shoulder, Ben Franklin specs … the oldest hippie in the world. Mostly, though, the grill is lined with youngish executives expense-accounting each other. Restrained, subdued: That is not a bar to get sloppy drunk in … not a room to unlax in.”
“It was a never-ending source of frustration,” Paper wrote. “He knew food, he knew New York City and yet he could not make the kind of mystical connection to customers that he had made with his programming. And those who confronted him with the obvious truth proceeded at their peril.
“There was the time, for example, when Stanton, Fred Friendly and Bill Leonard met with Paley one afternoon shortly after The Ground Floor had opened. Paley asked the three executives if they had eaten at the restaurant. In fact, they had all just eaten there — and thought it was terrible. Neither Stanton nor Friendly dared to speak the truth, though. They mumbled that it was fine, just fine. But Bill Leonard loved food as much as Paley, and the two of them had spent many occasions passing away hours discussing food. Leonard could not compromise the truth on so important a matter, and he blurted out, ‘It was awful. The food was terrible. Fred had a fish dish and got sick. The service was bad and the prices were way out of line.’ As Leonard continued, on and on, the color started to drain from Stanton’s face, and the effect on Paley was obvious. ‘It was as though I had said his mother had been caught with a young man,’ said Leonard. The meeting ended more quickly than anyone had anticipated, and the phone was ringing for Friendly almost as soon as he and Leonard returned to the news offices on West Fifty-seventh Street. Friendly reported that it was Stanton with a message for the deputy news chief. ‘Tell Leonard,’ said Stanton, ‘that he has just set the News Division back 10 years. He’s wrecked everything. All Paley can talk about now is the restaurant.’”
“All he wanted, he told friends in 1965, was a simple place where a secretary could go downstairs and have lunch for seven or eight dollars,” David Halberstam wrote in the Atlantic. “His pleasure was enormous when the restaurant finally opened, and his disappointment equal when it was not a wild success. At one point Paley, puzzled by the lack of its success, turned to the restaurateur running it for him, Jerry Brody, and suggested that they might try a supper club for those who eat around 11 p.m., something that Paley liked to do after an evening of concerts or theater.
“ ‘Bill,’ said Brody, ‘there ain’t no supper business in this town.’
“ ‘No?’ answered Paley, puzzled. ‘Why not?’
“ ‘Because everyone’s home watching the tube.’”
Paley’s restaurant evolved into the Ground Floor Café, the American Charcuterie and then the sixth incarnation of the venerable Rose Restaurant. Today the location offers the haute Asian fusion of the China Grill.

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