Fresh off recent honors, having taken first place in the Food and Most Popular categories in the 2012 Zagat Survey and having earned three stars in the 2012 Michelin Guide, not to mention having achieved a 25-year reign as a New York Times four-star restaurant, Le Bernardin chef and co-owner Eric Ripert could easily rest on his laurels. But Ripert (who has helmed the kitchen since 1994) and co-owner Maguy Le Coze recently completed a total renovation of the restaurant, including an expanded bar area, new decor, and a loosening of the "jackets required" policy. Here Ripert shares why he believes restaurateurs need to stay ahead of the game.
Le Bernardin is an institution. Why did you decide to renovate?
My partner Maguy Le Coze and I felt that the look and feel of the dining room was not meeting the needs of our increasingly young clientele. So we wanted to really reinvent the experience and create a more inviting atmosphere—and also keep pace with the way the menu has evolved over the years.
You expanded the bar area, stopped requiring men to wear formal jackets, and updated the décor. Were you trying to make Le Bernardin less stuffy?
I think that people like to dress up and enjoy the occasion. We don't think that people find that stuffy. Guests who come to Le Bernardin very often are here to celebrate something and they like the excuse to dress up. The idea with the bar and lounge was to replace a space that essentially was a waiting area and didn’t really have much life to it. We wanted to have a real bar with good cocktails and some small plates to give people another way to experience Le Bernardin.
How has it worked?
We are seeing a very positive response from our regulars and newcomers alike. One thing that is surprising us is how busy it has been at lunch in the lounge.
How is the menu different?
Our philosophy towards the menu has not changed. Our mantra has always been and remains that the fish is the star of the plate. However we did introduce a new lounge menu which offers things like oysters, caviar and some small plates like smoked salmon croque-monsieur with caviar and gravlax.
Are the changes meant to attract a new kind of customer?
We had a few key words that we gave our designers to guide the creation of the space: warm, contemporary, sexy, timeless, and comfortable. Quite frankly, we were tired of the look of the room and we just felt it was the right time for a complete update. And since we were seeing an increase in our younger clientele we wanted to evolve in a way that could meet a different demand.
How does Le Bernardin stay relevant over 25 years?
In New York if you stand still, you will be passed by. We strongly believe that you have to keep yourself growing and changing to stay relevant. Each year since we opened in 1986 we had done something cosmetic to refresh the look—but this was the first time we completely 100 percent re-did the space.
How has Le Bernardin kept going when so many others haven’t?
We are very lucky to have a strong and loyal team, from the front of the house to the back of the house to offices—and I think that is one aspect that helps us to keep our food and service very consistent and therefore keeps guests coming back.