As is often the case with renovations, one thing led to another. At first, Daniel Humm just wanted to make some changes to the kitchen. “But if you’re going to redo the kitchen, you have to close the restaurant,” Humm says, referring to his acclaimed Eleven Madison Park. “And if you’re closing the restaurant, why not do the whole thing?” he adds, explaining how he came to hire architect Brad Cloepfil to renovate a dining room that doubles as a shrine.
For his part, Cloepfil says, “I stopped sleeping in April.” That’s when Eleven Madison Park earned the number one spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and Cloepfil (whose Allied Works Architecture is based in Portland, Oregon, and New York) realized his design had a lot to live up to. Cloepfil, 61, isn’t a novice—his work includes the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver—but he’s had a hard time establishing himself in New York, where his most notable project is the 2008 conversion of a quirky Edward Durell Stone building at Columbus Circle into the Museum of Arts and Design. While his work is varied, Cloepfil has a talent for designing quiet, contemplative spaces that serve as blank canvases for creative clients like Uniqlo and Pixar.
But it wasn’t clear that Eleven Madison Park, which is located in the former Metropolitan Life North Building on Madison Square Park, even needed to be reworked when it closed last June. The restaurant occupies a corner of the grand Art Deco lobby of what was meant to be the tallest building in the world when it was designed in the 1920s. (The Depression cut it off at 30 stories.) “I knew I could never leave, because I could never find another space this beautiful,” Humm says. In 1998, Danny Meyer opened Eleven Madison Park as an upscale bistro and brought in Bentel & Bentel, a design firm that later did the interiors of restaurants like Colicchio & Sons and Le Bernardin. It outfitted the room with lots of yellow wood and vaguely Deco details. In 2006, Meyer hired Humm as chef and Will Guidara as general manager, and the pair began reinventing EMP as a temple of haute cuisine, where the multicourse tasting menu featured plenty of theatrics— some dishes were delivered under a dome of smoke or presented in picnic baskets to be unpacked by diners.
As it happens, Cloepfil’s daughter Hannah (the oldest of his four children) worked at the restaurant as a hostess. The architect, whose office is just a few blocks away, stopped by often, and he struck up a friendship with Humm and Guidara. The two men bought the restaurant from Meyer in 2011, and last year they signed a new, 20-year lease on the space. “Then we knew our careers would be here,” says the 41-year-old Humm. He began talking to Cloepfil about making a few changes, to take the decor from “bistro” to “fine dining.” Though the initial brief was limited, “Brad came back with a master plan, and we knew we had to go all the way,” Humm says.
The changes to the restaurant, which reopened in October, are immediately apparent. Until now, “when you came through the front door, you faced a wall,” Humm says. “We felt that was not the most inviting way to enter.” The wall is gone, as are most of Meyer’s colorful touches. The dining room is more muted, mostly shades of blue and gray. Eventually, Cloepfil’s brief extended from the main space and three private dining rooms to everything from tablecloths to candleholders. During weekly meetings, Humm and Guidara tried out new chairs and banquettes, testing, Cloepfil says, “the slopes of their backs and the amount of give on the seats.” It wasn’t just about appearance but comfort during a meal that goes on for hours.
And the establishment’s previous colorful dishes have been replaced with all-white tableware designed by Cloepfil. Humm rejected anything too fanciful. “I designed a few of the plates to have an ornament on the rim, but it was too much for him,” Cloepfil says. Humm didn’t want the design to make a statement. “The plate is just a canvas for the food,” the chef says. Yet in an effort to make the space “more personal,” Humm says, he commissioned new artworks, including a painting of Madison Square Park by Rita Ackermann that hangs in the main dining room.
Of course, they couldn’t overlook the kitchen, which Humm is famous for showing off to diners. The workspace is now more open, and at its center are new stoves from Italian brand Molteni that Humm says were his “dream.” There’s also a new approach to the menu. Patrons who really understand EMP will welcome the tweaks to both degustation and decor, he says. “The DNA of the restaurant has not changed.”
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