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Upscale, Downscale

From midtown Manhattan to a Vegas resort, luxury food courts are following the lead of their humbler cousins

What do Le Cirque 2000 and Sbarro have in common? Restaurant lovers may wince at any comparison between Sirio Maccioni's hyperdesigned temple of dining and the For- mica-sheathed pizza-and-calzone standby of suburban malls. But maybe they should think again. While the two restaurants may not seem to share anything--except, perhaps, having a name that ends in a vowel--they represent upscale and downscale branches of the same trend. The opening this month of a new Le Cirque (and of many other name restaurants) at a luxury resort in Las Vegas, along with the inauguration of a newly renovated Grand Central Terminal in New York City, marks the arrival of the upmarket dining mall.

Consider the Bellagio, the Las Vegas resort hotel. The 120-acre, 36-story, 3,000-room behemoth is being described by the people at Mirage Resorts, its parent company, in the same statistic-freighted tone you imagine the advertising department at the White Star Line must have once used of the Titanic. The hotel is set amid a fantasia of classical fountains and gardens on an 8 1/2 -acre lake; it houses a $250 million art collection and an exclusive retail lineup that includes Prada, Armani and Hermès. "We are redefining the hotel experience on every level," says Elizabeth Blau, Mirage's vice president for restaurant concept development, whose paean to the hotel's luxuries is so superlative-laden that you half expect her to use the word unsinkable.

The redefinition she refers to is nowhere more evident than in the domain of food. The Bellagio will have 12 major restaurants, presided over by the most prestigious restaurateurs and chefs in the country: outposts of New York's Le Cirque 2000 (in an 80-seat space designed by Adam Tihany) and Osteria del Circo; a branch of San Francisco's Aqua, by Michael Mina and Charles Condy; Prime, a new 176-seat steak house by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, of New York's Jean Georges, Jo Jo and Vong; and Picasso, a new venture by Julian Serrano, who is picking up and leaving San Francisco's Masa's after 14 years to open the 125-seat Mediterranean-themed restaurant partially designed by Pablo Picasso's son Claude and adorned with the master's works. These places will stand cheek by jowl with the hotel's luxe retail spaces: the Bellagio's 148-seat Olives, a branch of Todd English's restaurant in Boston, will, according to Mirage, be "strategically located between the Armani and Hermès boutiques." If that eat-shop-eat-shop arrangement is reminiscent of anything, it's of your neighborhood mall, but on a much grander scale.

This veritable napoleon of conspicuous consumption--expensive shopping layered with superrefined eating--is a classic embarras de richesses. Webster's defines that term as "embarrassing surplus of riches; confusing abundance," and while no one questions that all that expertise and refinement of taste constitute a "surplus" of excellence, you may indeed wonder if all this isn't, in the end, a "confusing abundance" as well. To some, the Bellagio may be part of a growing trend in American cities toward what you could call mall-ification. In a recent editorial for The New Yorker on a proposed development plan for New York City's Columbus Circle, the architecture critic Paul Goldberger lamented what he called "mall[s] for urban sophisticates"--vast buildings "in which design matters less than size, and size matters less than what goes on inside." A resort hotel is hardly the same as an urban development, of course, but nevertheless it's hard not to wonder whether the Bellagio's smorgasbord of superior restaurants amounts to an extremely high-end food court.

Mirage's Blau balks at the implication. "Look," she says, "we have 3,000 rooms here, and with double occupancy that's 6,000 people. It's like a small city. In New York you wouldn't think twice about having that concentration of fine restaurants in a few blocks." Her defense is all the more persuasive when you consider that guests who have $1,400 per night to spend on a 2,000-square-foot two-bedroom penthouse suite are unlikely to be fazed by the prices of the Maccioni family's truffled risotto.

But city dwellers are facing urban mall-ification much closer to Columbus Circle. A scant two weeks before the Bellagio opens its doors, a newly renovated Grand Central Terminal will have its inauguration in New York City. The 1913 Beaux Arts building has undergone a nearly $200 million restoration, and one of the notable new features is the transformation of the balconies overlooking the Main Concourse into a cluster of serious restaurants, including a café by Harry Cipriani, a Mediterranean restaurant by Matthew Kenney and Michael Jordan's--The Steakhouse. The terminal's lower level will have a "Dining Concourse" that includes everything from the posh food mart Citarella to a Two Boots pizza to a Caviarteria.

Unlike the Bellagio, Grand Central doesn't have a captive audience of 6,000 to feed, so it's harder to shrug off such questions as "Is this array of restaurants little more than a fancy food court?" Forrest Taylor, chief of staff for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has resisted the comparison, emphasizing that all food courts tend to have the same tenants "whether you're in upstate New York or west Texas or Southern California," whereas Grand Central's collection is unique. But despite Taylor's assertion, places like Matthew Kenney's restaurant and Harry Cipriani's café aren't quite unique, since they are, essentially, outposts of existing empires. The important difference between the Caviarteria at the new Grand Central and the Sbarro in your old neighborhood strip mall may be one not of kind but of degree--not of concept, but of the cost and cachet of what's being served. Uniqueness isn't the point here: people who can afford to do so will be paying not for a one-of-a-kind experience but for the opportunity to participate in a well-known, name-brand sensibility, even if the names in question are rarefied ones. Todd English and Matthew Kenney may be the creators of their new restaurants, but you can't assume they'll be in the kitchen cooking for you.

The best defense against the jeremiads of those who see projects like the Bellagio and, especially, Grand Central as sucking the life out of authentic urban experience may, surprisingly, be a historical one. Consider the architect Whitney Warren's observation that the "up-to-date" Grand Central, with its surplus of retail shops and its confusing abundance of restaurants, "resembles a bazaar." As it happens, Warren was writing in 1913--the year the terminal opened. His comment suggests that the recent upsurge of urban spaces that offer intense, sometimes overwhelming concentrations of places to eat and shop may not be so much a case of some newfangled consumer-era embarras de richesses as it is of something else--something you can find in Webster's under plus ça change.

DANIEL MENDELSOHN writes frequently about books and the arts.

Published November 1998
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