Chef Geoffrey Zakarian
Reimagines New York’s Iconic Palm Court
By Robin Jay
“Nothing unimportant ever happens at The Plaza” has served as common mantra practically since October 1, 1907, when Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt paid $2.50 and signed the guest registry as the hotel’s very first patron. Now, 107 years later, the iconic New York City landmark is still making headlines – this time by reimagining the venue’s iconic past. You see, celebrity Chef Geoffrey Zakarian has taken the helm at the venue’s Palm Court and – with his 30 years of culinary experience and reputation for old-world elegance – restored it to its full grandeur.
“I have lived in New York City for 34 years,” Zakarian told South Florida Opulence. “So I really was determined to make The Palm Court have a historical tie into the city, yet be broadened in scope and menu offerings to partake in the modernity that has since taken hold in the hospitality industry, most specifically in hotel food and beverage areas.”
Zakarian’s passion for The Plaza may have first sparked back in the day when he and his wife would bring their children to Palm Court for the famous Eloise Tea. (After all, what parent could resist seeing his children light up when momentarily following in the footsteps of the young fictional movie lass who lived in The Plaza Hotel?)
“We had visited several times, both with and without my children, but The Palm Court is more than just an amusement ride or attraction; it needs to be always a meeting place for everyone. What better place than to take children to experience something larger than life than the corner of 59th and 5th Avenue?” he said.
What “Zakarian” touches might guests now enjoy at The Palm Court?
“There is now a beautiful bar with artisanal cocktails smack dab in the middle of the lobby, a sort of center of the universe approach,” Zakarian said. “I just love the small New York centric sandwiches on the tea service, as well as the spectacular cocktail list that my friend Brian Van Flandern created. We always look to introduce very New York City centric items and more seasonal items as much as possible.”
The “Spirit” of Palm Court
Zakarian’s mixologist and right-hand-man, Van Flandern agrees. “Knowing the history of both the venue and the cocktails previously served provides a transcendent experience for our guests,” he said. “Visitors want to hear the stories of the famous presidents, dignitaries and celebrities – like F. Scott Fitzgerald – who have graced the halls of this iconic New York City landmark. It brings great joy to our guests to be able to order cocktails in the same manner as the luminaries that have hung their hat at The Plaza Hotel since the turn of the century. It also adds a tactile dimension to a timeless experience.
“Imagine enjoying a Red Rum Swizzle in a custom designed Plaza Tiki glass. The cocktail was served for over 30 years at Trader Vic’s, which resided in the basement of The Plaza from the ’60s to the ’90s where countless celebrities went to see and be seen. A great many of the cocktails served in The Palm Court have rich histories. The opulent setting combined with the right libation makes one feel regal and relaxed.”
And just what was Fitzgerald’s favorite cocktail?
“One can imagine sitting in the same room as F. Scott Fitzgerald sipping on a Gatsby Mint Julep while he was writing The Great Gatsby, a cocktail which the character Gatsby himself drinks while visiting The Plaza Hotel,” added Van Flandern. “It is well documented that Fitzgerald himself was a notorious tippler. He was never for want of a drink while living at The Plaza, which is curious since his stay overlapped with Prohibition when the country was supposed to be dry! It is not generally known what his favorite drink of choice was, although we can surmise that Champagne, Canadian Whiskey and Cuban Rum ruled during that time frame.”
For guests, there are plenty of other fascinating scenarios that can be gleaned about famous Plaza guests and their favorite libations throughout history.
“It is not uncommon to find our guests sitting in The Palm Court flipping through my latest book Celebrity Cocktails while sipping on a Hemingway Daiquiri or an Orson Welles Negroni,” Van Flandern said. “This beautiful coffee-table book is a tribute to 100 years of Hollywood royalty and the cocktails that they either made famous or were famous for drinking. And the very first cocktail tells about Leonardo DiCaprio at The Plaza Hotel.
“From the beginning, I worked with Chef Zakarian to create a menu that would bring New Yorkers back to the hotel bar. I put great thought into selecting the glassware and garnishes for The Palm Court cocktails. It greatly enhances a wonderful cocktail experience if the glass just feels right in your hand. Finally, I wanted to address the one component most often overlooked… phenomenal customer service. As my background was from a Michelin Three Star restaurant, I wanted to impart that attention to detail onto the guest experience. Great music, sublime atmosphere, tasty cocktails and fantastic service define the cocktail program at The Palm Court. Until our next cocktail together… Bottoms up!”
And Now, Back to the Meal
Getting back to the food side of the menu, one might ponder how an Iron Chef like Zakarian, known for his fashion sense,
design sagacity and artistry, goes above and beyond to create a newly enhanced dining experience at The Palm Court. How does one raise the bar when the bar appears already to be on its highest rung? I asked Zakarian how preparing for New York guests at The Palm Court compared to preparing for his Miami guests back when he opened Tudor House or Blue Door.
“I never think of foodies in one city as more or less involved or knowledgeable,” Zakarian noted. “Rather, I wanted to take the history and dignity of the old Palm Court and freshen it up. Remember, plenty of people have never been, so whatever they encounter will be new anyway! And there was so much there that was beautiful and relevant even today. Thierry Despont is a real design genius in knowing how far to push the envelope but always retaining the human feel of a space as grand as The Palm Court.”
For both first timers to The Palm Court and seasoned patrons planning to see Zakarian’s personal touches for the first time, the Chef offers some sage advice:
“Sit and have tea. Don’t leave. Then have a cocktail at 5:00 PM sharp!”