When you think “lunch” in New York’s Financial District, you might envision dark wood paneling, $24 Niçoise salads, and serious wheeling and dealing lubricated by some equally serious drinking. In the new Lower Manhattan outpost of the beloved Italian restaurant Sant Ambroeus, however, the power lunch gets a softer side. Designed by hospitality guru Robert McKinley, the two-story restaurant is awash in soft light, floral patterns, and a palette of salmon and sherbet hues. Its showstopper? A gleaming, 18-foot-tall Murano glass chandelier.
It’s a space that, like at Sant Ambroeus’s other locations (its operator, SA Hospitality Group, has outposts throughout Manhattan and one in Palm Beach), combines the slower pace of la dolce vita with the energy of the Big Apple. “When you walk into the restaurants, you feel like you’re almost transported to Italy,” explains the designer, who along with his team at Studio Robert McKinley has been working with the restaurant group for nearly 15 years. “But at the same time, you feel like you’re having such a New York moment.”
Appropriately, McKinley was handed a very New York space to work with. The restaurant is located in Brookfield Place, a granite-and-glass mixed-use office and retail complex designed by architect Cesar Pelli in the late 1980s. Its proximity to the World Trade Center complex meant that much had to be rebuilt in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks; in the years since, the area has become a bustling neighborhood, attracting international tourists, white-collar workers, and a new crop of residents. McKinley, who grew up just outside the city in Westchester County, was eager to partake in that ongoing story of renewal. “When you talk about that area—whether it’s a place you go to often or not—there’s a soft spot in your heart for it,” he says. “So when the project was mentioned, I said ‘Great idea. I’d love to be involved.’ ”
The first order of business was transforming the vacuous, 40-foot-tall storefront space on the building’s eastern exposure. McKinley is the first to admit that the empty, raw space was a bit intimidating, but, he says, the team challenged itself with the prompt: “Okay, what’s really grand?”
During numerous trips to Italy, McKinley was always inspired by the country’s impressive theaters and resplendent 18th- and 19th-century cafés. “When you walk in, there are giant chandeliers and marble floors, and everything is really polished,” he explains. The designer was especially struck by the modernist grandeur of Turin’s Teatro Regio, rebuilt by architect Carlo Mollino in the late 1960s. Why not combine that vibe with something as New York as the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, McKinley reasoned?
These references permeate the new Sant Ambroeus. The design team, working with engineers, added a mezzanine to contain dining space and two private dining areas, a priority in the design brief. From a street-facing entrance, you can access the restaurant’s café and bar to the right or the main dining area on the left. The airy, double-height café has a more casual feel (“As the world gets back to normal, you can go and have a quick coffee, maybe breakfast,” the designer notes) and features a mahogany coffee bar and a pastry case displaying tempting sandwiches and sweets.
In the more formal dining areas, the walls are clad in grooved mahogany wainscoting and covered in a papaya-colored moiré fabric, a shiny textile that was all the rage in the 18th century but today is more likely to make an appearance inside a handbag or jewelry box. “We know we’re on track when someone’s like, ‘Oh, that stuff? That hasn’t been looked at in 20, 30 years—it’s got dust on it,’” McKinley jokes. “And I'm like, ‘Yeah, let me see that.’”
The restaurant’s obvious pièce de résistance is the monumental 992-pound glass chandelier, which cascades from the ceiling like a fountain’s plume and which McKinley hand-drew and had manufactured in Murano, Italy. The fixture beckons visitors up a flight of black marble stairs—covered in a plush red runner—to the upper restaurant level and private dining areas.
Of all the bespoke elements in the eatery, the carpet may have been the most envelope pushing for McKinley. “Think about that for a second: If I was trying to romance you with my design description, and I said the space is going to have wall-to-wall carpet, you’d sort of go, ‘Oh, okay,’ ” he says, evoking an arched eyebrow. “But the owner said they love the luxurious feeling of stepping onto a carpet.”
So a rug it was. McKinley’s team noticed how many iconic spaces feature carpeting (Radio City Music Hall, for one) and offered its own variation on the theme with a bespoke leafy botanical print of mint, brown, red, and pink. The plush florals underfoot—combined with terrazzo in the café, ocher-colored velvet on bespoke furnishings, blooming glass sconces, and artworks by Mario Marini, Le Corbusier, and others—create a sumptuous amalgam of color and textures.
Sant Ambroeus’s opening arrived a year late, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as the city gradually stirs awake once again, McKinley is excited to have his restaurant be a part of this neighborhood’s new chapter.
“This is why I love New York, right?” he says. “There’s a certain ‘nothing can get us down’ sort of attitude.”
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