Relaunching an Icon: NYC’s Rainbow Room

Posted in Interviews on January 27, 2014

What does it take to bring a storied restaurant back to life? This fall, New York’s Rainbow Room will reopen in the upper reaches of Rockefeller Center. The Manhattan icon first opened in 1934 on 30 Rockefeller Plaza’s 65th floor, and reigned as one of the city’s most highly-regarded restaurants until its closure in 2009. Today, Elizabeth Blau of restaurant planning and development company Blau + Associates is overseeing the reopening process–from the culinary programming to the operations strategy. We talked with her about just what it takes to relaunch such an iconic New York restaurant.

Tell us about your background and your role in the Rainbow Room project. First of all, I’m a native New Yorker–that’s important when you’re dealing with an iconic landmark! I’ve been in the business for 25 years. I started my career with the Maccioni family at Le Cirque, and eventually connected with Stephen Wynn and started my own company in Las Vegas.

Are you looking for a chef who brings a strong point of view, or looking for a chef who can accommodate a vision you already have? It’s an exciting opportunity, and we’re looking for that perfect lady or gentleman with a strong culinary background, who can do something really special with the food; we really want to highlight the culinary program. At the same time, though, the celebrity here is the Rainbow Room itself. From the days of Joe Baum, the Rainbow Room has been about a wonderful culinary experience along with other elements–stepping off the elevators and taking in that breathtaking view. We need someone talented but also versatile, able to execute everything the program demands.

And what about on the management side? We need someone who can approach this kind of dynamic environment–a high-volume, high-profile restaurant, banquets, Sunday brunch, so much more; so much of their role is overseeing all these various demands.

What’s the balance between wanting to honor the history of such a historic location, and wanting to keep any restaurant relevant and current? That can certainly be difficult, and part of this project is the extremely important aspect of honoring the space. In more recent years, the Rainbow Room leaned more toward Italian fare, and the place had a sort of Euro flair; we don’t disregard that, but want to bring in more of a sense of American tradition and specifically New York tradition. “Farm-to-table” is an overplayed phrase, but the concept itself never gets tired. There’s such a rich tradition of agriculture in New York state, seafood from the area and from New England; we have so much to take advantage of. In terms of connecting to the past, we have a whole library of the restaurant’s history–all the old menus, “side order of chicken livers for 40 cents,” that sort of thing. Some of that doesn’t play in our current time. But other elements do; retro cocktails, for example, are so hot all over the country.

What about other elements of the experience? Service is not only a priority, but important in relaunching the space–we’re aiming for a nostalgic, almost lavish service, which prioritizes guests and experiences.

What’s a rough timeline for the project — how far do you plan ahead for this sort of opening? Since the whole space is scheduled for the fall of 2014, we’re currently actively pursing our executive chef and director of operations. Given the volume, and the number of different business units within the operation, people need plenty of time for preparation.

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