As the chill sets in over the winter months, the ever-looming threat of snow hovers in the air, the dishes get heartier, and the best escape from the nipping cold is a warm restaurant with a wide selection of brown spirits. To better accommodate the changing of the seasons, many restaurants make slight menu changes. Light fruit salads are replaced with piping hot soups and full-bodied red wines are favored over dry rosés.
At New York restaurant Park Avenue, a simple menu change is not enough. Instead, the entire restaurant undergoes a complete transformation. Not only do Chefs Benkei O’Sullivan and Zene Flinn engineer an entirely new menu, but owners Alan and Michael Stillman, a father-son team, also enlist a design firm to reinterpret the restaurant’s motif through a complete overhaul for every season. They also adjust the name of the restaurant to match: Park Avenue Winter, Park Avenue Spring, and so on.
According to son Michael Stillman, the concept of a seasonally themed restaurant is not a new one. The Four Seasons restaurant in New York is credited with being the first restaurant to introduce the seasonally changing menu. But even though the idea itself may not be novel, Stillman says he hopes to improve upon it.
“We wanted this restaurant to take the concept further to embody the season completely and take on the feel, ambiance, and attitude of the season in New York City, without relying on stereotypical manifestations of what is seasonal,” Stillman says. “The idea was less about explicit seasonality, but rather to ensure the space has the feel of the season, and not just from the food, but from each aspect that touches our guests experiences. Essentially, we create four separate restaurants in one space.”
The history behind the Park Avenue restaurant is a rocky one. Park Avenue originally opened in 2007. It was a beloved restaurant that in its first year received two stars from former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni. But after losing the lease at its Midtown 63rd Street location, the 6-year-old Park Avenue restaurant had to close its doors. It later reopened as General Assembly, a 170-seat bistro in the Flatiron District. A quick six months later, General Assembly shuttered to make way for the return of Park Avenue.
With the resurrection of Park Avenue comes the challenge of creating the separate spring, summer, fall, and winter restaurants. This entire concept is one that could quickly become gimmicky if taken on by the wrong group. Instead, New York-based design firm AvroKO approaches each changing season with sophistication and class. The company transforms everything from the furniture to the floor plan and the light fixtures four times a year. The planning process takes months, but the actual on-site transition has a very quick turnaround.
“Three days are allotted for the whole crew to dismantle the old season and install the new one,” AvroKO partner Kristina O’Neal says. “We designed the space to fully accommodate some intense floral styling as well, so after the architectural pieces are installed, we have to leave time to get a sizable quantity of live foliage set. It’s a fairly choreographed dance to get it sorted in that amount of time.”
For last year’s Park Avenue Autumn, the AvroKO team took inspiration from the travels of Captain James Cook, an 18th century British explorer and captain in the Royal Navy whose voyages led him to New Zealand, Hawaii, and Australia. Nautical details such as rope chandeliers as well as orange-red fall foliage worked together to better set the mood.
“The design of each season is a standalone beautiful restaurant,” Stillman says. “The fact we change the décor four times a year just adds to the beauty and the ephemeral quality of the dining experience.”
Menu Engineering and Training
When diners make their way into the restaurant now, they will find Park Avenue Winter, a space that looks nothing like Park Avenue Autumn that came before it. The extensive décor change involves making sure that even minute details like the scent of the soap in the restroom and the servers’ uniforms get swapped out for something new and different. Nothing from the former season is to make an appearance in the current iteration of Park Avenue.
This concept applies to the menu, as well. Park Avenue introduces an entirely different menu four times a year. That means the chefs must test recipes and create a variety of new dishes with the same high standards as the previous season, and then teach those menu items to their team. The service staff tastes and learns about how each new dish is prepared, so they can be ready for any questions diners may present to them.
“We think about what is in season and what cooking techniques are appropriate to the moment,” Stillman says. “Summer is fresh and raw, where in autumn, we begin to look at more roasting and braising to bring out different flavors.”
Park Avenue Autumn, for example, used in-season figs for a duck dish paired with spiced figs and fennel. Hazelnuts were combined with maitake mushrooms for a Kabocha Squash Confit. But even the seasonally focused restaurant throws a few processed ingredients into the mix. One of the favorite dishes on the fall menu was broccoli paired with Cheetos.
As for the beverage program, Stillman partners with winemakers to develop a custom blend of wine that is appropriate for each season. After-dinner drinks are also created as a means to toast the current season. Bartenders learn how to mix the entirely new cocktail menu that is created every three months. Park Avenue Autumn, for example, used a chai-infused rum for a new take on the classic Mai Tai: Applejack and cinnamon came together for a cocktail that tasted exactly like fall.
With each restaurant transition, Stillman says he finds that diners enjoy coming back to see what the next concept will bring. “People enjoy the moment of walking in to the dining room,” he says. “The changing seasons bring more people back to the restaurant. It continues to build excitement since the space and menu change into a brand new concept.”