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The New Time Warner Center

By 1994, the economic downturn had forced Zuckerman to relinquish his hold on the Coliseum site. In 1996 a second competition was held. Nine development teams submitted proposals, which included a virtual-reality theme park with a rooftop surfing pool, a Sony high-tech entertainment center, and several aquariums. The winner, the Related Companies, pitched a headquarters for Time Warner, with a design by architect David Childs that had two towers, as do many of the stately apartment buildings that line Central Park West.

The Time Warner Center is a building so multifaceted—and so loaded with New York City history—that it is hard to look at it and decide whether it is good architecture or bad, whether it's beautiful or ugly. It looks and feels like something you'd see in Hong Kong, where such mixed-use buildings are the norm. Childs, of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the firm responsible for this building, pins its peculiarities on Robert Moses.

"Central Park South came across and then ended," Childs explains, "because the convention center made a two-block-wide structure, which happens very rarely in New York." By the rules that govern New York architecture, the Time Warner Center, which sits astride what's called a superblock, is simply too big. Childs loves it anyway.

"The fundamental idea," he says, "was to return Central Park South to the city. The right thing to do would have been to take the street all the way through the project. But that wasn't going to happen. Everything about my designs was about establishing that street and that's what this does." Childs points to the retail atrium. "It takes that slice of the street, takes it into the building in crystal clear glass."

At the moment, one can count the noteworthy restaurants near Columbus Circle on the fingers of one hand—Jean Georges, Gabriel's, San Domenico, the Hudson Cafeteria—and still have a thumb to spare. When the shops and restaurants at the Time Warner Center open, that number will more than double. The concept, five prestige restaurants and a bar grouped on the third and fourth floors of a shopping mall, recalls Las Vegas, where the big casinos increasingly provide serious dining options in gourmet multiplexes.

In any case, Columbus Circle will soon be home to an embarrassment of riches, with five chefs who often turn up on Top 10 lists all in one building. Most impressive is a return to New York for Thomas Keller, whose restaurant French Laundry turned sleepy Yountville, California, into a foodie shrine. Keller's New York brand is called Per Se and will serve—no surprise here—contemporary American cuisine with French influences. It will also house the first New York venture of Masa Takayama, the sushi chef whose nine-seat Los Angeles restaurant, Ginza Sushiko, was famous for its exotic offerings—including fugu, the potentially deadly blowfish—and for its prices, which started at $300 per person. Takayama has claimed that in his New York location, he'll be charging even more. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, known for infusing ephemeral foods with intense flavors, is opening, of all things, a steak house, which will offer an unimpeded view of his namesake restaurant across the street.

Gray Kunz, who built his reputation preparing classical French cuisine with Asian seasonings at Lespinasse, is, for his part, talking about opening a welcoming Mitteleuropa-inspired café, "a restaurant that people can come to several times a week." His Café Gray will be a remake of the sort of traditional café one might find in Vienna or Budapest, updated by architect David Rockwell. Kunz wants its warm interiors to offer an alternative to Time Warner's corporate stainless steel and glass. A window will make the kitchen visible to diners and to passers-byon Columbus Circle. And from Chicago comes Charlie Trotter, a five-star chef revered for his use of organic, seasonal ingredients, who is so passionate about roots, legumes, and greens that his Lincoln Park restaurant features a $100, all-vegetable tasting menu.

Then there's Rande Gerber, America's most prolific purveyor of hip nightlife. He began his career running the Whiskey bar at Ian Schrager's Paramount hotel, married supermodel Cindy Crawford, parted ways with Schrager, and became the official bar impresario for the stylish W hotel chain. Gerber's specialty is scene bars: a Wallpaper aesthetic, waitresses who seem to have wandered in from A Clockwork Orange, relentless techno music. But he says he's planning something mellower for his 5,000-square-foot Time Warner location.

"The concept is to do a more sophisticated lounge than I typically do," Gerber says. "I wanted some cleaner lines. The music won't be overwhelming."

At press time, Gerber, the king of "Flirtinis" and "Rasmopolitans," said he'd picked a signature drink, but he refused to divulge it. "We have one and it's very unique. I don't even want to talk about it. We want to serve it and then people will understand it."

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