Bisnow Exclusive: Peek Inside the Pier A Restaurant Complex
Vacant for 22 years and never open to the public in its 127 years, the city’s only remaining historical pier will open next month as a 28k SF restaurant and bar with a 1,175-person capacity. (Snoop Dogg, if you're reading this: You'll have to leave some people off your birthday invite list.)
We snapped restaurateur Danny McDonald with MRD owner Mike Riotto, whose over 300 lighting fixtures will set the tone for complex. Danny is known for restaurants so cool you wanted to be them in high school (Puck Fair, Ulysses’ Folk House, Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog, Swift Hibernian Lounge, and Harry’s Cafe and Steak), and he showed us the 11 unique dining and drinking experiences Danny and partner Peter Poulakakos will offer under one roof.
Danny tells us New York is returning to its history as a waterfront city. And Pier A is joining the movement big time. He, Mike, and architect Vincent Laino spared no detail to make Pier A—jutting southwestward into New York Harbor where Little West Street runs into Battery Park—embrace the waterfront, its history, and the pier’s part in it. It delivered in 1886, dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in the same ceremony as the Statue of Liberty, and Pier A offers a fantastic view of the Lady.
The ground floor is welcome to all, whether or not you're stopping for a beer and some oysters, and it has 10 entrances. The main one, though, leads into this hallway, where a pair of full-wall murals will mimic the scene outside, including a horizon line aligned with the real one outside. On the northern wall, the mural will start with 1 WTC, just as a pedestrian would see it as he or she enters. On the southern, water-facing wall, the mural will depict the harbor, fading in color and time to black-and-white and ending with Lady Liberty. The art won’t be there at opening, as Danny has chosen to do it justice by putting it up after, when he’s less distracted. He also did the murals at Puck Fair and Ulysses.
He tells us the restaurant espouses three verbs—mix, dine, and view—loosely organized with mixing on the lower level, dining on the second, and viewing on the third (though you can do all three anywhere). At the end of the entry hall, you can turn right for the stairs and elevator, but we’ll go straight, into the Long Hall, the primary spot to mix. Everything past the arch we snapped is above water, which makes the long-term ground lease from the City more of a figure of speech. Though Pier A’s original use was for the NYC Department of Docks and Harbor Police, it also unofficially served as the arrival point for the monied immigrants who were able to skip Ellis Island. They walked through the hall, and this arch is where many first set foot on US land.
Because there’s no basement, all the infrastructure has to be above board, so Danny and Mike decided to own that fact and create the feel of a ship's engine room. Mixed with the functional pipes above the bar, which runs the length of the Long Hall, are 100 vintage, USA-made gauges (50 on each side) that Mike retrofitted with LED lights. The bar is also all-American, made of black walnut. The red lights you see between the windows on the south wall correspond with green ones on the north, a steering signal for boats docking (keep the red on the right and green on the left).
Of course, many of the immigrants arriving in New York City weren’t rich, and Danny et. al. are making sure all feel welcome. Beyond the Long Hall is an open kitchen, where staff will be hard at work shucking oysters (though they won’t be sourced from New York Harbor as in the olden days). The dry bar also extends down the wall, and doors open onto outdoor seating for anyone and everyone to mix and mingle over buckets of fried oysters, skewers, and other fare referencing the “cornucopia” of the Hudson Valley and New York Harbor.
Stepping out the back offers a view of the clock that went up in 1919, believed to be the first WWI memorial in the US. The refurbished bell inside rang recently for the first time in 50 years, though Danny says he wouldn’t keep time by that clock just yet.
The spiral stairs to the clock tower, the back way to the restaurant's more typical sit-down dining, begin in the oyster bar and will be surrounded by the restaurant’s wine collection.
At the top of the stairs lies the old Art Deco office of the NYC Fire Commissioner, whose department occupied Pier A from 1960 to ’92. The walls are the office’s original teak, and many of the original brass fixtures remain. The room offers some film history, as well. This is Michael Corleone's office, where he gives the order to "off" Fredo in The Godfather: Part II. (Sorry, spoiler alert.)
Four small dining rooms—Liberty, State, Patrol, and Grace—line the second floor's harbor-facing windows, each room with a different tint, including blue in homage to the police and red for the firemen. The City delivered the building to Danny as a vanilla box, but you’ll find no white anywhere in the building. One big reason: Windows act like mirrors when they face white walls, and he wants nothing to compete with the views.
East of the four intimate dining rooms is a 16-person chef’s table looking into another open kitchen, and to the east of that is this 60-person private dining room with its own bar.
Work on the Harrison room is so intense that even Danny can’t get in for a look. Finished in cherry, it also features striking Michael Davis Glass stained-glass ceiling panels and a FiDi vista. The room references President Harrison’s 1889 visit to Pier A (Danny has images from that day), his partner Peter’s eldest son Harrison, and Peter’s father Harry (namesake of Harry’s Cafe and Steak).
And on the third floor is a 173-person event space called the Loft, offering 360-degree views.
Michael pointed out this view from the nondescript corner behind the bar in the Loft, the best view in the house, he says.