January 1, 2012

A Sea Change: Paul and Carol Bentel Reinvent New York’s Le Bernardin for Eric Ripert

Le Bernardin and its chef and co-owner, Eric Ripert, have a stellar reputation: three stars from the Guide Michelin, four from the New York Times, and more James Beard Awards than any other restaurant in the city. Lesser-known by now: Named after the St. Bernardin order of convivial French monks, Le Bernardin was a Paris transplant. When siblings Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze brought it across the Atlantic in 1986, they commissioned Philip George for the interior. It was never renovated until the time came to renew the lease for another 25 years.

The job went to Bentel & Bentel, Architects/Planners—a family enterprise that might well be named Bentel, Bentel, Bentel & Nagle, led by Paul and Carol Bentel, who are married, the former’s brother, Peter, and his wife, Susan Nagle. With a portfolio that includes Gramercy Tavern and the Modern for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, the firm was well suited to fashion an environment both refined and inviting. The intervention also had to be sufficiently subtle to reassure the more buttoned-up long-standing clientele yet dynamic enough for the tastes of a new generation. Just like the exquisite flavors of Ripert’s seafood. He and his architects dish on the renovation’s recipe for success.

Was the renovation a long time coming?


ER: About five years ago, younger customers began coming here, and we could see that there was a disconnect between them and the decor. We were still relevant but starting to age dangerously. Maguy and I felt like we could wake up any day now, and boom we’ve lost our place.

What was the first step?


PB: The layout. We realized that, if we reorganized the entry and repositioned the coat closet, we could expand the bar area into a lounge to seat 36, some at the bar itself and some at small tables. That set the programmatic direction.


CB:  We loosened up the space by making it two spaces. One is still formal, while the other is casual to allow for a more diverse customer base—local walk-ins, tourists.


ER: Right. Men have to wear a blazer in the main dining room but not in the lounge. And we serve the full menu there.

PB: Working with Danny Meyer helped us understand that a restaurant is a community. When it accommodates all types of diners, there’s synergy. Having casual and formal areas also creates a steady income stream across the week, instead of just Friday and Saturday.

ER: We served 50 dinners a night in the lounge last weekend. Before the renovation, there were no dinners there.

One thing you barely touched was the ceiling.

ER: We’re very attached to the ceiling. To us, it’s the bridge between the restaurant’s past and present. But we also knew it was a problem in terms of lighting, since all the fixtures
were attached to the beams. We’d been resorting to candles for more ambience.

CB: Lighting is one of the most crucial elements in any interiors project. Here, it was too ambient. No high, no low. So the space was reading all the same reddish-brown. Thankfully, everyone agreed that chandelier is a bad word. Eric and Maguy don’t like decorative fixtures, and neither do we. It’s nicer if everything is built in, like on a ship.

PB: We cleaned the ceiling beams and removed all the visible light fixtures. Then we cut slots in the beams and concealed fixtures inside. Now each table has one or two warm incandescents shining on it. The remainder are LEDs. This orchestration of light creates contrast and visual interest while saving energy, which was important to Eric.

What key words drove the design?

ER: We started with luxury, contemporary, sexy, warm, and convivial. Further on into the process, we added sophisticated, serene, and comfortable. The words helped us all stay on the same page.

PB: Then we gave flesh to the words. For instance, the lighting and the screens of twisted aluminum fins address sexy. The lounge is convivial. Comfortable seating we tested endlessly. Warm is leather upholstery, the onyx bar, chenille wall covering, and teak partitions.

CB: Serene is the image of water.

How did you choose the ocean mural?

CB: It was a crazy confluence, kismet. Eric and Maguy asked for a powerful water image for the back wall. We knew of Ran Ortner, because he shares a studio with our metal fabricator, and we mentioned Ran to Eric around the same time that a friend gave him a brochure on Ran’s work.

ER: Within 24 hours of seeing that, we were at Ran’s studio. The ocean triptych that now hangs in the restaurant was already there. We did not commission it. The size fit the wall perfectly, 6 by 24 feet. It was meant to be.

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