Rockrose, M. Wells beef up Court Square foodie cred

Steakhouse offshoot to open next month in area of Long Island City
By C. J. Hughes | September 25, 2013 02:26PM

Can finely prepared meat help lease one-bedrooms? Though it sounds like a set-up for a joke, it’s actually a serious bet Rockrose Development is making in the Court Square section of Long Island City, an industrial area that the firm is trying to turn residential.

Rockrose has installed the M. Wells Steakhouse in a 3,000-square-foot auto repair shop it owns at 43-15 Crescent Street, in the hopes it might put the area on the map, said Justin Elghanayan, Rockrose’s president.

The restaurant, which has an additional 600-square-foot outdoor space, will open late next month, according to the restaurant’s owners. It’s inked a 10-year lease, Elghanayan said, though he wouldn’t disclose additional terms. Asking retail rents in the area average $35 a square foot.

The site is close to Linc LIC, Rockrose’s latest residential project, a 709-unit, 42-story tower at 43-10 Crescent Street. Roughly 200 of those units are leased, Elghanayan said, adding that a 15,000-square-foot ground-level space will feature Food Cellar, an upscale grocery store, as previously reported.

As the Odeon restaurant did for Tribeca in the 1980s, or Dumont did for 2000s Williamsburg, M. Wells Steakhouse — the offshoot of a popular, now shuttered nearby diner — could do for the non-waterfront section of Long Island City, long known for office buildings and warehouses, Elghanayan said.

“M. Wells continually innovates, and people want to live near innovative restaurants,” he added.

For her part, Sarah Obraitis, who co-owns M. Wells Steakhouse with her husband, Hugue Dufour, downplayed the place-making potential of the location. (The pair opened the French Canadian-accented bistro M. Wells in 2010, but it closed in 2011, reportedly over a lease renewal dispute with the landlord.)

“Why there? There’s grit. It’s an interesting sort of nexus of the new and the old,” she told The Real Deal from a perch at M. Wells Dinette, another offshoot, which is housed inside the nearby contemporary art museum MoMA PS1.

“I don’t care if there are thousands of people moving into the building across the street,” she said.

But in a place where fine dining options are limited, Linc LIC tenants will likely enjoy the proximity.

For decades, Court Square, which is known to many Manhattanites as the location of the soaring Citicorp tower, had been mostly a sleepy commercial district, with some rough edges.

Aware of the fact that there wasn’t a lot for people to do at night there, Elghanayan in 2011 set up a recurring summertime party called the Palms, which took place in a bank parking lot and featured three swimming pools fashioned out of Dumpsters.

M. Wells Steakhouse, meanwhile, will serve burgers, with bones attached, Obraitis said, and will offer tableside carving service, though the menu will be a departure from M. Wells, which had veal brains and pickled pig’s tongue.

“It won’t be the same dishes per se, but same people and same spirit,” she said.

Obraitis’ original restaurant was located in a silver diner at 21-17 49th Avenue, near the Long Island Expressway, and closed in 2011, after negotiations with the landlord fell apart, according to a letter Dufour posted to the food blog Eater.

The landlord’s “proposal included astronomically high rent, a short length of lease and a strict buy-out clause,” he wrote. “Nothing on the table offered us a favorable environment in which to continue to do business.”

For his part, Elghanayan, who is poised to be the dominant residential landlord in the area, may have other patrons to send Obraitis’ way.

Construction is slated to begin soon on nearby 43-25 Hunter Street, a 50-story rental with 975 units; designs are also underway on Eagle Lofts, a conversion of a former electrical supply building at 43-22 Queens Street, which will have 700 units, he said.

Other Arrivals May Have A Place to eat, too.

In spring 2012, JetBlue opened its new headquarters at 27-01 Queens Boulevard, by the Queensboro Bridge, consolidating its Forest Hills and Connecticut locations. The airline’s space, a 20,000-square-foot sublet from MetLife, added more than 1,000 office workers to the area.

Plus, the same year, the law school of the City University of New York relocated from Flushing to Two Court Square, across six of the building’s 14 stories, funneling students and professors into the neighborhood.

And, other new Court Square rentals are happy to see it open, like 27th on 27th, an apartment tower from Heatherwood Communities at 27-03 42nd Road. Its 142 units were all leased as of August.

“There is enough of a mass in the area now for the residential services component to start to develop quickly,” said David Maundrell, president of aptsandlofts.com, which handled 27’s marketing. “I think it’s great news.”