Cave Men

Jeffery Lindenmuth - May 2006

A triumvirate of wine list masterbuilders reach the pinnacle by adopting the stratagem of the tortoise racing the hare.

In 1990, with a cast of celebrity investors including Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, Sean Penn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Lou Diamond Philips, and certainly not least of all, restaurateur Drew Nieporent of Myriad Restaurant Group, Tribeca Grill was poised for a box office–worthy opening weekend. But Nieporent and Tribeca Grill managing partner Martin Shapiro had their sights set far beyond the grand expectations of the restaurant's red carpet debut in the Tribeca Film Center. "It was like being shot out of a cannon when we first opened, with all the hype and fanfare, largely because of the celebrity investors and the momentum at Montrachet. But my goal, from the beginning, was to survive the hype and make sure we would be a serious restaurant," says Nieporent. Over the past 15 years, by staying true to their vision while building on each success, Tribeca Grill has not only prospered but has also achieved that great restaurant rarity, graduating from a new release to become a classic.

Tribeca Grill is indeed a serious restaurant, with a wine list to match, having received Wine Spectator's Grand Award every year since 2002. But the transformation of the modest 60 selection list that wine director David Gordon opened with in 1990 to an award-winning collection has been through slow and deliberate accession. "When we opened, there was no notion that Tribeca Grill was going to be a wine destination--not to anyone but me," says Gordon, who built the program in baby steps, validating each investment as he went.

About four or five years after opening the doors with 60 wines featuring one-line descriptions, Gordon added a reserve list of 100 all-American wines, a move inspired by the American bistro food of original executive chef Don Pintabona, who after 12 years passed the torch directly to current executive chef Stephen Lewandowski. In keeping with Tribeca Grill's American theme, the list offered over 20 California Zinfandels at a time when few restaurants had more than two or three of the peculiar American red. "That list was very successful," says Gordon. "Check averages went up, so Marty [Shapiro] and I started thinking about doing more with wine," Gordon recalls. Two years after that, they purchased a private collection that brought their list to about 500.

With recognized wine powerhouses like Rubicon in San Francisco and nearby Montrachet as sibling restaurants, it would have been easy for Tribeca Grill to settle for kid brother status. Instead, Shapiro and Gordon followed up their foray into Zinfandel with an exploration of Rhône wines, a perfect match for the flavor, price, and sensibility of the food. "Just like the menu, Zinfandel and Rhône Valley reds offered great value. They don't have the cachet of Cabernet and Merlot, but you still get a hedonistic style of wine," says Gordon, noting that Tribeca Grill's food is consistently "fresh, intense, robust, and very wine-friendly." Gordon's personal passion for Rhône wines and a string of stellar vintages from 1998 to 2001 also made the region ripe for picking.

Gordon advocates some degree of specialization on any wine list, regardless of size. By conveying his interest in Rhône wines, he observed that the same people who ordered Burgundy up the street at Montrachet were inspired to try Châteauneuf-du-Pape at Tribeca Grill, particularly upon realizing the restaurant boasted the largest assortment in the world, a selection that now numbers over 300. "You have to have a passion and a focus. Even if there are a hundred wines on your list, today you have to have a focus to set yourself apart," Gordon insists.

Restaurants that open their doors with ready-made multimillion dollar wine cellars are more the rule than the exception in New York these days, but the team at Tribeca Grill doesn't harbor any sour grapes over the comparatively glacial growth of their 20,000 bottle collection. "It was a natural organic growth. It grew because the customers wanted it," says Shapiro. "This list came out of our love and our interests, so we never had to sit down and say, ‘Well, we need x number of Bordeaux and x number of Burgundies.'"

Even with an enthusiastic reception to the growing list, Nieporent says he was often called upon to defend the burgeoning wine inventory and expensive cellar construction to concerned business advisors and investors.

Now boasting 1,700 selections, the entire Tribeca Grill wine list, both Old World and New, is organized by grape variety. And, far more than just a tome of Rhônes, the list includes global values, from German Riesling to high-end Australian Shiraz to vertical vintages of California Cabernet. "We've always concentrated on offering value. I hate when you look at a restaurant wine list and the wines jump from $40 to $75. The pricing here is very balanced, and I try to hit $5 increments in every category," says Gordon, who also includes a cover page of about 50 wines titled Dave's Picks in order to put some personal favorites like Domaine de Montvac Vacqueyras Blanc 2003 ($52) from the Rhône and Ridge "Three Valleys" Zinfandel 2003 ($46) from Sonoma in the spotlight. The average bottle sale has been on the rise each year and now hovers around $60.

The entire wine list is also available, and updated weekly, on the Tribeca Grill Web site (www.myriadrestaurantgroup.com). "It's amazing how many people look at the wines on the site before dining. I'm certain of it because they'll come in and ask for a wine they saw earlier in the week, so we try to update it almost as often as the printed list," says Gordon. "It's technology that didn't exist years ago, and if you don't have your wines on your Web site, there's something really wrong with you."

The long tenure of the Tribeca management team and the smooth transition between just two chefs, who, in fact, shared the kitchen, is no small part of Tribeca Grill's reputation for consistency. But Shapiro is keenly aware that even the departure of a key busperson can upset the balance of the restaurant. "It's about understanding and respect for each other. It filters right down to bartenders and runners and dishwashers, who in some cases have been with us 10 or 15 years," says Shapiro. That same allegiance was warmly revealed in the Tribeca Grill patrons, who sustained their neighborhood restaurant through its greatest challenge, a "lost quarter" following the disaster of 9/11 and the resulting decimation of downtown Manhattan businesses.

By welcoming neighborhood regulars, downtown workers, destination diners, star spotters, and wine lovers, Tribeca Grill may be the most democratic restaurant in the Myriad family. "We have two restaurants on the same corner. One is trendy; the other is the antithesis of trendy," says Nieporent. "And we've spent over 15 years building the reputation we enjoy. The lesson is: if you live up to your expectations, you'll stand the test of time."