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An Insider’s Guide to Smith & Mills Rockefeller Center

By Julie SchneiderFeb 22 2024
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Amid the hustle and bustle of the 2023 holiday season, cozy downtown watering hole Smith & Mills unveiled its second location. “I think of Smith & Mills as Rockefeller Center’s bar,” says General Manager Dan Merer. “But don’t sleep on the food.”

Since opening night — an affair with about 200 customers and a visit from actor Ebon Moss-Bachrach, known for his role as Cousin Richie in award-winning television show The Bear — the new outpost has quickly established its reputation as a go-to social spot. New York Post likens the space to a speakeasy, calling it “a hiding-in-plain-sight delight” that “feels like a party.” Grub Street named the “mini-tini trio,” a flight of inventive martinis by beverage director Robert Krueger, one of the city’s best new martinis. And the new bar-restaurant has already made its prime-time debut: Its upstairs neighbors from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon filmed “Cool Bartenders,” a sketch that features a mustachioed Fallon and guest actor Keegan-Michael Key singing a parody song about hip mixologists (in season 11, episode 74), behind Smith & Mills Rockefeller Center’s signature elliptical bar.

Designing comfortable, inviting spaces is essential to restaurateurs Akiva Elstein and Matt Abramcyk, who have also worked together on Employees Only, Navy, and Yves, among other bar and restaurant projects. They’ve been friends and collaborators for more than three decades, since first meeting at a Jewish sleepaway camp at age 10. In 2007, they opened the original Smith & Mills on a shoestring budget in a 300-square-foot carriage house with just 18 seats and seven barstools. It’s since become a beloved local institution with an eclectic mix of devoted regulars. “We love when different types of people come and get together, whether it's bankers spending thousands of dollars on champagne and oysters next to young people [getting] a beer and a burger. Different types of people hanging out together creates this real New York energy, which is what we love to create in our spaces.”

With a central location and warm, inviting ambiance, Smith & Mills Rockefeller Center makes for a natural place to meet for all sorts of occasions: a midday meal, happy-hour drinks and oysters after work, a romantic dinner. “If you want to have an office meeting, lunch with your mom, dinner with your grandma? If you want [a place] to take your sexy date?” Abramcyk says. “Whatever it is, we've tried to design a space that fits all things.”

“Thursday night is like Friday night in Rockefeller Center.”
— Dan Merer, general manager of Smith & Mills

On a recent Friday night, with a soundtrack of mellifluous soul and funk, the new restaurant had a mellow, leisurely vibe. Clusters of guests lingered in conversation over expertly prepared dishes and libations, nestled into the rosy velvet banquettes and posted up at the prominent oval-shaped bar, at the heart of the space. The previous night, the general manager noted, the place was packed — eventually only standing room remained — with a lively, party atmosphere. He noted, “Thursday night is like Friday night in Rockefeller Center.”

The lunch and dinner menus, by chef Miguel Diaz, feature a raw-bar selection (oysters, littleneck clams, shrimp cocktail, and seafood towers), Mediterranean-inspired small plates and mains, desserts, and cocktails. Popular dishes include the crisp little gem lettuce salad dotted with thin magenta triangles of watermelon radish and an herby buttermilk dressing; the umami-packed cavatelli with truffles, wild mushroom, and fiore sardo cheese; and the epic Reuben loaded with short-rib pastrami, red cabbage, aged gruyère, and Russian dressing. “It’s delicious,” says Elstein. “I think it's going to become an iconic sandwich in Rock Center.”

The drinks menu includes aperitif cocktails, the aforementioned best-in-the-city martinis, classic cocktails reimagined (primarily tall, stirred varieties), beers and ciders from the U.S. and Europe, and wines and champagnes, available by the glass and bottle. Those seeking alcohol-free options can get in on the cocktail action with stylish concoctions, like the tropical Pineapple Grove, made with zero-proof spirits from Lyre and Giffard aperitif syrup and served in a coupe glass.

Translating the particular charm and energy of the tiny, original downtown Smith & Mills into the new, 2,200-square-foot (including the kitchen) Midtown hideaway — with 38 seats and 19 barstools in the main dining room — required something of a magic trick. Carefully considered interior design touches helped craft the character of the space. “It's still our aesthetic: worn materials, stone and wood and metals. But as far as the finishings and the ornamentation of them, we were inspired by the Art Deco design,” says Abramcyk. Nodding to Rockefeller Center’s famed ornamentation and materials, the Smith & Mills’ team incorporated brass hardware and finishings, as well as a midnight-black Nero Marquina marble floor imported from Morocco. “Instead of putting in panels, we broke it up and put it into 4-by-4-inch tiles, making it sort of hi-fi/low-fi: Yes, it's marble, so it belongs in the Center, but it's the Smith & Mills version.”

“We created this atmosphere that transports you somewhere else.”
— Akiva Elstein, co-owner of Smith & Mills

Within the refuge of Smith & Mills, appointed with dark-wood walls, glowing candlelight, and original paintings by artist Yelena Yemchuk, the outside world melts away. “Almost everybody says they don't feel like they're in the [Rink Level] once they step inside,” Elstein says. “We created this atmosphere that transports you somewhere else.”

Bringing Smith & Mills to this iconic landmark holds special meaning for the restaurateurs. Abramcyk, who grew up on 58th Street, fondly recalls memories of skating on The Rink as a kid. He later worked in the complex, first as an intern for the show Late Night With Conan O’Brien, and, eventually, as a junior portfolio manager for a financial services company. So, the outpost’s opening serves as a homecoming of sorts. “In the version of New York in my mind, there's nothing more emblematic than the sculpture of Atlas, the skating rink and the flags surrounding it, and these beautiful Deco buildings,” Abramcyk says. “Being part of that legacy is a thrill.”

Smith & Mills Rockefeller Center is open for lunch (Tuesday through Friday, 11:30am to 3pm), oyster happy hour (Monday through Friday, 4pm to 6pm), and dinner (Monday through Saturday, 4pm to 10pm). Though not required, reservations can be made at smithandmills.com.

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