Aureole, one of the first fine-dining restaurants in New York City to champion American food, celebrated its 25th anniversary in November.

Owner Charlie Palmer opened the restaurant during economic doldrums, 13 months after the “Black Monday” stock market crash of October 1987. Despite the circumstances, it was an immediate success, receiving two stars from The New York Times in 1989 and three stars in 1991.

In 2009, Aureole moved to a larger space with a giant kitchen, which includes a chocolate room, spacious bar and private dining room. It has a Michelin star and is the flagship of Palmer’s business empire, Charlie Palmer Group, comprised of 12 restaurants and two hotels.

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Palmer recently reflected on the past 25 years with Nation’s Restaurant News.

What was the New York restaurant business climate like in 1988?

We had what was called Black Monday in 1987. People were looking at me, like, ‘O.K., how smart is he opening a restaurant in the worst economy we’d seen in 25 years or something.’ But we opened it up and it was pretty damn successful from the get-go.

In 2009 you moved from the Upper East Side to Midtown, to a space with a large bar/lounge area and private dining rooms. Why did you do that?

We were in our original space for 21 years. I owned the building, and I could have continued on, but I really felt I needed to do something drastic to reposition it for the next 20 years.

The townhouse was 18 feet wide and the potential for a multifaceted restaurant wasn’t there. We had four seats at the bar.

How are your customers different now from when Aureole first opened?  

Well, first off, since we're not on the Upper East Side anymore, we're not getting as many of those UES residents that filled our 61st Street dining room night after night. I think now we have a more varied clientele that ranges from some of those 61st Street diners to corporate clientele from the midtown area to visiting tourists and theatergoers. We have a bar room at Aureole at One Bryant Park, too, so we're always catering to the more casual diner in that room and the person looking for a more refined experience in the dining room.  

How is the fine-dining business these days? What do you think is contributing to its success?

I would say that fine dining has a successful foothold right now and would attribute that to the evergreen demand for true "diners" looking to enjoy outstanding food and service at restaurants where they know that that's what they're going to get. We've had a Michelin star since the star program launched in the States, and I think that says something for not only our consistency, but our ability to continue to break barriers in serving our diners new, creative and delicious dishes, and refined service.

Bringing in diners

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What do you think attract customers to your restaurants — food, service, your own star power, marketing?

I think it's all of those things that you've mentioned in addition to location and our ability to evolve with the times. Our restaurant portfolio runs the gamut from high-end dining [Aureole] to casual taverns and cocktail bars [Burritt Room + Tavern in San Francisco]. As I mentioned, fine dining will always have a demand in the marketplace, but that’s only for a certain set of people. We also want to continue to open our doors to new and younger diners who perhaps didn’t know who Charlie Palmer was until they walked into the door, but now they'll dine at Burritt Room + Tavern weekly or monthly and then visit Dry Creek Kitchen [in Healdsburg, Calif.,] for a special occasion or on a trip to wine country.  

Where do you find inspiration for new dishes?

I've been at this for awhile, so I know what tastes good and I think I know what people want to taste, but I definitely find that eating out as much as possible helps me to continue to bring in new ideas.  This means everything from ramen shops to Jean Georges. I never want to do the same thing that I did 20 years ago or copy someone else’s dish, but I use past experiences in my restaurants and combine them with different things I’ve tried along the way to inspire me to create new things.  

And, as always, some inspiration happens by accident when two great flavors collide and you realize you're onto something!

Aureole offers a Sunday dinner special featuring côte de boeuf, seasonal salad, fries, sautéed spinach and Bordeaux wines poured from magnums for $48. How is that doing?

It's our best Sunday promotion ever and people love that it's not only a great deal, but it's an awesome feast and a great way to end your weekend. We have people who come back every Sunday for it.

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