The Leopard at des Artistes is a quintessential New York restaurant: the mood is sophisticated and the ambiance is suffused with history. But The Leopard at des Artistes also holds a rich history as the centerpiece of the artists’ district at West 67th between Columbus and Central Park West.
If the glowing murals of naked nymphs that line the walls of The Leopard at des Artistes could talk, they would describe the Italian dishes featured on the menu by executive chef, Vito Gnazzo, in homage to the small towns that dot the six regions of Southern Italy. They might share bits of conversations they hear murmured above the bossa nova and jazz that accompany each meal. Then they would also do a fair amount of name dropping, for Noel Coward, George Balanchine, Isadora Duncan, Barbara Walters, Jerry Seinfeld, Howard Stern have dined at this famed restaurant.
Artists, dancers, musicians, and writers dined at 1 West 67th long before it became The Leopard at des Artistes. The restaurant was built to serve the tenants of the Hotel des Artistes–a residence above the restaurant whose apartments lacked kitchens. It was the go-to place for the creative and successful–the likes of Rudolf Nureyev and Itzhak Perelman dropped in between rehearsals and performances.
Howard Chandler Christy’s studio at the Hotel des Artistes
The Hotel des Artistes was designed by George Mort in the Neo-Gothic and Medieval styles to specifically attract artists. Between 1901 and 1921, several other apartments were built in the area, thus turning it into a hub of creativity on the Upper West Side. Even though the highly developed area around Lincoln Center isn’t much of an artist’s colony now, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the real estate market “discovered” the neighborhood. Today, the area is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the “West 67th Street Artists’ Colony District.” Also, both the Hotel des Artistes and its famed restaurant space have won landmark designation.
In the 1970s, the beloved New York restauranteur George Lang transformed what had basically served as a satellite kitchen for West 67th Street’s artists into a dining destination for all of New York. It remained at the heart of Manhattan cultural life for three decades until the Café closed in 2009 due to financial troubles and the recession.
However, the space once occupied by Café des Artistes didn’t remain dark for long. It attracted the attention of restaurant entrepreneurs soon after it became available. Seven serious offers were made, but only one was accepted by the board of directors charged with overseeing and protecting the West 67th Street landmark.
The restaurant re-opened as “The Leopard at des Artistes” in 2011 under the ownership of Gianfranco Sorrentino, 30-year restaurant industry veteran and alleged “Mayor of 54th Street” (Sorrentino has owned three restaurants along that stretch of Manhattan). Co-owner, Paula Sorrentino, brought her expertise in art and design to ensure that The Leopard dining experience was visual as well as culinary.
The Sorrentino’s took on the challenge of adding contemporary details to a legendary dining room. They especially went out of their way to protect and restore the restaurant’s landmark murals created in 1934 by Howard Chandler Christy, striking a balance between preserving the past and inviting in the new. Today, The Leopard at des Artistes attracts Café des Artistes’ former customers, a loyal and influential clientele, even as its discovered by a new audience of diners. Its the latest chapter in the long foodie history of one New York neighborhood.
Read about more bars and restaurants in New York City where a drink is served with a work of art. For more on the Upper West Side, check out our guide to the Upper West Side, and a look at the West End Collegiate District, another Upper West Side historic district.