If you’ve spent any time in Lower Manhattan and had a cappuccino at a patisserie, a 10-inch pie at a pizza place, or a pint of Guinness in a wood-paneled pub, chances are you were patronizing an establishment owned by Peter Poulakakos.
And you’d be forgiven for asking: “Who?”
“I call him the quiet titan,” said Jessica Lappin, the president of the Alliance for Downtown New York.
Mr. Poulakakos owns no fewer than 10 restaurants south of Chambers Street, with a few more notable projects on the horizon. “We’re devoted to downtown and downtown’s devoted to us,” he said on a recent Tuesday afternoon, standing amid the bustling construction inside Pier A Harbor House, which will open this summer as a “maritime meets industrial” gallery of bars, restaurants and event spaces.
Perched over the Hudson River on the west side of Battery Park, the 38,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts building that dates to 1886 had fallen into disrepair and sat empty and decaying for decades until Mr. Poulakakos stepped in. In 2011, with the Dermot Company, a residential developer, he signed a 25-year deal to lease the space from the Battery Park City Authority, the state agency responsible for renovating the city-owned pier, and is realizing a family dream. “My father has had Pier A on his radar since the ’70s,” he said.
Peter’s father, Harry Poulakakos, immigrated as a teenager to New York from Greece in 1956, worked in restaurants in the financial district, and in 1972, opened his own — Harry’s at Hanover Square, which served as a kind of Wall Street clubhouse. (It closed in 2003, then reopened three years later as Harry’s Cafe and Steak.) There, Peter learned the hospitality business from the ground up; his first paying job was as a delivery boy for Harry’s in 1990; and since graduating from Georgetown University with a degree in economics in 1998, he has systematically built a small empire downtown. Harry, 75, is not involved in day-to-day operations. “He’s the emperor,” according to his son. “And a great resource.”
Peter Poulakakos started on Stone Street. One curving block sandwiched between Pearl and South William Streets, it was the city’s first paved road and figures in the earliest days of New York. But by the end of the 20th century, when Lower Manhattan was a thriving business district, “Stone Street was crack alley,” said Mr. Poulakakos, 37. “All the buildings had those steel shutters that never opened. Security had to escort Goldman Sachs employees through the street.”
Mr. Poulakakos tends to think long term, and he had a vision. From 2002 to 2005, he opened three restaurants along Stone Street: the first, Financier Patisserie at No. 62, in 2002 (the cafe now has 10 locations in Manhattan); Ulysses, an Irish pub at No. 58, in 2003; and Adrienne’s Pizza Bar, at No. 54, in 2005. The big three, he called them. At the same time, the historic district that would become a ghost town in the evening — after the stock market closed and everyone went home — began to show signs of residential life.
According to the Alliance for Downtown New York, there were 22,900 people living south of City Hall in 2000. As the Poulakakos business has grown, so has the population. By 2013, the number of residents had swelled to 61,000, and in 2014 the supply of residential units cannot keep up with demand. (Post-recession, values are also increasing. Lower Manhattan’s median sales price was $937,500 in 2013, up 10 percent from the previous year, according to the Alliance for Downtown New York.)
Did restaurants pave the way for the residential boom, or did the growing population fuel the success of the hospitality business? “It’s the chicken and the egg,” Ms. Lappin said. Today you’ll find the pedestrian-only street full of cafe and picnic tables and teeming with people, from young families to tourists fresh from the nearby 9/11 Memorial.
“Stone Street has had a tremendous impact,” said Mr. Poulakakos, who is lanky and unassuming in brown leather Pumas and a cashmere V-neck sweater. “We opened Ulysses with a residential focus, a super pub for people coming in on a Sunday night. It was unheard of then. Now we’re feeling the effects. That seven-day community that we wanted is here.”
Danny McDonald, an Irishman who is a partner in five Poulakakos operations, including Ulysses and the throwback bar the Dead Rabbit that opened in 2013, has been working with the young restaurateur for 12 years. Mr. Poulakakos also owns the buildings that house those two establishments. “Pete has the patience of Job,” he said, which may have given him the fortitude to expand his vision beyond a cobblestone street to a broad swath of Lower Manhattan, even in the face of financial crisis and natural disaster. (Progress was set back months at Pier A Harbor House, which Mr. McDonald is overseeing, when it suffered more than $4 million in water damage from Hurricane Sandy.)
Mr. Poulakakos, married with two young sons and living in Battery Park City, says he does not do business in a conventional way. Like the owner of a professional sports team, he finds and cultivates talent to put into different positions and strengthen the franchise. For example, he enlisted Jordi Valles, a chef from Barcelona who has trained with the greats of Spain, to oversee food — from oyster bar to 100-seat dining room — at Pier A and spearhead Le District, Mr. Poulakakos’s 25,000-square-foot market that’s set to open in the Brookfield Place complex (formerly the World Financial Center) by spring 2015. Just in time to provide the discerning creative types moving into offices at 1 World Trade Center with a proper fishmonger and good selection of artisanal cheese.
Rounding out the latter-day big three — with Pier A and Le District — is the Battery Maritime Building. You’ll be forgiven for asking: “The what?”
Even native New Yorkers have overlooked the grand arches and detailed metalwork of the 1909 Beaux-Arts building at the southern end of Manhattan’s East Side that sits between the heliport and the Staten Island Ferry terminal. It’s been boarded up, marked with graffiti, and only used at street level as a homely port to Governors Island. Inside, it’s a beautiful relic the size of a football field. Already eight years in the process, Mr. Poulakakos is renovating the place with the Dermot Company. Soon it will have a great hall on the ground floor for public use, a 61-room hotel on the second floor (some with balconies overlooking New York Harbor), and a modern glass restaurant added to the top.
Somehow, while building a multimillion-dollar business, the Poulakakos family has managed to create an ecosystem that will save more than a few city landmarks. The son credits the father. “For him,” the younger Mr. Poulakakos said, “it’s always been: This is what downtown needs.”
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