The (Other) Midtown Cafeteria You Wish You Could Eat In

Ignore those high-altitude cooking instructions at Sea Level Café. Photo: Courtesy Sea Level Cafe

It’s not a Frank Gehry cafeteria, but the company mess in the subbasement of 6 East 43rd Street is a better locale for breakfast or lunch than, say, your desk. If you work in the building (for unglam companies like the New York State Dental Association, Children for Children, or Emigrant Savings Bank), you are entitled to eat at the Sea Level Café, a 160-seat grotto with three 700-gallon fish tanks for walls, stone-terrazzo floors, and twenty-foot ceilings. Don’t bring your wallet — Sea Level uses your building I.D. as a debit card. This gleaming lair arrived via an inopportune 2006 elevator ride by Janet Martin, Emigrant’s chief administrative officer. “I said, ‘My God, this is gross. Then we realized we had asbestos so guys came in in white suits and did abatement and lo and behold! Over the years with piping they had built ceilings down and down — now I had twenty-foot ceilings.” So Martin got the nod to create a salubrious feeding station for tenants and their employees. “I love the ocean and scuba, so I picked two sand terrazzo colors for the floor, and walls are blue glass made to go lighter and lighter and lighter,” says Martin. “For the ceiling we came up with fixtures behind barriers on one- to three-foot heights like the bubbles when you’re scuba diving.”

To separate the main floor from the executive “Reef Room,” Martin and architecture firm Gensler created three wall-size tanks full of live coral and crabs and, per Martin, “the little fish that look like confetti.” After winning an interior-design award from the Greater New York Construction Council last year, the Sea Level Café now does some 850 covers a day for tenants in the building and its neighbor, 335 Madison Avenue, and rents its Reef Room on nights and weekends to the public. Looks like a good place to forget about that TPS report and find your inner Nemo. —Alec Appelbaum