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

Sea Level Cafe

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

Its 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 Caf, a 160-seat grotto with three 700-gallon fish tanks for walls, stone-terrazzo floors, and twenty-foot ceilings. Dont 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, Emigrants 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 youre 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 Caf 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