The story of how roller skating came to the world-famous Rink at Rockefeller Center begins back in 1979, on the corner of La Cienega and Santa Monica Boulevards in Hollywood.
That was where Ian “Flipper” Ross and his wife Bunty opened their legendary nightclub, Flipper’s Roller Boogie Palace — a kind of Studio 54 on wheels which would have an impact far beyond its wild three-year run.
“It was a mecca for all cultures to come under one roof which at that time was extremely rare,” said Flipper’s daughter Liberty Ross, who has resurrected her father’s original vision for this Rock Center run — the first time in more than 70 years there’s been roller skating here.
“It was a safe home for everyone to be seen and celebrated,” she added. “It was incredibly, naturally diverse, and everybody was there and played there: Elton John, Jane Fonda, Nile Rogers, Cher, Prince, the Go-Go’s… it was a real blend of culture, of music, of fashion, so to bring it back now, and for the first time in New York City, it feels so incredibly exciting and vital.”
Here are the basics. Flipper’s at Rockefeller Center opens Friday, and will be hosting roller boogie-oogie-oogie-ing through October 31. Advanced tickets are recommended, and prices range from $12 for kids 15 and under without skate rental, to $40 for adults with skate rental during prime time. Skating starts as early as 8:00 am and runs as late as midnight. The rink’s surface is a gridded, grippy plastic, which helps keep rookie skaters upright, but, as the pros showing off their moves the other night told us, makes it impossible to “hockey stop.”
The Rink’s locker room has been completely redesigned as a collage-y homage to the Flipper’s of yore and, for a ’70s kid like me, it’s easy to lose yourself in the details here. There’s loud music everywhere, of course, which Ross calls “the jet fuel to skaters” — a banging mix of classic house, disco, and funk, with a few contemporary crowd pleasers thrown in. Ross told Gothamist that Flipper’s will also host a lot of live music, including gospel choirs on Sundays.
Basically, it’s going to be a party here all summer. Ishmael Alvarado, an original Roxy skater back in 1978, and a Central Park dance skater since the days “when we had just one boom box and everyone chipped in for batteries,” told Gothamist, “It’s truly amazing that Flipper’s, which competed with the Roxy back in the day, like an East Coast-West Coast thing, is here, and there’s a skating resurgence with this younger crowd.
But a retro-cool roller boogie palace isn’t the only new thing around here these days. As part of what reps of Rock Center landlord Tishman Speyer are calling a “transformation” of the historic art deco campus, the whole Rink level is being opened up, with tables for eating, perches for roller-dance gawking, and glass doors lining the perimeter for easy access to the shops and fast-casual restaurants on the lower level inside.
The best of the latter is almost certainly Eli and Max Sussman’s Mediterranean spot Samesa, which stars an excellent Chicken Shawarma, the juicy grilled meat either wrapped in a pita or laid out on a plate, covered in green zhug, and complemented by lots of pickled things and mounds of nutty rice. There are lots of vegan and vegetarian options here too.
New and also good is the Rock Center outpost of Williamsburg’s Ace’s Pizza, featuring super saucy Detroit-style square slices with a chewy, cheesy crust. The throw-back decor here is fun, too. JJ Johnson’s Harlem-based Fieldtrip, the acclaimed chef’s ode to rice dishes around the world, is a solid choice as well.
David Chang’s fried-chicken chain Fuku offers a gimmicky but satisfying “Rippin’ Hot” version of their Jumbo Fingers, which arrives with a container of milk to soothe your palate and latex gloves so you don’t accidentally get the scorpion pepper on your hands and rub your eyes. Get this instead of Fuku’s signature sandos, which the other night came with dry bird breast, fried long ago, and were too much of a slog to even finish.
Also phoning it in: the once-delightful Chip cookie shop, now a chain called Chip City and no better than your basic sub-par mall stand. A better bet for something sweet in this part of the complex is the new Rock Center outpost of Dough Donuts. But if you’re feeling fancy, head outside and over to the pastry counter at Ignacio Mattos’ acclaimed Italian bakery and cafe, Lodi.
There are lots of ways to drink alcohol here too. City Winery has a patio setup, The Other Half brewery sells many varieties of their canned beers, and, if you can get in, the Pebble Bar is a trendy new cocktail spot located in that historic townhouse on the corner of Sixth Avenue, the only holdout when they demolished the area in the 1930s and the home to Hurley’s for more than century.
And four new big-name restaurants will soon be flanking the rink: chef Greg Baxtom’s Five Acres; Le Rock from the Frenchette team; a Korean spot called NARO from Junghyun ‘JP’ and Ellia Park of Atomix renown; and Jupiter, a pasta place from the women of King.
Is all this enough to get New Yorkers to come dine (and skate) at Rockefeller Center? Is this the beginning of a new Midtownaissance? All I can tell you is that my companions ate very well and had a blast on the rink the other night, and are eager to get back out there again as soon as possible.