How Tanzania’s Iconic Restaurant The Rock Was Brought To New York City

There are few restaurants in the world that inspire wanderlust more than The Rock in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Located on a tiny fleck of land surrounded by water, this restaurant has all of the ingredients to be a once in a lifetime dining experience. People travel here from all over the world to sample fresh seafood and enjoy one of the most unique and undeniably photogenic restaurant backdrops. 

The Rock is far away from New York City both geographically and aesthetically. However, that didn’t stop Mastercard and Spring Studios from bringing this island culinary gem to the city, beach and all. The restaurant was re-imagined stateside as one of three international restaurants for PRICELESS—An International Culinary Collective. Creating a pop-up version of The Rock was no small feat, turning a completely blank canvas into an experiential culinary space. I spoke to Tom Punch, chief creative officer at Spring Studios and Jenny Friedberg executive producer at Spring Studios about how they brought this island favorite to New York City. 

For people who’ve never visited The Rock in Zanzibar, how would you describe it? How did you distill that vibe and aesthetic into a space in NYC?

Tom Punch: One of the reasons why we chose The Rock for PRICELESS—An International Culinary Collectivewas to bring an amazing dining experience right to your doorstep in New York City. The Rock has such a fantastic location and experience, and it’s so unusual. It’s a restaurant literally on top of a rock off the coast of Zanzibar. Sometimes when the tide is low you can get there on foot but most of the time you have to take a small boat. I didn’t have a chance to go but some of our crew visited. On one side you have this never-ending view of the sea and on the other this view of Zanzibar. We wanted to recreate that with our boardwalk, sand and views of the water. Our version of The Rock was also elevated like the original. We used a variety of screens showing the water surrounding the original restaurant to create the feeling of being on the water. We also set it up to feel like the same time in Zanzibar, so if you would come to eat at 6 pm it would be 6 in Zanzibar and at 8 pm New York time, it would look the same in terms of light and ambiance as it would at 8 pm at The Rock in Zanzibar. 

Friedberg: We sent two different camera crews there to shoot 360-degree views, filming north, east, south, and west. It  was important for us to shoot in as high definition as possible. We were working with a blank canvas and wanted people to feel as close as possible to The Rock. For the aromas of the restaurant I chose notes of bergamot, sea salt and driftwood curating something that was referential, something a little bit exotic and foreign. We worked with Mastercard to create a great playlist and of course incorporated some of their branding.

What are some of the constraints you had to work with?

Punch: Obviously, some of our constraints were that we weren’t on the ocean [laughs]. Then there’s always the constraint of time and budget. We were very focused on the experience and the feeling of The Rock, for example when you’re at the restaurant before your meal you wash your hands with lime like in the original location. The server comes with slices of lime and you rub your hands then you pour water over them. We brought this moment to our pop-up and it’s just little touches like that that take you out of New York City for a moment. 

Friedberg: We had the luxury of having Nigel Firman, one of the main proprietors of The Rock there for two weeks to see our operations. He was very involved and helped us develop the sense of authenticity we wanted to create. The chefs were also real partners in our fabric of training.

The Rock is probably one of the most photogenic restaurants in the world. What role did creating something photogenic play in your construction?

Punch: For each of the restaurants in PRICELESS—An International Culinary Collective the construction and appearance were important, as well as the food and ambiance. The Rock was of course really unique, instagrammable and shareable. 

What did you enjoy most on the menu?

Friedberg: I’m a wine aficionado and loved all of the wine pairings with the seafood. There’s a challenge creating a kitchen where there technically isn’t one and they really did a great job with that. 

Punch: It’s a seafood-based menu, as one would expect from a restaurant set in the ocean. During the dinner we menu had items like lobster and seabass.

Jenny: Our procurement team brought a lot of spices and ingredients from Zanzibar, so we really went the distance to bring something authentic. 

Punch: My favorite dish was the gnocchi with vanilla sauce. They used a specific type of vanilla in Zanzibar which is different from Madagascar, which is also renowned. It’s very flavorful. 

How does The Rock provide an escape from the ordinary in NYC?

Punch: It’s not often that you would have dinner staring at the sea and into a Zanzibar sunset. It was really meditative and transportive. 

Jenny: It was a lot of fun to see people taking pictures in front of the sign and curtain with the projection The Rock on it. The technology was important to the experience and those were the most photographed spaces of the restaurant.  

I'm forever on a quest to try new hotels, food, and experiences. Originally from Switzerland, I now call New York home. Previously published in AFAR, Travel + Leisure, M...