Why Off-Menu Is In Vogue

Danny Meyer spills the beans

When Danny Meyer was an assistant manager at the now-defunct Italian restaurant Pesca in 1984, he received one of his first special dietary requests from Arthur Ashe. The tennis star, who had undergone double bypass surgery, provided a lengthy description of his needs -- no butter, no frying, no marinades. Figuring Ashe would demand a heart-healthy dessert as well, Meyer had the kitchen prepare a fruit plate. But when Ashe finished his main course, he wanted pecan pie -- à la mode.

Meyer, now president of the Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes New York's Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, spoke with Personal Business Editor Lauren Young about how gourmet restaurants cope with customers' culinary eccentricities.

What do you think about people's attitudes toward food?

I have met an enormous number of people similar to Arthur Ashe who follow the denial-and-reward cycle of dining. The thinking is: As long as I eat my spinach, I can eat that chocolate cake.

How have low-carb diets affected business?

We have more examples of people ordering a sandwich or burger, and saying: "Can you hold the bun?" But our restaurants put bread on the table, and we are not buying less bread than we used to.

What's the oddest off-menu request you've ever received?

When William Shawn, the late editor of The New Yorker, used to come in to Union Square Cafe, invariably he'd ask for a bowl of cereal and dry toast. It would be 1:30 p.m., and we'd be in the midst of the lunch hour rush. Someone would run across the street to the store to get him cereal. We started keeping a couple of brands in the kitchen just for him, but he always seemed to want a different brand than what we had stockpiled. Shawn was always the guest of Roger Straus, co-founder of [publisher] Farrar, Straus, who came in three to five times per week. I thought it would be offensive to charge for a bowl of cereal. It was the least I could do as an amenity for a loyal customer.

Aren't chefs offended by that kind of request?

Not the kind I'd hire. I'd be furious if anybody told a customer we couldn't meet their request. André Soltner from Lutèce tells a story of a chef who was offended when someone ordered steak frites with the steak well done. Soltner told the chef: "If somebody wants a well-done steak, your job is to make the best well-done steak they've ever had."

Where do you stand on the popular diets?

We're not anti-carb, and we're not pro-protein. We are in favor of balance. At Union Square Cafe, we've always taken our cue from the Mediterranean diet. Pasta is served as a small appetizer. We give our customers sensible portions of vegetables, protein, fruit, and bread.

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