Danny Meyer on the Business of Bar Dining at the New Union Square Café
Danny Meyer is sitting in the Union Square Hospitality offices, appropriately located on the East Side of Union Square Park, and he’s thinking about gas. Specifically, when the gas will be turned on at the soon-to-open new location of his legendary restaurant Union Square Café. (There are a lot of Union Squares in Meyer’s life.) It was supposed to be turned on weeks ago, and by this time, Meyer should have been proudly walking through his bustling dining room on a corner of Park Avenue South, a few blocks from the original location, greeting the dinner crowd. Instead Meyer is in his office, feeling frustrated—as well as a sense of déjà vu.
“When we opened the original Union Square Café in 1985, we faced the exact same challenge,” recalls the revered restaurateur, whose restaurant empire includes Gramercy Tavern, North End Grill, and Shake Shacks around the globe, and whose net worth was estimated at $386 million last year. “My grandfather, who at the time was 75 years old, had been good friends with the former CEO of Con Ed and called him on phone. We had our gas turned on the next day. Now my grandfather is no longer with us, and I can’t get the gas turned on.”
Among the challenges, this has presented the notoriously detailed-obsessed man with having staff practice service with paper food.
“We’re calling it paper service” Meyer explains, with a resigned chuckle. “We do a mock regular service, including ordering and delivering pieces of paper.”
The Bar Dining Phenomenon
Meyer was just 27 years old when he opened the original Union Square Café in the then-gnarly Manhattan neighborhood just above 14th Street. Among the many things that he and the restaurant pioneered—introducing New York to a local version of California cuisine, with a huge reliance on the farmers market next door—is dining at the bar. What was once a place for drinkers and a few questionable snacks has become prime real estate for diners. Not only is it one of the most efficient ways to eat for people who are time-crunched, it’s also a convivial place to trade stories. In fact, the trend has hit such fever pitch that recently Conde Nast Traveler declared that its sister trend, counter dining, is the source of the best food in Tokyo.
Bar dining has existed at Union Square Café since day one, Meyer tells me, as something he planned. It’s a sweet story.
“The only job I had in New York before I opened Union Square Café was working as a salesman for a company that sold electronic tags to stop shoplifters. On my travels, in my powder blue VW Rabbit company car, I got to know the best diners in the tri-state area. I would always eat at the counter as I wasn’t comfortable being a solo diner. And I thought, ‘Who wrote the rule that diners are the only places where you can eat at a bar? Why is the only other choice that I have to feel bad eating solo at a table for two?’ It dawned on me that I could create a bar for diners.”
In fact, Meyer took the premise a little too far.
“On the opening night of Union Square Café, two men came up to me and said, ‘This bar is deeply offensive. You have not put one bottle of booze behind your bar. You’re making it evident that you don’t want people to drink here.’” Continues Meyer: “They weren’t wrong. I had specifically designed the USC bar with no lip. Classic bars have a lip at the end, because you don’t want the more dedicated drinkers to spill their beers over the side. I purposefully did away with that ...” Meyer added bottles of booze the next day.
At Gramercy Tavern, Meyer continued his commitment to dining in the bar area, not least because it's profitable.
“Restaurants are real estate. In any restaurant, beverage sales have a higher profitability because you’re not manufacturing them, and the labor costs associated with pouring a glass of wine are less than a plate of food,” he explains. “Any time you can sell liquid in a restaurant—coffee, beer, juice, wine—you should be more profitable. If people are eating at the bar, they are probably drinking. It’s not necessarily more profitable than the dining room, but the more ways you can give people to occupy more inches, the better.”
The Shake Shack Effect
Here was a question for Meyer. For the man who has resisted the allure of Vegas and barely replicated a restaurant—with the exception of Union Square Tokyo—was it hard to create a new version of his classic spot? Or did the spawn of Shake Shacks make it easier to open a new Union Square Café after a humongous rise in rent caused him to close the original location?
Meyer is emphatic: “Shake Shack gets credit for so many things, but Union Square Café deserves credit for Shake Shack. Pat LaFrieda [his butcher] was not a household name before he created the Shack Burger. The Union Square Café burger is completely different than Shake Shack’s, but it’s an amazing burger and our original—and that’s where we started using LaFrieda.”
“I’ve had 31-year career as restaurateur,” he adds. “Union Square Café was my only restaurant for the first decade, and there’s nothing like your first born. My emotional connections to the restaurant, and to the company which is named after it, is such that nothing would have stopped us from bringing that restaurant back.”
Emotional connections, indeed, run deep. Meyer confides that he avoids the block of the former location, as close as it is to his office. He’s only been there once since Union Square Café closed early last December, and that’s when a taxi dropped him off at the wrong spot.
The New Union Square Café
“I don’t want to call the new Union Square a sequel,” insists Meyer. “My partner Richard Coraine calls it the 30-year startup, and that’s about right.”
For anyone who remembers walking into the original restaurant, the new one will deliver an immediate nostalgic punch. There are the creamy-beige walls with the forest green trim; the familiar paintings. Even the details that aren’t the same, such as a much more sizable downstairs bar and upstairs balcony, feel familiar.
“The old restaurant was not at all beautiful; it was quirky,” says Meyer. “Nonetheless, people loved it and the challenge was how not to lose the magic.”
Many of the enhancements are upstairs: There’s a clubby bar area with tables and booths, a private dining room for 40 and a semi-private room with one communal table that seats 10.
Also expanded is the cocktail program. Cory Fitzsimmons, who previously mixed drinks at Meyer's Porchlight, is serving spins on classics such as a Bitter Almond Negron and the gorgeous North of Manhattan, made with Canadian Whisky infused with bay leaf and maple syrup.
The New Menu
And then there’s the food, one of the two things Meyers says customers would miss most about the original place (the other being the team).
Chef Carmen Quagliata, a veteran of the original restaurant, has designed a menu that he calls "left of center." There are some reconsidered classics, like the tuna burger, which has morphed from Asian flavors to a Mediterranean taste profile. New on the menu are such dishes as a colorful and creamy lobster soup with kabocha squash and "baked potato" beets, whose juicy, red roots are salt-baked whole, then cracked open and topped with sour cream and a drizzle of melted herb butter.
As long as Con Ed shows up, opening night is slated for Tuesday, Dec. 6. Meyer knows he’ll start crying that evening. And he’ll look to the bar to gauge how the night is going.
“I always thought you could tell everything about the kind of night we were going to have at Union Square Café by the energy at the bar,” he says. “If the bar is full, I’m not worried about what’s happening at the rest of the restaurant. It’s the first indication that you’re going to have a good night.”