Hospitality and food have been the most famous standout qualities of Danny Meyer’s restaurants to be sure, but the designs of the spaces in the Union Square Hospitality Group may be the unsung heroes.
Peter Bentel, the cofounder and partner in the design firm Bentel & Bentel, has worked on eight of the eateries, starting way back in the late 1980s, when Meyer needed renovations on the original Union Square Café. “Danny really allows time and patience for the design process to evolve,” says Bentel.
Many of Meyer’s touchstones were in Italy, so Bentel and team got on a plane to research restaurants there. “It was like getting a doctorate in restaurant design — we dug deep,” the designer recalls. “We established a lingua franca with Danny.”
And it won’t surprise anyone that friendliness and efficiency are paramount as the schemes are planned. “Hospitality is a huge influence,” says Bentel. “Things like, how close are the greeters to the door?”
The chefs and the other staff are given a space that lets them do their best, and that translates into a good experience for diners. “If a waiter has to march across the room to get a clean glass, he or she will be frustrated, and it will take longer,” Bentel notes.
Here are some design highlights of the Danny Meyer empire.
Food style: Contemporary American cuisine that showcases the restaurant’s relationships with local farms and purveyors.
Late-summer dish to order: Beef tartare, zucchini, cashews and pickled cherries
Designer: Bentel & Bentel
Design vision: It blends urbane and the bucolic, the cultured and the provincial. Two touchstones in particular are modern design and the rustic qualities of early American tavern architecture.
Standout work of art or furniture: Robert Kushner’s mural depicting produce above Gramercy Tavern’s bar is one of the most beloved items.
Food style: Contemporary American cuisine featuring refined, playful dishes that highlight exceptional ingredients and seasonality
Late-summer dish to order: Foie gras tart
Designer: Bentel & Bentel
Design vision: Sinuous lighted glass walls both bind and separate the two components of the restaurant — the Bar Room at the Modern — with gauzy veils of light. Many of the restaurant’s iconic design features, including the glass wine-rack wall, reiterate the idea of modern design executed in rich materials.
Food style: Contemporary American featuring local, seasonal ingredients prepared with subtle global influence from places like Southeast Asia and the American South
Late-summer dish to order: Roasted and fried chicken
Designer: Renzo Piano
Design vision: The restaurant strikes a balance of transparency and sculptural form with floor-to-ceiling windows that create a bright, airy space. An open, stainless steel kitchen spans nearly half the length of the room, allowing an intimate connection between guest and chef.
Standout work of art or furniture: A single work by artist Robert Indiana adorns the wall above the bar, with the illuminated word “EAT” in bold, white block letters on a circular black backdrop
Shake Shack (original Madison Square Park location)
Food style: 1950s roadside burger
Late-summer dish to order: SmokeShack burger, with bacon
Designer: James Wines, SITE
Design vision: Boldly graphic, with the menu and the restaurant’s name writ large, appearing as part of the building’s sleek metal structure
Standout work of art or furniture: The simple green tables and chairs in the park, the perfect place to eat fries
Food style: Roman-style pizzeria
Late-summer dish to order: Any of the crispy-crusted Roman-style pizzas
Designer: David Bucovy
Design vision: Martina brings the casual and cozy vibe of Rome’s side-street pizzerie to the heart of the East Village, showcasing design elements like rustic terracotta and open-hearth ovens.
Standout work of art or furniture: Custom mural created by Jose Aurelio Baez