In Setting the Table, Danny Meyer’s 2006 book about the art of hospitality, the restaurateur puts forth what he calls “the four gifts of life” bestowed upon newborns: “eye contact, a smile, a hug and some food.” Pretty basic stuff when you think about it. But not to Meyer.
In his own ingenious way, he took this little quartet, made it his mantra and over time created a collection of breakthrough restaurants and forward-thinking catering operations called the Union Square Hospitality Group. Known for its surprising innovations (the latest: no tipping); its unswerving dedication to attentive, warmhearted service; and a stubborn belief that making people happy is the key to success, USHG is one of the most inspiring stories in the restaurant world. Most of its eateries are in Manhattan: Union Square Cafe; Gramercy Tavern; North End Grill; Blue Smoke; Maialino; Marta; the Modern, within the Museum of Modern Art; and Untitled, at the new Whitney Museum of American Art. Meyer and USHG’s other brilliant stroke is Shake Shack, an homage to burgers, fries, franks, milkshakes and all those other guilty pleasures. It’s now a public company with more than 100 outlets around the world. (You can read all about its creation and expansion in a delightful eponymous new book.)
Of course, all the above restaurants are only half of the story. The other is what Meyer, as CEO of USHG, and his team consider their primary mission: getting hospitality right. Which is easier said than done.
To explain how they’ve made that happen, let’s turn back the clock to 1985, when Meyer opened his first endeavor, Union Square Cafe, on East 16th Street. In those days, the neighborhood was rather dreary and bereft of character, as was Union Square Park itself. But that’s hardly the case anymore, and a good part of the transformation is due to the energy that Meyer’s much-beloved restaurant and his own brand of community spirit brought to the area. Today, the district boasts an abundance of top restaurants; the square’s green market bursts with organic food stands and flower stalls; and well-tended trees, grassy lawns and plenty of benches entice locals and curious visitors alike. What used to be somewhat rundown is now revitalized. It has become a must-see destination where change is ongoing.
The latest alteration concerns Union Square Cafe itself: After 32 years in that East 16th Street location, the restaurant is now on the corner of Park Avenue South and East 19th Street, within walking distance of its former site. When the move (necessitated by a steep rise in rent) was first announced, regular patrons were both alarmed and wary. This was understandable: Their favorite haunt would be in a state of limbo until a suitable replacement location could be found.
But these devotees had nothing to fear, for they remained in Meyer’s more than capable hands. Union Square Cafe Phase Two opened in late 2016, and so far, things are looking (and tasting) very, very good. The New York Times gave the place three stars, and loyalists and newcomers pack the place daily at lunch and dinner, making reservations hard to come by.
It seemed like time for a little postgame recap (a phrase not inappropriate for Meyer, who, St. Louis born and bred, is a diehard Cardinals fan). So, on a sunny morning earlier this summer, Meyer and I meet at Union Square Cafe to talk not only about its reimagining but also about what makes a restaurant great. We agree that we will put two givens aside — exceptional food and outstanding service — and focus on some other essentials that go into making a superlative dining experience in the 21st century, especially those that relate to design.
Meyer arrives on the dot for our 10 a.m. meeting (“Punctuality is nonnegotiable,” he says, sharing a signature Dannyism). He’s just come from the gym and is pumped. First subject: his new baby. “Before Union Square Cafe, there were two other restaurants at the location — first Cafe Iguana, then City Crab. Next door, on 19th Street, was a small barbecue joint called Duke’s.” Both spaces were owned by the same guy and came with the lease. So what to do with the extra space on 19th Street? “We decided not to enlarge Union Square Cafe and instead use the space to build a bigger kitchen — to, among other things, bake our own bread — and for a small bakery called Daily Provisions, which has given more life to the neighborhood. We serve pastries and sandwiches and — this is me being selfish — really good takeout roast chicken.”
As for Union Square Cafe itself, “we knew we wanted to bring one hundred percent of its spirit with us,” he says. “No one ever loved the place because it was beautiful. Comfortable, yes. Cozy, yes. So we listed all the things that needed improvement — for example, cramped and awkward space, not enough kitchen — and all the things that were endearing: most of all, its welcoming ambience and amiable staff.”
Before opening the original Union Square Cafe, Meyer worked at a seafood-focused restaurant in Manhattan called Pesca. He also spent time in Italy — his father had been in the travel business — where he cooked in various places and honed his thoughts (“I kept a diary”) about what his first venture as a restaurateur would be.
When he returned to New York and began searching for locations, he had a hunch about the Union Square area that paid off handsomely. He eventually came upon a former vegetarian restaurant called Brownie’s, a tight space with two main dining areas — one a few steps down from the entryway and the other upstairs, where few people wanted to be. Meyer had the idea of uniting the two spaces with a long wooden bar where everybody would want to be. It worked.
How much had he known about design and architecture at the time? “Not much. I only knew what I liked. I grew up with a family that had good taste. And I learned along the way, especially during my time in Italy.”
Meyer’s relationships with architects — and he’s worked with many — have from the start been based on an unusual kind of envisioning: “I want someone I can tell a story to and have that story be translated to the design of a restaurant,” he explains. “This is how it worked in the beginning and how it works now.”
For the new Union Square Cafe, Meyer turned to David Rockwell. It was their second project together: The Rockwell Group also designed Maialino, USHG’s Italian trattoria, in the nearby Gramercy Park Hotel. Rockwell is, well, a rock star in the world of architecture. Just a few of the household brand names his company has worked with: Nobu, W Hotels, the St. Regis, Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Virgin Hotels. The group also designs theatrical sets (most recently for Falsettos and She Loves Me on Broadway), entire buildings, even children’s playgrounds.
“I want someone I can tell a story to and have that story be translated to the design of a restaurant,” Meyer says of his relationship with designers. “This is how it worked in the beginning and how it works now.”
“We share the belief that hospitality is about creating opportunities for people to gather and connect, and have memorable experiences,” Rockwell says when asked about working with Meyer and USHG.
“Danny wanted to preserve the charm, intimacy and familiarity — the DNA — of the original Union Square Cafe,” Rockwell continues. “However, it was significantly larger than the original location [roughly 13,000 square feet versus 6,000], and it has a double-height ceiling.”
A signature of USHG’s spaces is the attention given to certain special touches, not least among them the lighting. So I ask Meyer if he has one word for the type of lighting he likes in his restaurants. Without missing a beat, he answers, “Kind.” I take that to mean several things: soft, flattering, embracing. He points to the field of lights, with perforated tops to cut off any glare, located above the street-level part of the two-story space. “These were thoughtfully considered.”
Rockwell agrees: “We experimented with ways to reduce the overall scale of the main dining room, which has twenty-two-foot-tall ceilings. Ultimately, we decided to stagger custom oversize pendant lights composed of perforated metal and brass approximately nine feet over the main dining room. That helped bring the scale down perfectly.”
A focus on creating a human sense of scale also led Meyer and Rockwell to their design of the several seating areas: a mezzanine, bar, upper bar and variety of booths and tables. They wanted, Rockwell explains, “to break up the overall space into smaller, more intimate rooms that convey an informality that sets the stage for more real and informed interaction between staff and guests.”
One of the most recognizable aesthetic touches in any of Meyer’s restaurants is the artwork. “I can’t imagine a restaurant without art,” he says.
In the case of the new Union Square Cafe, the paintings and prints are from the original spot, which adds a strong — and deliberate — sense of familiarity. Once a bit constricted by the original location’s configuration, works by such contemporary artists as Judith Rifka, Jonathan Borofsky, Frank Stella, Robert Kushner and Richard Polsky (Meyer’s uncle) are now on display in a soaring space with enough breathing room and lighting to intensify their impact. (Don’t miss the tiny, and rather naughty, Claes Oldenburg piece on the side of the upstairs bar.)
All these physical attributes and accessories combine to create the warmth and welcome that attract guests to Meyer’s restaurants, making them feel tucked in and comfortable when they’re there and contributing to their overall sense of well-being. Good art, grand space and lovely light are all positive elements to maximize and celebrate. But what about the potentially negative elements, the turnoffs, like noise, that you want to eliminate? One of the biggest complaints about modern dining is the din. And when bare floors are underfoot, how is decent conversation possible? Meyer’s answer: the size and dimension of the tables. “They’re usually too wide and not shallow enough. If I can bring guests closer to each other, I’ll be happy.” The experience becomes more intimate and quieter — a win-win. (Rockwell offers his own, more technical, volume-reduction explanation: “We collaborated with an acoustic consultant and took a very formal, methodical approach to addressing the noise levels.”)
Those are merely a few of the countless specific considerations and decisions that went into moving and remaking this icon. The list goes on an on. But, overall, when it comes to a restaurant’s aesthetic, its look and feel, Meyer is guided by “two goals,” he tells me emphatically as our time together comes to an end: “One, I don’t want it to look like a designer had anything to do with it. And two, I don’t want it to look dated twenty or thirty years from now.”
Meyer is at the forefront of those who have changed the fine-dining experience in America forever. Snooty maître d’s, condescending service, pretentious platefuls of fancy over-sauced food and overly formal rooms that come off as anything but comfortable and cozy are all pretty much things of the past. Meyer’s approach to hospitality isn’t merely about creating and running restaurants. It’s a holistic approach to business and, for that matter, to life — and it applies just as well to interior design. “It’s all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.”