Danny Meyer was born and raised in St. Louis, but made a name for himself in the culinary capital of the world, New York City. As CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Danny has brought us iconic NYC restaurants that include Union Square Café, The Modern, Blue Smoke, Untitled, North End Grill, Marta, and Gramercy Tavern. He was also originally responsible for Tabla and Eleven Madison Park before it was left to his Chef and General Manager. Danny has a passion for hospitality and has brought it to fruition through food.
From the age of 27, Meyer has been working on pioneering a new breed of American eatery pairing imaginative food and wine with caring hospitality, comfortable surroundings and outstanding value. Danny Meyer and his restaurants have now earned an unprecedented 28 James Beard Awards and will receive the TORCH Award during the upcoming International Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York.
The TORCH award is meant to symbolize illumination, energy, joy, victory, enlightenment, hope and education. Danny Meyer personifies this, through his generosity and involvement as a national leader in the fight against hunger. Danny serves on the board of Share Our Strength and has long supported hunger relief initiatives including City Harvest, God’s Love We Deliver, and the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger. He is equally active in civic affairs, serving on the executive committees of NYC & Co, Union Square Partnership, and the Madison Square Park Conservancy.
When did you finally come to grips with the fact that you were in fact going to have to move Union Square Café?
In 2012, we began nearly two years of negotiating with our landlord. Ultimately it became clear that we were not going to be able to make it work. So we then took nearly another year and a half to scour the Union Square neighborhood, before finally identifying the space that had been City Crab as our future home in mid 2015.
After what had to be shock… what went into finding a new home?
After announcing that USC would need to move, we immediately began hearing from developers from across the country and even the globe, offering very generous terms to attract Union Square Cafe. The problem was that we wanted to re-establish USC in the Union Square neighborhood, and no such offers were coming from there. We must have seen 30 spaces in our neighborhood before our friend, Damian Mogavero, then CEO of Avero, suggested to his landlords that they consider moving their restaurant City Crab, in favor of bringing Union Square Cafe back to New York. We lucked out when the Palin family agreed.
Do you feel as the Three Stooges used to say that you were “A Victim of Circumstances” in which your own success had created a scenario in which a landlord played you against what you and your team had built?
When you name a restaurant after its neighborhood, you are making a commitment to investing in the neighborhood and its success. For many years that bet has worked for us, and in the end, we paid for the success. It would have been nice to own our building, but that was not ever possible.
Once you found the new space, how did you build, the vision for it? Did you find yourself saying “This is not your Father’s Union Square Café” because your original customers are now coming in with their kids?
The goal in designing the new Union Square Cafe was to capture a feeling – but to recognize that both we and our guests have all grown up and evolved over these past 30 years. It would have been a mistake to look too far backwards, especially since we want this new restaurant to inspire future generations the way the original inspired over its 30-year run.
How have the customer’s experience and the needs of the Union Square customer evolved since you opened the original restaurant?
In one sense, not at all. People crave the hug of warm hospitality as much as ever – and in these times, maybe even more. In another sense, people want more experiences per night out – and the new Union Square answers that by providing a myriad number of ways to enjoy using the space, its menu, and even its bars.
What went into the decision to bring David Rockwell in to do the design? What were your marching orders for David and his team?
As a Union Square neighbor, David has been a regular guest and devoted fan of USC for over two decades, and he needed no schooling to understand the spirit of the restaurant. Our goal was to salute the restaurant’s past, with a focused eye on the future. He and his team did that brilliantly.
What are some of the new bells and whistles that your customers can expect at USC 2.0?
Union Square Cafe is, and has never been a bells and whistle kind of restaurant. Here’s the bottom line: the kitchen is a huge improvement over what we had, and that is reflected in Chef Carmen Quagliata’s cooking – which is stronger than ever. We also built a bakery for our next door cafe, Daily Provisions, and so the extraordinary homemade bread at USC is in and of itself a reason to visit the restaurant. Above all, Union Square Cafe’s return is meant to be a live letter and a hug for New York.
What was your approach to building a new kitchen? As you look at the new kitchen what strikes you as being different from the original? How has technology like combi and convection ovens changed your team’s approach to the design and build of the kitchen? Is there a dealer/kitchen consultant that you utilize with the kitchen design?
Realizing we had the challenges of both “geography” (3 floors) and mechanical coordination, we involved our kitchen design team (Jacobs, Beer), Construction Manager (Shawmut), Engineer (AMA), and Equipment Supplier (M.Tucker) early on in the re-construction phase to allow for dialogue and collaboration before we produced a single schematic.
We used that group as sort of a “Seal Team 6” to allow for the best thinking about function, products and cost efficiency every day.
It was amazing to watch a group of such talented professionals solve issues and achieve solutions and results we would have never otherwise realized.
I heard that there are plans for a new ‘Grab and go’ concept that will be part of the new restaurant? What are the goals for the ‘Daily Provision’ concept?
Daily Provisions has now opened and it is an all-day bakery and cafe, specializing in bread and rotisserie chickens to take home; as well as breakfast sandwiches, gougerès, crullers and coffee in the morning, and then sandwiches and soups in the afternoon. The breads are among the best I’ve ever had.
What does chef Carmen Quagliata bring to the USC customer? How does Carmen’s menu reflect the changes in what your customer is seeking?
Carmen is an extraordinary chef whose cooking is from the heart, and for your pleasure. He loves pasta in all its forms, and has a special gift for roasting and braising. Few people – other than Michael Romano and every cook who worked in USC’s original kitchen understood just how tiny that kitchen was. Carmen can now fully express himself, and even in these early days, his cooking already shows it!
As you look at tabletop: Is the tablecloth dead (sad!) and replaced by a fancier table and napkin? Did you create a new look for the flatware, plating and glass?
Union Square Cafe’s dining room tables use tablecloths. As has always been the case, the tables in the cafe are wood, with cloths.
Our cocktail list is more robust than ever, and our wines by the glass roster is stronger than ever. We also offer guests the opportunity to allow us to open a wide variety of bottles that represent “old friends of Union Square Cafe” – from which we are happy to pour just a half bottle if that’s what our guests would enjoy.
To learn more about Danny Meyer and the Union Square Hospitality Group, visit their website.