To many Americans, Danny Meyer is the Shake Shack guy.
But long before Meyer introduced his upmarket burger and custard chain, which started as a humble hot dog cart in Madison Square Park, there was Union Square Cafe. In 1985, at the age of 27, Meyer opened the contemporary American restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. It proved to be a huge hit and a restaurant-industry trailblazer.
Now Union Square Cafe is coming to the nation's capital, marking the first location Meyer plans to open outside of New York. As first reported by Washingtonian, the restaurant will be part of the upcoming Capitol Crossing, a massive development taking shape over Interstate 395 between Massachusetts Avenue and E Street NW, that's slated to deliver its first building next year and be completed in 2020, according to the project website. A rep for Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group confirmed the opening but said details on the restaurant are still slim.
While Shake Shack has meant Meyer has had a presence in Washington since 2011 (his group also operates several concepts at Nationals Park), the arrival of Union Square Cafe establishes a stronger local foothold for one of the country's most respected restaurateurs. Here's why it matters.
Union Square Cafe was ahead of its time in a number of ways. Long before an eat-local, farmers-market ethos took hold around the country, Meyer patronized the famed Union Square GreenMarket from the very beginning at Union Square Cafe. In fact, the Times reported, one of the requirements for the relocated restaurant's new site was that it had to be a six-minute hand-truck ride from the market. (Skyrocketing rent had prompted Meyer to abandon the restaurant's original location.)
And while it seems like every other restaurant these days bills itself as “modern American” or “contemporary American,” that wasn't as easy of a sell in 1985, when exclusively French or Italian restaurants were seen as the height of culinary sophistication. Union Square Cafe drew from several cuisines in building its roster of eclectic fare. (Also, zoodles: Before home cooks began spiralizing vegetables, the restaurant when it opened was serving a zucchini pappardelle.)
Meyer was also an early adopter of the concept of the eat-in bar, a design mainstay these days. He wanted to address the conundrum of dining alone, so he had a custom-built bar installed at Union Square Cafe that was wide enough to enjoy a meal.
Meyer is credited with shepherding today's relaxed style of restaurant service. Published in 2006, Meyer's book, “Setting the Table,” is a kind of bible for the restaurant industry. Speak with any chef or restaurateur about the vibe and staff they're trying to build, and Meyer's name is likely to come up. You'll see his DNA in the more relaxed, but no less polished, service at such Washington restaurants as Rose's Luxury and All-Purpose.
Sebastian Zutant, a partner with chef Michael Friedman in District spots the Red Hen and All-Purpose, succinctly summed it up when he told The Washington Post about a particularly attentive meal he and Friedman had at Union Square Cafe sibling Gramercy Tavern: “Thank you, Danny Meyer.”
Meyer was one of the first high-profile restaurateurs to eliminate tipping. Meyer's announcement in 2015 that Union Square Hospitality would be eliminating tipping at its family of restaurants was big news, which inspired others to follow suit and prompted renewed discussions about wage disparity.
“We believe hospitality is a team sport, and that it takes an entire team to provide you with the experiences you have come to expect from us,” Meyer wrote in a statement at the time. “Unfortunately, many of our colleagues — our cooks, reservationists, and dishwashers to name a few — aren't able to share in our guests' generosity.”
The move was also indicative of his overall philosophy. “Caring for each other comes first. We put our guests second,” Meyer told Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page for their 1998 book, “Dining Out: Secrets from America's Leading Critics, Chefs, and Restaurateurs.”
Union Square Cafe is the foundation for Meyer's very successful restaurant empire. “It's my firstborn. It's a New York institution,” Meyer told the New York Times as he prepared for its reopening. “For our company, it's the mother yeast of every loaf we've ever baked.” Those loaves now include such other famed institutions as the Modern (two Michelin stars), Gramercy Tavern (one Michelin star) and, of course, Shake Shack.
Union Square Cafe is a beloved, well-respected institution, a rarity in such a volatile industry. Critical acclaim has come in the form of a number of James Beard Awards, one of the most coveted honors in the industry, including wins for best chef New York City, outstanding wine service, outstanding restaurant and outstanding service (in 1992, the first time the category was offered). It's a favorite among diners, too, having earned the top spot nine times in Zagat's survey of the city's most popular restaurants.
But perhaps former New York Times food critic Frank Bruni said it best in his two-star review of Union Square Cafe in 2009: “I can't think of another New York restaurant that enjoys such acclaim, basks in such adoration and yet exhibits such humility.”