On Saturday, Danny Meyer's flagship restaurant Union Square Cafe will close its doors to the public, concluding a three decade run on East 16th Street, a tenure that's credited with ushering in a new era of prosperity and growth in the neighborhood. Some might say a little too much growth. Don't feel too bad for Meyer and team, though, as they've already secured a new location not far away on Park Avenue at 19th Street, which they're hoping will open in spring of next year (they've already broke ground on construction).
To acknowledge the restaurant's innovative contribution to New York City's dining landscape—and anticipate its future comeback—we're taking a look back at three decades of dining through the lens of Union Square Cafe's menus, from the early days of Ali Barker, to Chef Michael Romano's award-winning reign, to the contemporary leadership of Executive Chef & Partner Carmen Quagliata and Managing Partner Sam Lipp.
The Fillet Mignon of Tuna, which would endure into Quagliata's reign, pops up on the 1987 winter menu, which Meyer himself composed on a typewriter. "When you have a restaurant that’s been around this long, and you have a different generation cooks that move through and their view of food and what it should be is going to become more central than mine. So as I took over and as I wrapped my brain around the job, I just saw some dishes that needed to evolve or move on from," Quagliata says of his early days of the restaurant. As for the tuna, "I wanted to take it right off," he reveals. "They said go slow, and that’s what we did with dishes that I wanted to move on from."
The dish endured for a while, ultimately transitioning to a once-a-week special and finally as something the kitchen would make only by special request, meaning Quagliata was able to move on to other dishes. "Those people are still with us and trust me," he says of the shift. "So it’s just about saying, 'Hey we are going to give you something different. It’s in the same genre as a grilled meaty fish like tuna but trust us.'"
The tuna may be gone but Romano's gnocchi will likely be around as long as Union Square Cafe endures. "There are so many people that have come here for 30 years that come just for certain dishes all the time and those are Carmen’s ricotta gnocchi, which is just a very simple dish with a tomato basil passatina," Lipp explains. "That’s a dish that is not printed but if guests ask for it we do have it."
"We were all having dinner here and I said, 'How about the gnocchi, you think that needs to stay on?' And they all looked at me like I was crazy. 'What are you, nuts?'" Quagliata laughs. "As a chef, sometimes you never get a dish like that, that’s so beloved and so simple, it’s timeless and perfect. I actually challenged myself and said, 'Does this need to come with us?' And that’s one that everyone absolutely agreed that had to, so that’s coming with us."
In 1990, Meyer officially banned smoking in his restaurant, though it was discouraged (note the menus) since the earliest days. New York City didn't ban smoking in restaurants until 2003, another example of Meyer's trend-setting principals. In many ways, innovation is tradition at Union Square Cafe, including their unique relationship with the Union Square Greenmarket, a partner since the very beginning. "Over the past thirty years, the market and the restaurant have grown together, and as one of New York City’s original farm-to-table restaurants, Union Square Cafe has redefined what it means to 'eat local' and support farmers and purveyors in our region," GrowNYC tells us.
"On the East Coast, this was really one of the first of its kind to be a completely seasonal restaurant, and we were proud of the fact that in the wintertime you were gonna eat what was growing in the northeast. Likewise, in the spring, all kinds of green things were appearing on the menu," Lipp explains. "We set out to work with that farmer’s market in a very meaningful way, and actually farmers have come to depend on us, at least in the early days when business wasn’t as booming in terms of the restaurant scene as it is now, we would sustain farmers throughout some of the more difficult and lean months by continuing to purchase from them, and that was something that we were incredibly proud of."
That's a relationship that will continue at the new location, a requirement when the team was scouting a new location. "I told Danny we couldn’t go farther than a five-minute walk," Quagliata said at the time. I asked if the chef ever felt constrained or frustrated by the limits of a particular season and what was available fresh and local. "Never. Never been frustrated, other than when I’m longing and waiting for new seasons. But I’m better when I have restrictions. I’m better when I have walls."
Looking ahead, Quagliata is excited for a larger kitchen with better equipment and flow, which he hopes will lead to an even more ambitious food program. "Sometimes you just don’t have the time to move the needle on something, to take what you do, the style of what you do, and just do it better," he says. "Just to figure out how we do what we do better, so things I wanted to try that our guests would love and just have the time to test those things and really nail them, so when we open up we can evolve a little bit and people come back, they can say, 'Wow, they went away and they came back a little bit more ambitious, but they didn’t take away what I loved about the place.'"