This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Sam Lipp started his career with Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group back in 2004, at Cafe 2 in the MoMa. He left a few years later for Eleven Madison Park, where he worked as the bar manager and then dining room manager during the time when that restaurant truly became a fine dining destination. Lipp was a part of the opening team at Maialino in 2009, and in February of this year, he accepted the position of general manager of Union Square Cafe, the group's oldest, and perhaps most beloved restaurant.
It's 8 PM on a Saturday night. What's the wait for a table? We try and be creative with our options for diners. There's always an opportunity at the tables in the front of the cafe, which we don't reserve. The bar is also first-come, first-serve, and the wait is typically 15 minutes to a half an half hour there. For a table in the dining room, people cancel all the time, and we try and be as flexible as possible. So, we always try and find ways to say "yes."
Is there anything I can do to make my wait shorter? No, we are genuinely flattered that you come in here. Whether you're just walking by on the street and happen to think of us, or your plans didn't work out somewhere else, or you planned for three weeks to come here, we're just as excited to see you. We want to be as egalitarian in that way as possible.
Tell us about your favorite customers. We get a wonderful mix of incredibly loyal regulars, some of whom have been dining here for 26 years, as well as people that are checking us out for the first time, and they're both equally exciting to me for different reasons. Some of our regulars think of this restaurant as their place. Like, when they tell their friends that they're taking them to dinner, and their friends ask where they're going, they say, "Well, we're not going out. We're going to my place, to Union Square Cafe." That's a really powerful, proud feeling for me. But on the flip side of the coin, there are some people that come check us out for the first time, and they get so excited by all the creative stuff that's going on, and the way that our servers make first-timers feel like they're regulars, that these people will come back a week later and bring friends to kind of show off what it was that they found. That's incredibly validating too. How about celebrities? Everyone here is a celebrity.
I heard a rumor that customers sometimes pick who gets to "keep" this restaurant in a divorce. Have you experienced that? Well, life happens. And over the course of the last 26 years, we've built up a great deal of regulars who are couples, and things don't always work out for them. And it's been really interesting to see how Union Square Cafe factors into that divorce in one way or another. We try and be as discreet and creative in our sharing with them as possible.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables left to give? We can do a variety of things. We're fortunate that most of our regulars that come back here with frequency know us comfortably enough that they'll call and say, "Hey, I'm in the neighborhood, I want to stop by, can you work out a table for me." And if we don't have a table, honesty is the best thing. We can say, "We're going to pick up the phone and call Gramercy Tavern, they've got two spots at the bar waiting for you. Go have a drink, when you're done with your drink, walk back on over here and we'll have a table ready to go." So it's great that we've got our own neighbors and friends in the area to help us out.
What's the strangest request from a customer that you've accommodated? It was a Sunday night, it was late, and we had a guest who had wine spilled on his suit jacket. He was staying in a hotel in Midtown and needed that suit for meetings the next day at 10 o'clock, and there aren't very many dry cleaners that are still open at 10 o'clock at night. So we kind of put our collective heads together and made a connection with a concierge at The Palace Hotel — they do all their in-house dry cleaning. We knew that our guest was staying close to there, so we were able to send the jacket to The Palace to have it dry cleaned, and have their concierge take it over to the other hotel, so the guy had it in the morning, in his room when he was ready to go. We were proud of that. It was a great way to show our "hospitality athletics." I think a lot of our most loyal guests are people who we've made mistakes with, and it's the way with which we handle mistakes that endears them to us.
What about requests that you couldn't accommodate? For some of our guests, when significant things happen in their life — weddings, big anniversaries, graduations or promotions — they want to buy out the restaurant or have 50 of their friends here for a celebration. And, given the physical constraints of the space, we're not able to do it. We've only ever closed twice for private events, and those were for two regulars that have been with us since day one.
When you're not at Union Square Cafe, where are you eating? Well, the market's right here, so that's been wonderful for me because I love to cook at home, and I get here early in the morning. I recently had a great date with my wife at Vinegar Hill House, love that place. We eat at Hecho en Dumbo, that's kind of a regular spot for us, and we checked out Joseph Leonard recently.
Four months in, are you still meeting new regulars? I'm still doing it. Each day, it's so important for me to ask my staff, "Who do I need to meet that you already know here? Who might want to feel that connection, and who doesn't?" But yeah, that's a long process and I'm still undertaking it.
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