Shake Shack, with its crave-worthy burgers for sale in Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, might have become the global entry point for The Danny Meyer Hospitality Experience, but make no mistake: Manhattan's Gramercy Tavern is the heart and soul of that culinary empire. That’s all the more true as Meyer gets ready to shutter his beloved Union Square Cafe, a move that will make Gramercy, founded in 1994, his oldest restaurant. This reliable (and perennially-packed) mainstay is, without question, New York’s quintessential American restaurant, a status affirmed over the course of two recent visits by Eater critics Ryan Sutton and Robert Sietsema. Below, they both provide their takes.
What Gramercy Tavern Means
In an age when big ticket restaurants open nearly every day, when expensive and wildly creative tasting menus are a given, and when a cornucopia of small but colorful ingredients often explode across the city's small plates, we tend to forget how revolutionary Gramercy Tavern was when it was debuted in 1994 by Danny Meyer and Tom Colicchio. Ruth Reichl gave the place two stars in 1994, noting somewhat shaky service and a few menu missteps, but also declaring, "Gramercy Tavern is a grand attempt to reinvent the American luxury restaurant." By 1996, she'd upped her rating to three stars, offering unstinting praise for Colicchio's cooking.
It seemed like an entirely new sort of restaurant.
My East Village pals and I were well aware of Gramercy Tavern, too. It seemed like an entirely new sort of restaurant. While we'd never dared set foot in a luxury French establishment, Gramercy Tavern seemed strangely accessible, and the lure was the cheaper bar menu in the front room. I remember going several times in the mid-90s, happily downing a leg-of-lamb sandwich and a beer. The meat was richly textured, smoky like barbecue, and almost gamy. Most important, a satisfying meal could be had for $20 or so, a splurge my friends and I could afford.
Some tip their hats to Larry Forgione’s 1980s-era relic, American Place, in helping to break the French stranglehold on East Coast fine dining. But let's be real. Gramercy Tavern is the one that’s still alive and thriving. The 20th Street space has been sending out vegetable-focused tasting menus in the formal dining room long before it was the cool thing to do, and the more casual Tavern Room has been whipping up ambitious and affordable fare to a no-reservations crowd years before Momofuku Ssam Bar or Roberta’s championed that stripped-down style of dining.
Gramercy, like any decades-old establishment, went through at least one rough patch, when Michael Anthony took over the kitchen reins in 2006. Alan Richman of Bloomberg News (where I worked at the time) responded to his young tenure with a fast and furious takedown. But things improved soon after, and now, eight years later, Anthony is putting out clean American fare that’s occasionally as breathtaking as anything at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns.
The Dining Room
The formal dining room is where half of the magic happens. So many chefs send out raw scallops with citrus, most of which are too cold, too bland, too acidic, or too sweet. Here, they could pass muster at Masa. Anthony’s Peconic bay mollusks pack that delicate balance of sugar and brine, with such a modicum of yuzu you wonder whether the fragrant Japanese fruit is simply a figment of your imagination.
That fine shellfish course, incidentally, kicks off a seven-course affair that could easily cost $150 at a lesser restaurant. Gramercy asks just $120 for its vegetable-heavy chef’s tasting, an exceedingly reasonable price tag. And for a few dollars less, Anthony also sells a $102 menu of equal length with even more vegetables (and no meat), as well as a $92 three-course menu (for those who get stressed out by small plates).
"The menu is all about celebrating modest ingredients," Anthony tells me, which is why we have dashi-braised turnips with turnip foam — edible rubies on a plate. He stuffs beets inside ravioli for a crimson punch of sugar and forges his finishing sauce not from a pound of cream but from a lighter parsnip puree. And he transforms lobster from a dominant protein into a equal dance partner for seasonal vegetables.
The tasting showed off clean, clear, accessible flavors.
The tasting was quick by modern standards — about two and a half hours — and showed off clean, clear, accessible flavors. Sous-vide squash did its best impression of a ham steak, with the vegetable’s heft emphasized over its delicate sweetness. Anthony turned seafood chowder into study of surf and earth: flavors of ocean and brine (trout roe, halibut, mussels), contrasted against rich celery root soup (which, alas, didn’t exhibit any of the clam stock it was supposedly made with). And for a clever curveball, the kitchen slipped petals of brussels sprouts underneath three slices of duck breast, gently perfuming the gamy protein with their verdant musk.
One downside: Desserts by pastry chef Miro Uskovic didn’t manifest the same degree of compelling clarity as the savory courses; we sampled a run-of-the-mill banana pudding with the vegetable tasting, and a gritty pear panna cotta with sherry granita as a finale to the regular tasting.
The waiters in their vests, ties, and neatly pressed shirts swept soundlessly from room to room, appearing and then disappearing through arches and behind pillars. The seasonal tasting menu proved heavy on the seafood, with nearly as many vegetables as the vegetable tasting menu, emphasizing seasonal turnips, tubers, and squashes. Starches were nearly nonexistent. If you craved meat, you were as equally out of luck on either menu. By current standards both bills of fare were a good value, given the number of courses, quality of the food, real estate occupied by the restaurant, and ambiance. I've paid more for less on obscure streets in Brooklyn.
I've paid more for less on obscure streets in Brooklyn.
Striking a New England note, the so-called celery root chowder on the seasonal menu was my favorite. The name was perplexing, since the soup contained a stamp-size swatch of halibut, two or three mussels, and wad of orange trout roe — didn't it deserve to be called seafood chowder? The soup arrived dry but was dramatically finished with an arc of creamy broth poured from a teapot, one of several tableside flourishes. A close second was the rare but crisp-skinned duck breast, three miniature slices that rolled in rather comically on an undercarriage of four small brussels sprouts. Also deserving of praise was the beet ravioli, finger-size half-moons in a buttery chive sauce. On the vegetable menu, best was a bowl of farro papardelle with assorted veggies and ‘shrooms.
The least desirable course was a lobster salad that comprised two very small cubes of lobster meat with a delicate carrot julienne, a shmear of orange squash, and a couple of tiny mushroom caps. It seems sad that a salad can no longer resemble a salad, at least at this level of the food culture. Foams were incorporated into several courses in a nod to science chefdom, and both menus collectively looked like a gallery of Lilliputian abstract paintings, like a stroll through a miniature MOMA circa 1965.
The Tavern Room
The following Monday evening we arrived at 6:30 and presented ourselves in the front barroom, hoping to avoid the crowds. We were seated almost immediately at a two-top in a dramatic pool of light. It felt like being on stage. Periodically, the wood-burning oven, overhung with copper pots, flamed up as dishes on peels were thrust inside. The floral arrangements at our elbow were entirely white: ranunculuses, star flowers, and amaryllises, nodding their heads among heaps of sphagnum and assorted watering cans and flower pots. Welcome to my upstate mud room.
Several of the dishes we ate a la carte in the tavern tasted significantly better than in the formal room.
While the food in the formal dining rooms had been impressive in its precise platings and use of color, several of the dishes we ate a la carte in the tavern tasted significantly better. Standing in for the lamb sandwich of yore was a lamb flatbread ($14) singed in the oven, dotted with potato chunks and smothered in baby arugula. It was exquisite, and readily fell into shareable squares. Compared with the celeriac chowder encountered four days earlier, the kuri squash chowder was much livelier, its orange broth buoying lots of shrimp and sea bass flavored with caramelized onions and scallions, an unusual allium combination. The jerk pork chop ($24) was an inspired piece of meat, though the classic jerk flavorings had been abstracted: the allspice at a low hum, while the pickled habaneros shouted. Sadly, the pork chop was devoid of any accompanying starches.
There were missteps in the front room, too. A cassoulet stinted on the beans, and the sausage and pork belly never really assimilated themselves into the kind of gluey, crumb-topped mass one expects from this Gascon specialty. However, the meal ended agreeably with a dessert called Dutch baby, an early American recipe reverently recreated by pastry chef Miro Uskokovic.
The real drawback of the tasting menus is where you physically eat them — in the stodgy, old world back room. The tavern room, by contrast, is as sleek as any modern venue, with giant windows, a fire-breathing wood oven, and Robert Kushner’s famed "Cornucopia" mural, an avant-garde ode to produce.
Why not ignore the increasingly irrelevant distinctions between refinement and rusticity?
But is the tavern menu, where everything’s listed at $24 or under, any less ambitious or delicious than the formal dining room fare? Not really. Fluke tartare, with its firm flesh and bright cilantro, packed flavors that were nearly on par with the tasting menu's Peconic Bay scallops. Kuri squash soup, with ruby red shrimp exhibiting the soft texture of more expensive langoustines, didn’t posses any less depth than the dining room’s fancier seafood chowder. And a coriander-studded duck sausage with creamy yellow-eyed beans made for such a nimble cassoulet one could serve it in the dead of summer at Daniel and no one would be any worse off.
So why not ignore the increasingly irrelevant distinctions between refinement and rusticity, between "reservation food" and "walk-in food," and offer every option, everywhere, throughout the two dining rooms? Bar diners deserve tasting menus just as much as back room diners deserve an a la carte option during dinner service.
Still. None of that quibbling makes Gramercy Tavern any less of a classic.