It’s been nearly a year since Danny Meyer’s seminal New American restaurant Union Square Cafe shut its doors, and next week, the hospitality titan's flagship restaurant will open again a few blocks north. It’s not a replica of the old restaurant. The original outpost — Meyer’s first restaurant, and one reason why seasonal dining and energetic service is so ubiquitous in New York now — can’t quite be recreated, partly due to the quirks of the original space, says Sam Lipp, director of operations. But they didn’t want to clone it, either.
Rooms have been added. Dishes, including some old favorites, have been tweaked. "Even after 30 years of history, we have a self-imposed challenge to be fresh, to reinvent, to rethink, to reimagine all the ways people might want to use this restaurant," Lipp says. "We scrutinized everything we’ve done. Can we do this better? That’s the biggest challenge. And also, the biggest opportunity."
The team — which includes designer David Rockwell — wanted to evoke feelings of warmth and familiarity, while building a space that offered more ways to hang out. The new version, at 101 East 19th St. at Park Avenue, has two bars instead of one, including a space that will act as a cocktail lounge for a happy hour or late night crowd. It’s got a semi-private dining room and a private one. A cafe next door, Daily Provisions, will be a way for people to pop in to grab items to-go, and its bakery downstairs will make all the bread in-house for the first time. "It’s little vignettes of intimate moments and sometimes grand moments," Lipp says.
Similarly, the ideals of the menu remain the same — simplicity, seasonality, and a "delicious first" ethos, says executive chef Carmen Quagliata. Familiar dishes like gnocchi and a red oak leaf salad with a mustard vinaigrette will reappear, though possibly with adjustments. The salad, for example, will now be making use of Daily Provisions’ bread with in-house croutons, Quagliata says. "We took a look at everything," he says. Some of the newer items developed from Quagliata’s reassessment of what kind of meat they use. "A lot of times, I kept shying away from certain proteins," he says. "Let’s just go for it and start using better meat." He’s particularly proud of a braised lamb shank with salsa verde and a spiced chicken with Japanese sweet potatoes.
The team knows Union Square Cafe inside and out, what people want, and what people don’t want. Still, with this new opening, they felt like a start up. "Whenever you open a restaurant or any venture, you always feel like you have something to prove," Quagliata says. "Even though we’ve been around for so long, that doesn’t change."
Meyer and his crew haven't announced an exact opening date yet, but it's all happening next week. Take a look at the space below, and stay tuned for more as one of the city’s biggest restaurants opens its doors once again.