When Jonathan Morr, a former associate of nightlife guru Ian Schrager, opened Republic in 1995 on the west side of Union Square, it was a revolutionary establishment. Its buildout was unusual for the time, a functionalist space with concrete floors and some windows that overlooked a gritty alleyway in the rear that made it feel more like a gallery than a restaurant. Diners sat on hard benches flanking communal tables, while whitewashed brick walls crawled with super-graphic photos of people posing with noodles — twirling, slurping, and even wearing them. The photos gave the place an artsy air, in the days when photographers still rented lofts in the vicinity.
I recalled Republic with some fondness recently, as I stumbled on a picture of diners sitting in front of those black-and-white photos. I later tweeted it and wrote underneath, “Remember Republic Noodles? Union Square, 2012.” Though the restaurant closed four years ago, the response was instantaneous. Some remembered it affectionately for the vibe and the scene, while others noted that the food was sometimes mediocre.
One of those tweeted replies stuck in my mind: “It was one of the first fast-casual restaurants.” Indeed, as I thought about it and ticked off Republic’s attributes, I realize that the place anticipated many aspects of today’s fast-casual genre, which would not become widespread until 15 or so years after its founding. The place had been carefully formulated for efficient and expeditious eating, and I remember doing a double take when I first visited 25 years ago.
After being seated and ogling the decor, a uniformed server approached with a handheld contraption that looked like a weapon from Star Trek. Rather than using a pen and pad, she poked my order into the black gadget (the first point of purchase device I’d ever seen in a restaurant), and it was transmitted to the open kitchen. There, cooks gyrated between great stockpots, rice cookers, and noodle-warming reservoirs, deftly assembling the 45 items on the menu in full view of the dining room.
Yes, the benches were backless and utterly uncomfortable. Your food arrived promptly, but you would be slumped over it as you slurped. The communal tables were another odd thing. While New Yorkers were still being newly accustomed to sharing tables in Chinatown during a busy dim sum service, Republic succeeded in seating an urban mix of unrelated diners at common tables. The staff did this by not allowing you to choose your seat and instead you were told where to plop yourself down.
Sometimes they did this with a sense of humor, or at least a sense of egalitarianism, because over the years I was seated with students, Wall Street types, artists from nearby lofts, typists on their lunch hours, loafers who traipsed over from the adjacent park, and tourists with children. Indeed, watching and overhearing the guests at the same table was part of the fun.
The food was another harbinger of the fast-casual wave to follow. While common today, the practice of assembling a menu from several Asian countries was rare back then. Like today’s fast-casual spots, much of it was served in bowls, with rice or noodles as the base. A careful examination of the menu revealed that many of the dishes were Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, or Chinese at heart, though often altered for the purposes of making the entire menu easier to prepare. And yes, the food sometimes seemed a bit watered down.
Thus, there was salmon sashimi salad and satays with peanut sauce; a green papaya salad; a pho-like seafood soup, and another soup that might have been Thai, with its coconut milk, chicken, and lemongrass. One of my favorite dishes was glazed pork chops over rice, and the version served at Republic was every bit as good as versions found at the restaurants on Baxter Street where Vietnamese food once flourished.
In addition to anticipating the meal-in-bowls trend, Asian fusion, and the emphasis on noodles or rice as the basis of many dishes on the menu, Republic also foresaw other fast-casual innovations. Momofuku Noodle Bar partly made its reputation via small buns made by folding a steamed bao over braised pork belly when it opened in 2005, but Republic was already doing the same dish years earlier.
No one was really surprised when the place closed due to rising rents after 22 years, having famously been preceded by the departure of Union Square Café. But if Twitter is to be believed, people still remember it fondly. “I miss that place. Not that the food blew me away, but it was so of its time…” said one tweeter. Another person noted, “Remember and miss. It left a gap for destination places at USQ that aren’t $$$$.”
Morr went on to found the long-running Japanese restaurant BondSt in Noho, which is still a scene today, and the shorter-lived Theo’s in Soho. And just last summer he debuted a noodle restaurant on the Lower East Side called Mother Duck, using a fast-casual approach he at least partly initiated, and a menu covering much the same territory as Republic’s.