Danny Meyer's New York Travel Guide
Restaurateur Danny Meyer offers advice to business travelers in New York.
Ask Danny Meyer why he came to live and do business in Manhattan, and he gives an unabashedly sybaritic reply: “It was based on the hedonist pleasures and the undeniable energy jolt I got whenever I came here.”
And that’s pretty much exactly what you hope to hear from this New York restaurateur extraordinaire and CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group, a man whose 23 (and counting) eateries have brought so many New Yorkers and visitors so much enjoyment for more than two decades.
In a city with some 23,000-plus restaurants, where well over 100 open every year, Meyer’s spots stand out. They impress not only with their staying power—his first, Union Square Café, turns 26 this year—but also with their ability to define and then deliver distinctive New York dining experiences. “You have to give people a sense that it was worth leaving their own home to come to you,” explains Meyer. “You don’t just cook their food and serve them and do the dishes. You also give them a transporting social experience they couldn’t have at home. You welcome them in the way a friend would expect to be welcomed to your house.
“We try to strike this amazing harmony of going out and coming home,” Meyer says. Folks seem to think he’s hit both those notes quite well. Either his Union Square Café or Gramercy Tavern have held the Most Popular Restaurant spot on the Zagat Survey for 15 years (until last year). In 2010 his haute gastronomy mecca, Eleven Madison Park, now co-owned by its chef and general manager, earned four stars in The New York Times, and the James Beard Foundation named it the country’s most outstanding restaurant. Meyer’s micro-chain of elevated fast-food joints, Shake Shack, has won hungry fans around the city, adding satellites in Miami, Washington, D.C., upstate New York, Connecticut, Dubai and Kuwait. He’s even in some of New York’s most beloved institutions, with restaurants and cafés at MoMA, the Whitney and the Mets’ new stomping ground, Citi Field.
And the numbers keep growing. In the last few months Meyer redefined the all-American grill and bar with North End Grill, in Battery Park, near a new second branch of his barbecue spot, Blue Smoke, and he’s launched another Shake Shack in Brooklyn.
He is, as they say, living high on the hog—or maybe it’s more of a perfect, crispy-skinned morsel of porchetta?
“It’s thrilling to do business in New York,” says the compact, neatly groomed Meyer, 53, one rainy morning over coffee at Maialino, his two-year-old Roman trattoria at the hip, Julian Schnabel-decorated Gramercy Park Hotel.
“When I first got the notion of opening a restaurant here, I remember people saying, ‘You’re absolutely crazy. It’s the hardest business in the world, and it’s the most competitive city in the world.’ And I don’t want to dispute that, but I will say there are counterbalancing advantages, which in some ways make it easier than some other cities.”
“The pool of available talent is extraordinary. The pool of appreciative and knowledgeable diners is extraordinary. And the pool of media who will shine a light on it all if you’re doing a good job is probably bigger than in any other city. If you want to be a champion at what you do, this is the place to do it.”
The boosterish Meyer again points to New York’s exceptionalism when talking about how local restaurants are faring during these recessionary times: “The city has been remarkably resilient. It’s never been safer, and when you have a place with the depth of opportunities culturally, culinarily and shopping-wise that we do, there are enough people in the world and few enough hotel rooms that we can stay busy. Something always seems to be going our way, even when other things are down.” And there it is: Meyer’s view of New York City as a perfectly balanced hedge fund.
While the current economic climate has caused restaurants’ rents to go down and made opening bigger spots a riskier proposition, Meyer finds that the recession has also led to an increase in more small, diverse and wallet-friendly options: “The city has never had more hospitality, more variety and more quality,” concludes the restaurateur, who wrote the book—or at least a book—on the subject in 2006: Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.
The St. Louis-born son of a hotelier, Meyer grew up marinating in the hospitality industry. After high school, he moved to the Northeast to attend Trinity College, in Hartford, Conn., but he came to New York often, staying at the Algonquin, a spot he still loves: “It was the place I had my first date with my future wife.” Later, he’d hold meetings in the lobby of the St. Regis. “It made us all feel very royal. I’ve had so many great experiences there, in their restaurant, Lespinasse, in the old days, and now at Alain Ducasse’s Adour.” To really “feel the power of New York,” Meyer recommends a stay at the Four Seasons. “It has it all: architecture, discretion of service, location, energy, peace.”
As for the restaurants (beyond his own) where he goes to enjoy New York’s culinary hospitality these days, Meyer increasingly finds himself drawn to Brooklyn. “One of my greatest pleasures is going to places that are owned, operated or ‘chefed’ by alumni of our restaurants, and there are just tons of them in Brooklyn.” The farm-to-table-minded haute-pizza spots Franny’s, in Prospect Heights, and Roberta’s, in Bushwick, have proved two of his favorites, with the artisanal contemporary-classic cocktails at Williamsburg’s Huckleberry Bar also standing out.
Back on the isle of Manhattan, Meyer frequents Sparks Steak House, the place he ate after closing his first business deal, and where he’s gone after closing each one since. “For Union Square Café, I bought the lease from New York’s first vegetarian restaurant, Brownie’s. To celebrate, the owner took me to Sparks. I’d thought he was a vegetarian, but it turned out he’d been sneaking out for years, and this is where he went to sneak a steak. It brought me very good luck with that first one, so that’s where I go every time.” For Japanese, it’s Sushi of Gari, either the original on the Upper East Side or the Theater District locale, best and quietest when everyone else is at a show. “Sit at the bar and get the omakase chef’s tasting,” advises Meyer.
When he’s after a drink, he usually stops by his own Gramercy Tavern, but he also thinks the West Village restaurant Fedora is “just a great bar for cocktails. They really know what they’re doing.” And he was excited to try the potables at The Wren, a new spot from a few Gramercy Tavern alums.
A supreme city walker—“the only way to have license to consume as much as there is to consume in New York is to walk it off”—Meyer runs on the weekends, following the trails along the East and Hudson rivers. He relishes the vantage walking and running provide (“but you’ve got to look up,” he admonishes), and he loves the surprise of discovering a block he’s never been on before.
He recently began doing a bit of lightly competitive running, and as the conversation concludes, Meyer uses a racing metaphor to offer insight into Union Square Hospitality Group’s current business strategy:
“I like to win. And I’ve realized I can make up more ground on the uphill than the down. If you start to open all your places when the economy’s good, the field is crowded, and it’s hard to hire people. So we’ve been really focused now on hiring the best possible staff, people whose greatest pleasure it is to make you feel happy. By doing so, we’ve actually made up competitive ground during the recession. But you’ve got to train yourself to do well on the uphill.”
Check out ET’s slideshow of Danny Meyer’s New York Address Book