Just heard the news about Union Square Café and I’m shocked. Though I haven’t dined there much of late, it’s always been one of my favorite New York restaurants, as it has for so many others.
But I have long memories of the place, going back to one of my first assignments at the New York Times, back in the ‘80s, to write about health-food restaurants, a new trend in New York at the time. One of the targets was a place called Brownie’s on East 16th Street, famous among vegetarians as one of the few such in the city. (In my memory, there was also, somehow, an entrance to the restaurant from 5th Avenue, but I could be wrong.) I went off to Brownie’s and dined amid a sea of what looked like aging Village intellectuals in Murray space shoes, happily chomping on tofu burgers, seitan chops, and similar delights. Brownie’s had been there forever, it seemed, and would last forever too.
But only a year later, it seemed, Brian Miller, a colleague who was then restaurant critic at the Times, asked me to go to a brand new place that had taken over Brownie’s old space. “I can’t go,” he said, “because Danny Meyer is a friend. But we need to review it.” So I was deputed, as an unknown in the neighborhood, and I was enchanted. And I have to say I’ve remained enchanted almost ever since. For me, Union Square Café was the epitome of what a great restaurant could be—not just delicious food but also a comfortable and amiable environment, spacious and full of light, without the annoying music that even back then had invaded restaurants and utterly destroyed any sense of peace and tranquility (so necessary to good dining). Moreover, the staff were well trained, well-informed, engaging without being supercilious or condescending, quick to sense the need for whatever one needed. One felt welcomed and cared for.
And the food? Mostly it was delicious, as I’ve said, though I once sent back a plate of spinach because it was undercooked. I have to say it was the kind of food I was used to having in Italy—and it was not Italian, it was 100% American, but it always seemed to have the honest and honorable approach to what Italians call la materia prima, the primary ingredients, that bespeaks a gifted kitchen, one that doesn’t have to muck the food up with gels and foams and secret sauces. Not plain exactly, but well thought out and. . . that word again. . . delicious.
So, Danny Meyer, here’s to you and to your restaurant. I’m sorry you’re leaving, I’ll miss you a lot, I can’t imagine Union Square Cafe in another space, but I’ll keep hoping.