When Danny Meyer opened the Union Square Cafe in 1985, he probably did not foresee how impactful it would be in the world of New York dining, and in the restaurant world beyond. Set in a quirky, multilevel, multi-area space just off Union Square — which back in the 1980s was a rather questionable area — the café struck a perfect balance between providing great food and not taking itself too seriously. Waiters were decked out in playful, color-striped Brooks Brothers shirts, the walls were arrayed with original art, much of it the work of Meyer’s uncle, and the menu offered a flavorful take on Italian cuisine, being both inventive and respectful of tradition. Union Square Cafe enjoyed enormous success, but a proposed tripling of the rent led Meyer to close it in December 2015 to much unhappiness. (The irony was that the café itself had spurred the transformation of Union Square from dodgy to desirable.)
But there is a happy ending: Union Square Cafe reopened this past December in a new home just a few blocks away, at East 19th Street and Park Avenue South. Celebrated designer David Rockwell took full advantage of this new space, with its soaring ceilings. The bar is 12 seats, just the same as before, much of the art from the former location — reframed — adorns the walls and executive chef Carmen Quagliata is back at the stove with dishes such as fritto misto, ricotta gnocchi with a tomato-basil passatina (purée) and Pecorino Romano cheese, and roasted pork rack with shell beans and fennel-apple mostarda. And don’t neglect the USC Burger, which is one of the best burgers in the United States.
Union Square Cafe
101 East 19th Street. Tel. (212) 243-4020