A Moveable Feast
How St. Louisan Danny Meyer came to own NYCs dining scene.
“Restaurateurs’ two most compelling issues are serving quality food and welcoming people with hospitality,” says Danny Meyer, who left St. Louis to pursue international politics and wound up becoming a leading figure in New York’s hospitality industry. “You can do that anywhere, from a bowling alley to a four-star restaurant.” Although he’s yet to open a 10-pin venue, the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group definitely practices what he preaches. Granted, when I caught up with Meyer in August, his restaurant, Eleven Madison Avenue, had just claimed his first four-star review from The New York Times.
To New York diners and critics, this recent distinction comes as no surprise. His first concept, Union Square Café, which he opened in 1985 at age 27, has become an established favorite on the New York dining scene, and Meyers’ other fine-dining concepts—Gramercy Tavern, Tabla and The Modern (inside MOMA, which immediately earned a Michelin star and won Meyer the James Beard award for best new restaurant in the country)— are splurge-worthy destinations for New Yorkers as
well as foodie tourists from around the world.
Despite his booming businesses, he remains a customer driven operator. For this, he credits his parents’ Clayton restaurants and travel companies, through which he honed his knowledge of European cuisines and, while working as a 20-year-old tour guide, learned first-hand the importance of pleasing his guests. Instead of adapting to New York as a fledgling restaurateur, he says, “acting like a St. Louisan in a big city that was otherwise not hospitable was an enormous advantage for me and for Union Square Café.”
Buzz is building about his newest concept, an Italian trattoria called Maialino, opening next month in the Gramercy Park Hotel. Here’s hoping he brings his next hot concept to his hometown.
ALIVE: Growing up in St. Louis, your parents owned a travel company, group tour business and the Seven Gables Inn. Did you always think you would enter the hospitality industry?
Danny Meyer: No, I don’t think anyone my age really did, because it was not really considered a validated career choice if your path had been going to a nice high school and an East Coast liberal arts college. I really thought I might end up being a lawyer because I had been a political science major, and what you do with that is become an attorney if you really want to go into politics— you don’t think about going into the restaurant business. It was really on the eve of taking the LSAT that I hit a wall and said to myself, “You actually don’t want to be an attorney. Why don’t you do what you love?” It was hard to tell my parents that I wanted to get into the restaurant business. “Is that why we sent you to John Burroughs?” I reminded them that when I was at John Burroughs I had taken home economics with all the girls!
ALIVE: When did you decide to make the move to New York?
DM: I had gone to Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and there’s not a lot going on in Hartford, so many, many weekends, I would make a road trip down to New York. I just fell in love with the city. I caught the bug. I wanted to live here for a year starting in 1980, and that turned into a lifetime.
ALIVE: How did your first restaurant come to be?
DM: I opened my first restaurant, Union Square Café, in 1985 when I was 27, with no expectation that I would like it, no expectation that it would work, no expectation that I would stay in the business, and certainly no expectation that I would ever do anything beyond Union Square Café.
ALIVE: You’ve added so many restaurants since then—Gramercy Tavern in 1994, Eleven Madison Park and Tabla in 1998, The Modern at the Museum of Modern Art in 2004—but they’re different from Blue Smoke, your barbeque restaurant, which opened in 2002.
DM: [Blue Smoke] was really my first restaurant that paid homage to my love for St. Louis. We had a wonderful housekeeper in St. Louis named Mary Smith, who was originally from Mississippi. I would go down to her house on Lee Avenue many, many Saturdays and just watch her making fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, sweet potato pie, coconut cake. She was one of my best friends in life, so I really wanted to do a restaurant that paid homage to her.
ALIVE: Since opening Blue Smoke, you’ve started doing more casual dining experiences and concessions—for example, in Central Park, at the Museum of Modern Art and at Citi Field. Why that type of expansion?
DM: It was because in 1998 we had opened Eleven Madison Avenue and Tabla within four weeks of each other. It was such a traumatic experience opening two fine-dining restaurants at the exact same time while trying to sustain two other restaurants and I said, “I’m never opening another fine-dining restaurant as long as I live—and if I open a restaurant at all, it’s just going to be a joint.” We had a lot of fun being in a much more casual environment, and that led to Shake Shack, which is an incredibly popular kiosk right smack dab in the middle of Madison Square Park.
ALIVE: You also have a concession at the Mets’ ballpark. Are you a big fan?
DM: I root for the Mets every game unless they’re playing the Cardinals. And the Wilpons, who own the Mets, know that—I fully disclosed that before they gave us the opportunity to serve food at the field.
ALIVE: Tell us about your newest venture, opening next month.
DM: We’re opening a new restaurant in the Gramercy Park Hotel. It will be our first Italian restaurant, and it’s going to be called Maialino.
ALIVE: What’s behind the name?
DM: It gets back to my dad and his business, because when my brother and sister and I each turned 20, my dad invited each one of us to pick a country in which he did tour business, and we got to work for him as a tour guide. I picked Italy. I was working for a guy named Giorgio and immediately became known as “Meyerlino,” which means “little Meyer.” I had fallen in love with this classic Roman dish, roast suckling pig, which is called “maialino,” and because my ear was not very accustomed to Giorgio’s dialect, I didn’t notice for at least two weeks that he’d started calling me maialino instead of Meyerlino—he had been calling me “little pig,” and every time he called me that people would laugh. It took me a couple weeks to figure out why.
ALIVE: So it’s going to be more “fine-dining” than “joint”?
DM: Yeah, fine dining, but when I say “fine dining,” what I mean is that it will have waiter/waitress service, but it’s not going to be fancy— it will be more of a trattoria, a place that I hope people will want to frequent several times a month.
ALIVE: In addition to writing a book about customer service (Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business) and being known for promoting from within at your company and focusing on empowerment, you also support a lot of philanthropic organizations in your businesses. Why is a focus on community and people so important to you?
DM: A restaurant is a public place. It’s not your work. It’s not your home. On one hand it’s an enclosed public place where people come to be in public with other people. But I think it’s equally important to imagine your restaurant as if its walls were transparent and realize that it has to be in harmony with its community—and do it with a twinkle in your eye and a sense of humor so you don’t take yourself too seriously!
Photo credit: By Meghan Petersen