“Someone sent me a box of hot dogs,” Danny Meyer said, walking into Union Square Café, his oldest restaurant, clutching a large cardboard package. He placed the parcel on the bar, removed his mask, and opened an accompanying letter, from the owner of a string of hot-dog joints in Utah. The letter thanked Meyer for writing “Setting the Table,” his 2006 best-seller about the power of risktaking, eye contact, and pressed tablecloths. Meyer smiled.
The previous day, New York City had officially begun reopening, which meant that restaurants could again start filling their dining rooms. The past year has been the most difficult of Meyer’s gilded career. When the pandemic arrived, his company, Union Square Hospitality Group, shut down its nineteen restaurants and also its events business, which provided catering for planes, stadiums, galas, and weddings. This meant laying off some two thousand people. A few days later, Floyd Cardoz, the chef who opened Tabla with Meyer, in 1998, died of COVID-19. Employees got sick and lost loved ones. Meyer was publicly criticized for seeking and receiving a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program—which Congress created to bail out small businesses—for Shake Shack, the international burger chain he founded. (Shake Shack returned the ten-million-dollar loan to the government.) A stop-start summer, fall, and winter followed. Meyer’s restaurants experimented with retail and delivery, and with shipping chicken potpies, lasagne, and other items from coast to coast.
The evening’s dinner service was just beginning, and Meyer went into the kitchen to greet Lena Ciardullo, the executive chef, who had recently returned from maternity leave. How did it feel to be cooking again? “Back is sore,” she said. “Cooking is good.” They discussed the past year. Rather than returning to normal, things now felt like they were starting over. “A big mistake is when people say we’re ‘reopening’ restaurants,” he said. “We’re opening new restaurants.” The latest challenge was staffing. Every place in town was suddenly hiring at the same time. Former employees had left the city, or left the industry, or were wary of giving up unemployment. Before the pandemic, Union Square Café usually had thirteen people in the kitchen for dinner. Now Ciardullo was making do with seven. The person who was preparing salads was also plating pastry.
“Our old pastry station is where we’re currently packing to-go orders,” Ciardullo said. “But that means I don’t have anywhere to put ice cream.”
“Where’s the ice cream?” Meyer asked.
“We don’t have ice cream right now,” Ciardullo said.
“Jesus,” Meyer replied.
Someone started frying soft-shell crabs. Meyer exited the kitchen, ascended a set of stairs, and selected a table on the balcony overlooking the dining room. He sat down and listened. “It’s very quiet,” he said, ruefully. “The sounds of a restaurant are one of the things I missed most.” He picked up a knife and fork, clinked them together, and scratched them across a plate to demonstrate what he meant. “It’s music,” he said.
Ciardullo appeared, holding a dish of sourdough slices piled high with cheese and chopped bright-green vegetables. “We’ve got some burrata, some sugar snap peas, some pecans,” she said. “Beautiful,” Meyer said. “Very spring-y.” He ignored his portion while a visitor chowed down.
Meyer talked about the business. Even before the pandemic, he had been deeply involved in debates about pay and sustainability in the industry. In 2015, his restaurants had done away with tipping, in an attempt to even out the pay disparity between servers and kitchen staff. In July, he abandoned the experiment, saying that during the pandemic he didn’t want to deny any employee the chance to make extra money. It seemed that just about every premise in the business had been tested. It wasn’t all bad news. Meyer glanced over the railing and out the window, at the covered patio outside. It had once been a gutter, parking spaces. “This could be a savior of the full-service restaurant industry,” he said, of outdoor dining. He seemed amazed at how an idea that now seems obvious had once inspired resistance. The Modern, his restaurant at the Museum of Modern Art, overlooks the museum’s sculpture garden, but there had never been tables put out there. Meyer plans to do so this summer, when the Modern reopens. “We used to feel, You can’t have café society right outside a Michelin two-star restaurant,” he said. “And now: Hell, yes, you can.”
In April, Bill de Blasio named Meyer the board chairman of the city’s Economic Development Corporation, one of those nodes in New York’s power structure that no one’s ever heard of but which control a gigantic amount of money. “They’re basically always trying to think, Where’s the puck going, for jobs?” Meyer said. “De Blasio said, ‘I have one job for the rest of my term, and that’s to bring back the city’s economy, and bring back as many jobs and as many tourists, and get as many people back to work as possible.’ I thought, How can I not help the city? So I said yes.”
The dining room was filling up with patrons, and with the music of a restaurant. Laughter bounced off the walls. Chairs scraped. A cappuccino machine hissed. “You can get a lot of good food in this city,” Meyer said, rising from his seat. “Your favorite restaurant, invariably, is the one that loves you the most.” The last thing he offered a visitor was a handshake. ♦