On the night of August 12, when Danny Meyer stepped into the elevator of his apartment building, the service on his cellphone cut out, as usual. He was anxious, but outwardly, appeared his typical relaxed self—just more dressed up than usual, in a crisp, white dress shirt and a black sport coat with no tie.
When the doors finally parted, and Meyer made his way onto the street, his phone immediately began buzzing with waiting voicemails, emails, and text messages that had accumulated while he was in the elevator.
Across town at Eleven Madison Park, Meyer’s crown jewel in the Flatiron District, dinner was already under way. But head chef Daniel Humm wasn’t at his usual station in the middle of the kitchen. A sanguine 32-year-old Swiss chef who earned four stars at his San Francisco restaurant, Campton Place, he, too, was nervous. So much so that he had decided he was “useless” in the kitchen that night. Humm retreated to the restaurant’s office, where he just kept hitting “refresh” on nytimes.com—waiting for it to appear.
Downstairs, Will Guidara, the restaurant’s slender general manager, was pouring olive oil over a gnocchi garnished with violet artichokes, Taggiasca olives, and bacon. Everyone on staff that night knew that Eleven Madison was receiving a third review from New York Times food critic Frank Bruni, who had awarded the restaurant two stars in February 2005, and elevated that ranking to three stars in January 2007. “Mr. Humm’s food—not the new table settings, not the tweaked lighting—made me do it,” Bruni wrote of the increase in stars. But his evaluation admitted that portions at the restaurant were “picayune, and desserts are something of a question mark.” Tonight, though, an anxious optimism permeated the air. “We knew that we had improved in the last two years,” Humm said. According to Meyer, the restaurant had simply not lived up to the potential of its magnificent Art Deco setting in the Metropolitan Life North building. A two-star restaurant is described by the Times as “Very Good.” “We didn’t think we were doing the architect of the building any favors by giving them a ‘very good’ restaurant,” says Meyer.
The management had filled the place with regulars on that night, one of whom was dining alone in the corner of the marble room, next to where Guidara was drizzling the gnocchi. The man checked his iPhone, and suddenly shouted the words everyone was waiting to hear: “Four stars!” The quiet dining room exploded in revelry. Champagne bottles popped, staff members hugged, and diners put down their forks to cheer. “I don’t know if that woman ever got her olive oil or not,” Guidara says now.
With its fourth star, Eleven Madison Park, which opened in 1998, had been officially anointed as the Sixth Wonder of New York: the sixth restaurant, after Le Bernadin, Jean Georges, Daniel, Masa, and Per Se to receive four stars from Frank Bruni.
“It was not my goal that Eleven Madison become a four-star restaurant,” says Meyer. “It was my goal that it become an excellent restaurant.”
Meyer’s empire extends all over New York: from The Modern at MoMA, to a new restaurant, Maialino, which will open at the Gramercy Park Hotel this fall. He’s also just opened Taste of the City at Citi Field, aka “DannyMeyerLand,” which includes Shake Shack, Blue Smoke, and a taqueria. But this corner of Madison Square—with Tabla adjacent to Eleven Madison, and Shake Shack, the burger Mecca, just inside the park—is Meyer’s culinary campus. And, if this is his campus, then Eleven Madison, as Guidara puts it, is Meyer’s “graduate school.”
The variety of Meyer price points within these few hundred feet says it all. “I’ve pretty much devoted my entire career to taking something excellent and making it more accessible,” says Meyer. “And taking something accessible and making it even more excellent.”
And excellence, in the Meyer empire at least, means a very specific thing: a mix of a copacetic environment, flawless food, and service marked by “precision.”
“We’re relatively anal here,” says Guidara, the GM. He sits back in the couch at the front of the restaurant in a perfectly pressed suit. Too anal, he explains, is robotic; too friendly is sloppy. It’s doing them both simultaneously that makes a restaurant excellent. The service at Eleven Madison presents a formal environment, but “brings a sense of humanity” to the table as well, says Guidara.
Oftentimes that “humanity” is Meyer himself. Every morning, Meyer’s assistant presents him with annotated notes of all the reservation lists at all of his restaurants that night. Then he’ll spend that night shuttling around to each of them. When he gets to the front desk, “usually the first words out of my mouth are, ‘Send me,’” Meyer says. Then he’s off to table 22 for a 65th anniversary, or to say hello to an old friend, or to the kitchen to check in on his troops.
There’s a feeling of camaraderie here, similar to that empowering final sequence of a movie, when the underdogs spend hours running stadium stairs and raise enough money for uniforms to win the championship in the end. When they’re not serving food, the team at Eleven Madison Park is likely busy with one of a dozen bonding activities. They’ll order in pizza and crowd around their favorite DVD on movie night, take a trip to a farm to see how goat cheese is made, or, at staff happy hour on Wednesdays between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., one staffer shares a presentation with the rest—last week’s lesson was on the craft of brewing.
While it may have four stars, Eleven Madison Park could always improve. “It’s not possible to be perfect, and we’re not kidding ourselves into thinking that we are,” Guidara says. But through painstaking attention to detail, it has come pretty close. “See those magazines over there?” Guidara says, pointing to a pile of brochures fanned carefully across a coffee table. “They will always be placed exactly like that. And those pillows you’re sitting on?” he says, eying the impressions I’ve left on the velveteen upholstery. “Someone will fix those when you stand up.”
It’s a half hour before the dinner service begins, and many of the 145 staff members at Eleven Madison are at work preparing the room: ironing white table cloths with cordless irons, positioning the dinner plates on the table so that if, should a diner pick up a plate to inspect the underside, he’ll find that the label is facing him. To Chef Humm, this represents exactly how the restaurant has changed since he began in 2006. “When I started, in a meeting we would discuss why food goes to the wrong table,” he says. But now, “we’ll discuss the label of the china underneath the plate.”
Upstairs, with his arms folded in front of him, Guidara watches through a window on the second floor as the staff members below perform their allotted chores. “People won’t realize that our table cloths are ironed,” he says. “People won’t realize that we edit out 30 seconds of a song because it changes the vibe of the restaurant too much…We want people to feel the culmination of those details.”
The hard work has paid off. “My goal wasn’t to create something new,” Chef Humm says of his three years at the restaurant. “My goal was to create something that has been done before, but do it better. To cook a lamb, and cook it perfectly. When we started doing that, my creativity started to kick back in. I started to relax a little bit.” And now that they’ve got the four stars, the crowd—and what they were looking to eat—has significantly changed. “At first, everybody wanted a green salad,” Humm says. “But that doesn’t happen anymore. Nobody wants a green salad anymore. People want to come and see what we have created. They no longer just want to be fed.”
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Isabel Wilkinson is a Daily Beast intern. She has written for New York magazine and Women’s Wear Daily.