When Danny Meyer opened New York’s now legendary, and no doubt partly mythologized, Union Square Cafe in 1985, it is unlikely he imagined himself, 35 years later, atop a vast empire of highly stylized restaurants and the multi-billion dollar Shake Shack chain.
Well, on second thought, I might want to take that back—knowing Danny for about 30 years, I wouldn’t rule out that he didn’t have exactly that vision when he opened Union Square Cafe, his first, maverick establishment in the cement bog of the city’s Flatiron District. At that time, the area was a commercial wasteland with empty, darkened buildings congealed in a mass around Union Square Park. So why did he choose that neighborhood? It was the only part of town he could afford.
Danny has an ability to forecast that borders on the clairvoyant—he certainly could have stared down at one of Union Square Cafe’s signature red-and-white checkerboard tablecloths on an otherwise nondescript night and seen the future unfold, and thought, a really good hamburger, that’s where this is leading to, not right away, but one day…
Danny’s many restaurants and bars, from the original Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern, to the superb Modern, the comfy Porchlight and the sophisticated Maialino (including the new Maialino Mare and Anchovy Social in the Thompson Hotel in Washington, D.C.), have pretty much always gotten it right. That’s, of course, no accident. He hates being called a perfectionist, and quite rightly says the pursuit of perfection is a waste of time and energy, and that what’s important is improving every day. But I have to say, for all that, the man sure pays attention to the details.
Here are his five favorite meals, which he certainly remembers very clearly.
This stands out as my favorite refined meal of all time. Not too long after Union Square Cafe had opened—and before there was Gramercy Tavern—I took my wife Audrey to Paris for our third anniversary in 1991. Never in my life had I dined so well and also had so much fun in such a fancy dining room. The legendary proprietor, Jean-Claude Vrinat seemed to be everywhere–directing his team with precision, and yet always with a friendly twinkle in his eye. At last, a three-star Michelin restaurant where they loved being friendly! The wine list was superb, and I can still taste the seafood sausage paired with Meursault, the juicy lamb loin with Cornas and the chocolate marquise with pistachio sauce.
Here was the dinner that both launched and cemented my love affair with Rome. It was my first visit to Rome and we celebrated my 12th birthday with the whole family—including my grandparents—at the rooftop restaurant at the Caesar Augustus Hotel. (My dad was negotiating to lease the hotel.) This was my first ever dinner in Italy and it was a tasting menu of antipasti followed by six courses of pasta, each one a revelation. Carbonara, Amatriciana, Cacio e pepe, Fettuccine Alfredo… Hooked for life.
At a time when every one of my chef friends insisted that we try every three-star Michelin restaurant in and outside of San Sebastián (which we practically did), the standout meal was none of those—although Arzak was fantastic. Rather, it was a moveable feast where in the course of one night, we strolled, ate, and drank our way through at least seven amazing tapas restaurants throughout the old part of San Sebastián. It was a relief from all the culinary shenanigans that had accompanied all of our gastronomic meals—each one seemingly trying to out-gimmick the others. The crawl included pintxos and tapas from places like La Cuchara de San Telmo (suckling pig), Ganbara (amazing mushrooms, cèpe in particular), Bar Txepetxa (anchovies) and Astelena (foie gras). At each place, we shared a different glass of wine (or two). It was one of the most fun nights of eating we’d ever had.
There are few restaurants in the world that fill me with so much joyous anticipation before I arrive as does The River Café in London. I’ve never eaten anything I didn’t love there, and the setting and staff are just as winning as the food. And if anything, Ruthie Rogers might just be my favorite chef anywhere. I’ve probably dined there close to 10 times (which is a lot, as a New Yorker who gets to London with far less frequency than desired), and must say that one lunch stands out as my favorite meal there, as it was one of the most beautiful early spring Sundays ever. The place was buzzing inside and out with families, habitués, lovers, friends, all celebrating their great fortune of being able to enjoy exceptional cooking in such a gorgeous setting. I remember the grilled langoustines, a fine pasta with crab, and a roasted squab. And, of course, we finished with the cafe’s peerless Chocolate Nemesis Cake.
Though I was brought up in St. Louis as a reform Jew, that didn’t stop my grandparents from hosting Christmas dinner each year in their downtown apartment building. And my favorite meal began with sardine-and-cream cheese dip on Triscuits, “Fuschia Dip” (beets, cream cheese and horseradish) spread onto celery stalks; followed by “Turkey that Goes Moo” (my grandmother’s euphemism for roast prime rib of beef)—studded with onion rings atop, and always served with matzo balls swimming in butter. For dessert, we were served “dieter’s apple pie,” so named as it was topless, with only a bottom crust for its pastry. Long after, I’ve forgotten what presents were exchanged, but I do remember this favorite meal.
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.