Even the most talented chefs and savvy restaurateurs have had to abandon ventures and close one of their restaurants at times. Not Danny Meyer. In the 24 years he’s been in the business, he’s never had to close a restaurant. Instead, his empire continues to grow with a new trattori called Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel. Eleven Madison Park just received four stars in one of Frank Bruni’s final reviews. Eleven Madison Park is now one of just six restaurants to earn four stars from the New York Times.
Danny Meyer’s first job in food was an assistant manager position at Pesca, a seafood spot, in the Flatiron District back in 1984. It didn’t take long for Meyer to get restless and open a restaurant of his own. He launched his career at Union Square Café — an instant success — and Union Square Hospiality Group grew from there. Today, USHG spans everything from fine dining at Gramercy Tavern to burgers and frozen custard at Shake Shack. He oversees an empire that includes a bbq joint called Blue Smoke that serves Memphis baby back ribs and a foie gras mille-feuille with plums, umeboshi, and bitter almonds at Eleven Madison Park. Either place, you’ll receive the same level of service and quality of cooking. Hospitality is Meyer’s trademark in the restaurant industry.
Married. A great wife, four kids, and a big dog.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
First a pilot, next a baseball player, then a baseball announcer.
What was your first job in food? What did you learn?
It was 1984. I was the assistant day manager at Pesca – a seafood restaurant on 22nd Street. I learned that I loved the restaurant business even more than I thought I would. That I loved being a maitre d’. That the Flatiron District was where I’d want to open a restaurant if ever I opened one. That if I didn’t go into the business asap I’d go crazy.
Early in life, you traveled to Italy and France for your father’s work. How did your experiences abroad shape the concept of hospitality you’d later become famous for?
As a tour guide in Rome, the most important thing for me was to take the crankiest person and convert them into the happiest. Travel brings out insecurities in people, and my job was to first get them to relax, and then to have a great time.
Who were your early influences in the restaurant business? Who do you think runs a great operation today?
Jean-Claude Vrinat in Paris – whose Taillevent proved to me that refinement at the highest levels can have a sense of humor and not take itself too seriously. Joyce Goldstein in San Francisco – whose Square One restaurant was a beacon of freshness, excellence, hospitality, and ease.
Today, my favorite operators are often alumni of our organization who have gone on to do their own thing, from their own point of view. Nothing makes me feel more gratified. And now that I’ve been in business for 24 years, there are gifted alumni everywhere!
When you first opened Union Square Café in 1985, did you have any inkling you’d be running a restaurant empire in New York one day?
No. I just wanted to open that one restaurant – which needed to be born. And I still don’t view it as an “empire” – a word which implies a need to conquer and own it all. I would proudly call our group a collection of hand-crafted places operated by remarkable people who care about using each day to improve at what they do and how they make other people feel.
This was a good week for you, four stars from the Times? Were you confident? How did that feel?
I was confident.
First, I have watched in awe as our team has continuously evolved and improved the restaurant, and felt in the deepest way that they had earned this. Second, it just would not have made sense for Mr. Bruni to review EMP for the third time in 5 years – one of his very last reviews – were he only going to reaffirm what he had already written.
None of that prepared me for the profound feeling of gratitude and relief I felt for our team who really made this happen. Almost no one at EMP had ever experienced a 4-star NYT review (including me) and it is a marvelous affirmation of an extraordinary team effort.
Frank Bruni’s gave you a bit of a double-edged sword these past couple weeks, dropping Union Square Café from three to two stars but upping Eleven Madison Park to four from three. That’s got to give you some conflicting feelings…
So what’s your strategy to regain that star at Union Square Café?
The same thing that went into sustaining 3 stars for 20 consecutive years. Fielding a team of human beings who are happy working together for the primary reason we’re in business: making people happy. At all of our restaurants, we welcome feedback, whether from a regular guest or an anonymous critic, and our team works hard every day to improve.
Unlike EMP, this is not about changing the very identity of a restaurant. It’s about more consistently expressing our soul. Sam Sifton is a fantastic writer and a knowledgeable eater. I trust that at some point he’ll give USC another day in court.
After all these years in the business and all the restaurants you’ve opened, how do you keep things fresh? What gets you excited to get up and out of bed in the morning, especially considering the economic climate right now?
The economic climate has little to do with what makes me excited to get up, except that it makes me work harder on the things I love. Like finding talented people who want to be part of a championship team dedicated to making people feel even better when they leave our places than they did when they first arrived.
You’ve been in the restaurant business since 1985, surviving four recessions. Do fellow restaurateurs ever swallow their pride and come to you for advice?
Asking for help should never be a matter of swallowing pride. It’s a matter of strength to know your own blindspots and weaknesses. I wrote down everything I know in Setting the Table, and so I just refer people to the book when they want my opinion!
From stadium food and Shake Shack to Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park, you’ve got the dining spectrum covered. A lot of the time restaurateurs who try to be all things to all people fail because they’re spreading themselves too thinly. What’s your secret?
It’s all about deploying the right people with the right skills and passions in the right place. So long as people convince me that they’re in business for the primary reason of making other people happy with excellent performance and genuine hospitality, I don’t really care if their passion is black truffles or frozen custard. We’ve got amazing leaders throughout our organization. We are structured in a way that allows me not to be spread too thinly. The only area I have an almost impossible time keeping up is corresponding with people via email. I feel badly not to be able to write back as quickly as I once did.
This past year you were involved in two projects that were very different from the typical USHG restaurant- the Taste of the City food stands at the new CitiField and Public Fare, the restaurant at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. What prompted you to get on board with those?
Hudson Yards, our catering and sports and entertainment business, has proven to be highly versatile at bringing an organized approach to complex situations that would throw others for a big loop. When you’ve got culinarians like Michael Romano and Robb Garceau on the team, great strategic partners (like my partner David Swinghamer), and extraordinary operations folks (like Hudson Yards’ managing director Ron Parker) who can conquer the most challenging terrain – you’ve got the makings of a championship team that hits to all fields.
You built your reputation on fine dining at the likes of Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café. What prompted you to get in to barbeque at Blue Smoke and burgers at Shake Shack?
It is incredibly gratifying to express enthusiasm for things I love – sometimes in a fresh way – to New Yorkers who thought they had “seen it all”. I have not spent my life eating exclusively in 3-star restaurants. Some of the happiest times can be had over authentic, lowbrow food, and there is no food experience on earth that cannot be freshly expressed with more excellence and hospitality if only you put your mind to it.
How do you maintain that kind of high quality you’d experience at Eleven Madison Park at Shake Shack or in any other type of mass-production environment?
It always gets back to the people. If you care about being the best at what you do and at who you are, it really doesn’t matter if you’re performing opera or jazz. One may be seen by some as a “higher” art form, but excellence is excellence no matter the stage.
You not only run Blue Smoke, but also organize the Big Apple BBQ, brining in pit masters and cooks from all over the country. Is BBQ a personal interest? Can you BBQ?
I love to barbecue and have 5 grills/smokers to play with as often as possible.
You’re working with Ian Schrager to open an Italian-inspired restaurant in the old Waikiya space at the Gramercy Park Hotel. What can you tell us about that? What’s your vision there?
This is a restaurant I’m surprised took so long to do, as it comes directly from my heart. I just wasn’t ready until now. It will be an homage to Rome – my favorite European city, and a place I’ve spent nearly two years of my life – at formative points in my life. We’ve assembled an awesome team for the project, most of whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with for several years at places like Gramercy Tavern, Tabla, and Union Square Cafe – so we know each other really well. To his credit, Ian has given us free reign to conceive and design the restaurant. David Rockwell and his team have been terrific collaborators.
What culinary trends do you embrace?
Anything authentic that will endure time.
What culinary trends do you wish would just die already?
None. We do what we do and don’t wish death on anyone or anything else.
What is your favorite dish on the menu at Eleven Madison Park? And of course, what’s your favorite frozen custard flavor at Shake Shack?
The Roast Duck for two at Eleven Madison Park is the best duck I’ve ever had in my life. At Shake Shack, it’s hard to improve upon the purity of the vanilla custard, but my favorite special flavor – running now – is Sweet Corn Custard.
What is your least favorite dish at EMP (and yes, you must pick one)?
Any dessert with hazelnuts. I can’t stand hazelnuts no matter who cooks with them.
Other than your own, where do you like to dine in New York? Are there any particular cuisines you’re drawn to?
I love going to places run by our alumni. There are so many, that I’m afraid to mention any for fear of leaving out others. I especially love going out to eat in Brooklyn.
Any new projects on the horizon? Spill the beans…
The restaurant at the Gramercy Park Hotel is more than enough for right now.