Dining

NYC's Union Square Cafe Returns

After a year-long closure, the iconic restaurant is back
Union Square Cafe Reopens
Union Square Cafe's Dining Room | Photo: Emily Andrews

In New York, where people rent shoe box-sized apartments for half their salaries, one measure of a great restaurant is how much it feels like home: a place you can hang alone or where you bring your friends together to celebrate a birthday.

For many New Yorkers, that was Union Square Cafe. When Danny Meyer closed the restaurant's doors last winter after 30 years.

Late last week, this home away from home returned in a new location just north of its namesake Union Square. The space designed by David Rockwell is more elegant and organized than the original, once a cobbled-together maze of a layout. This time, the main dining room is much larger; it's light and airy, with two walls of windows and a balcony that overlooks the dining room, offering privacy but not cutting diners off from the scene below.

Carmen Quagliata, Executive Chef | Photo: Noah Fecks

With the white tablecloths and green wood walls, the restaurant feels warm and just a touch clubby, but a club you are happy to call yourself a member of. "It feels comforting, and we need that now," a gentleman waiting by the host stand comments on opening night.

While the closure time was longer than expected, it gave the team time to reconsider what a classic can be in 2016. Now, the menu is a bit more polished and the wine list more adventurous. When the original closed, the entire wine collection was sold (some of it to other Meyer restaurants), allowing wine director Jason Wagner to build a new list ranging from classics that lived in the old cellar and were favorites of longtime regulars to natural wines that, as he puts it, a 26-year-old kid from Bushwick will be excited by.

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Executive chef and partner Carmen Quagliata took a similar approach to the food, bringing four or five items with him, but only one, the ricotta gnocchi, went unchanged. "Every other dish we took a look at and said 'What do we want to do to evolve this dish?'" he explains. Croutons are now crisped to order, tuna for a tuna burger is cut and shaped differently, and the banana tart now arrives with a macadamia nut streusel bottom and a salted sugar crust that cracks like a good crème brûlée.

There are also new offerings like a carrot pasta, in which carrots play a dual role: first, as roasted soldiers, then as the base of an orange sauce that's warmed with serrano chiles and cooled with Greek yogurt. Also new to the menu, a braised lamb shank with salsa verde and roasted potatoes and arugula feels like it could have easily been there all along, perhaps dressed with pesto in a former life.

On opening night, Meyer could be found perched on the staircase in the middle of the restaurant, chatting with regulars and constantly scanning the room, seemingly aware of everything happening at each table.

Meanwhile, a gentleman likely in his 60s sitting at the end of the long front bar is reading the New York Times and sipping a glass of red wine by himself. His shoes are still on, but aside from that, he might as well be reading in his living room.  

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