Jim Poris / May 1999
Food Arts presents the May 1999 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Danny Meyer, the civic-minded New York City restaurateur who's been instrumental in crafting an emergent genre of American restaurants based on friendly, pinpoint service and outstanding food and wine. Starting with Union Square Cafe in 1985, Meyer, 41, now presides as president of Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes Gramercy Tavern (1994) and the siblings Eleven Madison Park (1998) and India-inspired Tabla (1998) in the MetLife Building overlooking Madison Square Park. Each of his restaurants has had a civilizing effect on its neighborhood. And two of those named after parks—Union Square and Eleven Madison Park—have led to the revitalization of their respective urban oases. In the case of Madison Square Park, ringed by some of the most architecturally significant buildings in the city, Meyer is spearheading a $6 million campaign to create "a world-class park" by 2001.
"I was taught at an early age the old adage to always leave your campsite cleaner than you found it," Meyer says. "There's no reason why you can't add value to your community while making a profit." He also contributes locally and nationally as a board member of the food programs City Harvest and Share Our Strength. "It's hard to be in the business of taking care of people with food and not being aware of others who need it," he says.
Meyer, a native of St. Louis, where his father was in the travel business before opening a few restaurants and a small hotel, did post-graduate work in Rome before coming to New York City in 1981 to work three years as a salesman for a company that manufactured electronic anti-shoplifting tags. To slay the restaurant bug buzzing around him, Meyer returned to Europe in 1983 as a kitchen stagiaire. "While it was food that attracted me to the business, I came home realizing that I'd be better off hiring someone to cook, with me running the dining room. I have a great palate and sense of food but I didn't possess the patience to become a great restaurant chef."
His European sojourn articulated for him the type of restaurant he wanted, which he realized with Union Square: "A rent structure that allowed good dining value, which is an expression of hospitality. I like sharing great food, wine, and hospitality, and my payoff is when others feel that and enjoy it."
Meyer has had the good sense to "be aware of my greatest weaknesses and surround myself with partners who complement me. It's always nice when people recognize me for things, but it's not just me by any means," he says of the awards and laudatory proclamations he's received.
With four big-production restaurants —and with a fourth child due in September with his wife, Audrey—Meyer sometimes "yearns to someday open a 'joint.'" As he notes of this era when restaurants resemble stage sets: "Some of the lengths we restaurateurs go to is window dressing." And, he adds, "It gets harder and harder to outdo oneself."