In the past 25 years, Danny Meyer has opened a handful of New York’s most talked about restaurants. He also is credited with bringing major innovations to the American dining scene: having made fine dining accessible, pioneering warm service, taking ethnic food upscale and offering fine beverages to accompany classic American fare such as burgers and barbecue. For these achievements and more, he has received the 2010 Cheers Beverage Excellence Raising the Bar Award.
Meyer’s restaurant group includes Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Tabla, Blue Smoke and Shake Shack. His restaurants and chefs have earned 20 prestigious James Beard Awards, and Union Square topped the Zagat ratings for nine consecutive years. He co-authored the Union Square Cafe Cookbook with his chef in 1994, and wrote Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business in 2006.
“It’s about coming up with different ways to express a pre-existing idea,” explains Meyer, CEO of the New York-based, multi-restaurant and catering operation, Union Square Hospitality Group. “It’s about taking the same eight notes and rearranging them into something fresh.”
He opened his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe, in 1985 at age 27, in what was then an up-and-coming neighborhood. His inspirations for the restaurant were the bistros and trattorias of Europe. “I try to create restaurants that would be my favorite restaurant if I were a customer,” he says. “We really focus on having places that people fall in love with and have shared ownership of.”
In creating new restaurants, Meyer strives to draw on his own life experiences and break a few rules in the process. “Just because it’s a cheeseburger, who wrote the rule that you wouldn’t want a glass of shiraz with it?” he notes, explaining why he chose to offer an upscale selection of wine and beers at his legendary hamburger joint, Shake Shack, in Union Square Park.
He also works for a measure of realistic authenticity when creating a new restaurant. His visions for Blue Smoke, his barbeque restaurant, and Maialino, his newest Roman trattoria-inspired restaurant opened in November of last year in the Gramercy Park Hotel, were tempered by the fact that both were located in New York and not in rural Texas or urban Italy.
His longtime focus on warm and non-pretentious staff comes from “growing up in St. Louis, where everything was accessible.” He notes that the secret to hiring the right staff “is in the selection process. We select people for their emotional skills. It’s called the ‘hospitality quotient.’ ”
Meyer’s drinks selection has long been know for being diverse and well-priced. “You should be able to be blindfolded and throw a dart at our list and come up with something delicious.” He adds that pricing is critically important, and that his beverage directors’ primary responsibility is staff education. In a very European way, Meyer views “beverages as a condiment for the food.” To that end, he adds that each of his restaurants uses cocktails to create an identity and tell a story.