A Movable Feast: Danny Meyer on a Roll

MEYER_CHAMELEON-slide-NQUV-articleLargeSean Wilsey in the NYT Magazine:

New York is a city of rooms. Most of them are tiny, dark, lonely and the wrong temperature. Meyer makes rooms that are exquisite — overlooking, in the case of the Modern, the greatest sculptures of the 20th century — and intimate. You feel at home. His goal, he told me, is for customers to make his restaurants their clubhouses.

Meyer’s track record is near perfect: one closing (Tabla, a 283-seat Indian place that lasted for 12 years), 25 openings and counting. And for most of his career he has expanded without repeating himself. He has created new restaurants as though they were each his first and only — the singularity of a place always as important as the food. His looseness and precision are qualities more reminiscent of an athlete or an artist. Whatever Meyer is engaged in — jaywalking, French-speaking, grease-inhaling — receives his complete attention.

Some of this is hereditary. Meyer’s father, Morton, owned hotels and had a gift for hospitality. As Meyer told me, “My dad gave me the gene to enjoy cooking, and to enjoy consuming good food and wine.”

After college, Meyer apprenticed in European kitchens, worked as a successful salesman (of plastic shoplifting-prevention tags) in New York, became an assistant manager at a Manhattan seafood restaurant, got to know chefs and critics and one of his future partners, and met the woman who would become his wife, Audrey Heffernan, who was working as a waitress. In 1985, he withdrew his savings and opened Union Square Cafe. Anticipating that The New York Times was going to review the place, he came down with Bell’s palsy. The left half of his face was paralyzed, and the left half of his tongue lost its sense of taste. Symptoms abated after two weeks. The review was a rave. And Union Square Cafe went on to critical and popular acclaim.