There are only a handful of restaurants in New York City that can really be categorized as timeless. Union Square Cafe is one of them. I recently made my second visit to the “Danny Meyer Original” to celebrate my dad’s birthday. I don’t know about all you reading, but when I am put in charge of picking the location for a special occasion of any kind I do a lot of searching. It’s not just about the restaurant’s name, how many Michelin stars or what celebrity chef happens to be behind the brilliance. When picking just the right place for a celebration such as a birthday, it is necessary to take a number of things into consideration. Here are just a few: 1) he/she who is being celebrated 2) appropriate ambience 3) cuisine and 4) menu, menu, menu. Can you guess where I put a lot of focus? Menu is key. You want breadth and depth. You want to make sure there is something on the menu that each and every guest will eat. The last point may seem easy enough, but when you come from a family where one person does not eat poultry, one whose diet excludes seafood and pork, and myself who does not eat beef, it can sometimes be difficult to please everyone’s palete.
So back to Union Square Cafe. I try to take my dad out for his birthday every year. So it’s no surprise that around three weeks prior, my mind began to stew about where this year’s festivities would take place. My first line of defense is Open Table. Even though I am disenchanted at times when a restaurant I have been looking to try is not on Open Table, the site is comprehensive enough and can prove to be quite helpful in these situations. I went through a whole slew of restaurants, keeping in mind that my dad is a modest man and prefers quality with less frills, before coming to the end of the alphabet at Union Square Cafe. Nothing really seemed to fit until then. Keep in mind, I had also recently finished reading Danny Meyer’s Setting The Table and was (and still am) completely fascinated with how he built his restaurant empire from the ground up. So, yes, I was interested in the place myself.
I had dined at Union Square Cafe once before, but I was young and could not fully remember how the menu was composed. When I went to the website I knew I had found the right place. My grandmother would have scallops, my sister would more than likely eat the Roasted Chicken with Rice, they had Grilled Yellowtail Tuna or Crispy Soft-Shell Crab for my dad, and as for me. … I wanted to eat all the entrees except the Prime New York Strip Steak (for reasons already explained) and the Wild Sockeye Salmon (another one of my not-so-favorite foods). Now, in my family, menu due diligence does not stop at the main menu. Dessert is crucial, not an afterthought. Chocolate-Hazelnut Bread Pudding. Sold! Not only was this menu one that would appease all my family member’s paletes, but Union Square Cafe really is a seamless medley of great food, hospitable service and dining room that I would describe as understated elegance.
Now that I have covered all the logistics, on to the meal itself. We ordered a number of starters which included: Summer Squash Salad, Snap Pea Salad and Grilled Octopus. The salads came highly recommended from our waitress and were a delightful blend of sweet summer vegetables with vibrant colors. The grilled octopus was creative as well, but if you are not one for pungent food of the sea, it might not be the dish for you. Back to our waitress for a quick minute. She definitely made the evening much easier for the entire table. I struggled with the menu and making choices, but her interest and depth of knowledge for each dish really made that decision quite simpler. On to our main courses. I was guided toward the Grilled Lamb Chops Scotta Dita as they are a Union Square Cafe classic. If you are a fan of lamb I definitely recommend trying this dish. As suspected, my sister ordered the chicken, my grandmother’s order was a surprise and she followed my lead with the lamb chops, and dad went with the Grilled Yellowtail Tuna. So I guess I am OK at predicting what my family likes. Then it was time for dessert.
Upon arrival I noted to the hostess that we were celebrating my dad’s birthday. I know she paid attention because when the waitress dropped the dessert menus off at our table she said, “I hear we are celebrating something special here tonight.” We ordered the Chocolate-Hazelnut Bread Pudding and Blueberry Sugar Pie. A nice contrast from the decadence of chocolate to the sweet, crisp flavors of fruit pies in summer. The bread pudding came out with a candle and “Happy Birthday” perfectly written in chocolate sauce across the top. It was delicious. I personally enjoyed the Blueberry Sugar Pie, but there was one flaw. The pie is garnished with a scoop of Sweet Corn Ice Cream. Now this may sound interesting, and maybe even adventurous, but it definitely was not for me (and the comment card knows it!). The pie was delicious and barely needed anything extra at all. A scoop of plain vanilla would have done it justice. And to be a little more fancy, maybe some Tahitian Vanilla Bean. All in all, what really mattered is that dad enjoyed his evening with his “girls” and that we enjoyed some high quality eats.
So here’s the verdict on Union Square Cafe. As was noted at the beginning, it truly is classic New York City dining. Plain and simple – the restaurant is solid. It has a great menu with warm staff and an ambience that can fit any clientele. You can go there for celebration, a business dinner, a night when you want to treat yourself or even a date. Some in my generation (those in their mid-twenties) may not think it is trendy or “hip” enough for their tastes. It’s not Meatpacking District or the West Village after all. But don’t shy away. the quality will alleviate any worries of entering a “stuffy” or more “mature” environment. If you go and are disappointed please feel free to comment appropriately.
Union Square Cafe, 21 E. 16th Street, NY, NY 10003. Phone: (212) 243-4020
When to Book: Usually good to book a few weeks in advance, although depending on the season it can be easier to get a table the day of or a few days prior. Reservations available on OpenTable.