If it were not for a senior editor at Fortune agreeing to meet me for lunch about ten years ago, I would have never discovered the wonders of a Danny Meyer restaurant. Journalists have champagne tastes (at least when someone else is buying), and the editor suggested we meet at Union Square Café, Danny Meyer’s first restaurant. USC then was housed at its original E 16th St. location.
USC in those days was consistently named one of New York’s top restaurants, a designation that made me want to avoid the place. In my experience, New York’s hottest restaurants were too often imbued with lots of attitude and a guest pecking order based on wealth and celebrity. They were typically staffed at the front with pouty model types in elegant black dresses standing alongside a snooty maître d’ who spoke with an accent. Common folk like me were rarely made to feel particularly welcome or appreciated.
USC defied my expectations immediately upon my arrival. The two hostesses were warm and welcoming and lacked the polished indifference many New Yorkers mistake as a sign they’ve entered a great restaurant. I told them it was an important business lunch and asked if it might be possible to be seated at the table I eyed as best suited for quiet conversation. They gladly assigned me the choice real estate.
My meal was outstanding, but it was the entire experience that wowed me. The servers were all very friendly and casual yet operated with a military-like efficiency that seemed so effortless. They took obvious pride working at USC and recounted menu items with considerable passion and zeal. Without fail, I experienced the same magic the dozen or so times I visited the restaurant. I was awed by the consistency and deceptive simplicity of USC’s culinary greatness.
As luck would have it, I ended up moving across the street from Tabla, a contemporary Indian restaurant Meyer opened at 11 Madison Ave. I don’t like Indian food, but I frequented Tabla because it had an open kitchen, and I enjoyed watching the skill, precision, and teamwork that went into preparing the food. I was particularly fascinated by the intensity and focus of one of the line cooks, who I learned had relocated to New York after working at one of San Francisco’s top restaurants.
I asked her why she gave up SFO for New York.
“Look at who I’m working with,” she said, pointing to her colleagues. “You don’t get to work with this kind of kitchen talent in San Francisco.” And, she added, “Danny wouldn’t close a restaurant and let the staff know by posting a notice on the door.”
(The woman was referring to a well-known New York restauranteur who closed his popular Soho restaurant without warning or prior notification to employees. Meyer closed Tabla in 2010 but went to extraordinary lengths to find employees other jobs in advance of the shutdown).
I can say with considerable authority that a Danny Meyer restaurant is a great place to have a medical emergency. I visited his Gramercy Tavern once when I was feeling a tad off and asked the location of the bathroom after taking a sip of my scotch. The next thing I remember was lying on the floor propped up on pillows and a panicked woman holding my hand assuring me that the paramedics were on their way. I was conscious but unable to talk, which was quite frightening when one paramedic said to his colleague, “I can’t find his pulse.” I eventually was revived and learned I passed out flat on my head not once, but twice.
Gramercy’s assistant manager called me the next day to see how I was doing. My cynical New York friends insisted she was worried that I’d sue the restaurant, but I prefer to believe the call was partly driven by some genuine concern. Even if the call was legally motivated, it showed good business sense to possibly head off a lawsuit before getting served with a subpoena. I was impressed how the manager engaged me in that inimitable Danny Meyer restaurant way where casual and skilled professional are perfectly melded.
It’s been years since I ate at Union Square Café and the restaurant has since relocated to a Park Avenue space that I can’t disassociate from the awful City Crab restaurant previously housed there. Danny Meyer’s empire has grown considerably in the interim. In addition to losing some prominent chefs, he’s also lost 40 percent of his front-of-the-house staff, which is an extraordinary amount of talent.
I don’t know whether Meyer’s restaurants have the unrivaled awesomeness they once did, but he was responsible for some of the best culinary experiences I’ve ever enjoyed.
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When my cousin, a native Angeleno who is in denial that he has the tough-to-please Starkman gene, suggested we check out Cut, the Wolfgang Puck steakhouse in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, I had my concerns. I associated Puck with frozen pizzas and a horrific LAX restaurant bearing his name. Most hotel restaurants I’ve been to are overpriced and overhyped. I didn’t expect more from the Beverly Wilshire because a classic scene from Pretty Woman was shot in the hotel lobby.
To my surprise, eating at Cut was reminiscent of my first visit to Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café. Steak is subject to personal tastes, but my cousin and I both agreed our steaks were far-and-away the best we’d ever tasted. But unlike other steakhouses, Cut excels at everything on its menu, including the best onion rings available on the planet. It also employs a pastry chef, so its deserts are more imaginative than the bakery chocolate and cheese cakes served at many of New York’s popular steak restaurants.
The impeccable service at Cut was the same seemingly effortless but efficient casualness I’d only previously experienced at Danny Meyer restaurants. My cousin and I were doubtful the restaurant could repeat the flawless experience of our first visit, but they knocked it out of the ballpark on two subsequent visits. Indeed, a gesture our server offered on my birthday underscored that you don’t have to be rich or famous to get Cut’s VIP treatment.
On my third visit I noticed that every server made admiring references to Chef Hilary, the restaurant’s culinary quarterback. I asked if it might be possible to meet her and the server gladly escorted me into the kitchen. Meeting the people responsible for Cut’s food was as exciting as eating it.
Chef Hilary is either wickedly young to be the chef at one of L.A.’s top rated restaurants or regularly eating her food might be the secret to retarding the aging process. Despite her success, she is incredibly charming and down-to-earth with a good sense of humor. Chef Hilary inspects every entrée before it leaves the kitchen and sprinkles it with some pixie dust seasoning. When I commented that the function didn’t seem all that difficult, she jokingly offered to let me work her Saturday evening shift.
What was most telling about the kitchen was the camaraderie of the staff and the pride they took showing me their various functions. Others have also benefited from their enthusiasm and commitment. Pastry chef Angela Tong recently gave a couple of kids a lesson on how to bake a pie.
I do have one beef (if you’ll pardon the pun) with Cut. The wines by the glass are quite pricey; the reds range in price from $19 to $30. The restaurant’s $50 corkage fee is the highest I’ve encountered in L.A. Given that the Beverly Hills Wilshire’s bar charges $24 for a Woodford Reserve on the rocks, perhaps Cut must adhere to the hotel’s alcohol pricing. I don’t recommend Cut’s lounge across from the restaurant.
Cut is a special experience. And to my surprise, so is Spago, the Beverly Hills restaurant Puck opened in 1997. I perceived it as a tourist trap, but my cousin has long ranked it among his L.A. favorites. We visited there recently, and the food and service were on par with Cut. What’s changed over the years is that Puck doesn’t appear regularly at the restaurant to talk with customers as was his custom when the restaurant first opened. I imagine it’s because boxing pizzas and cashing royalty checks is pretty time consuming.