Union Square Café by the Rockwell Group
New York City
Danny Meyer was only 27 when he opened his first restaurant, the Union Square Café, in New York in 1985, yet the CEO of what is now one of the world’s most dynamic restaurant groups easily recalls his original design concept. He told Larry Bogdanow to “create a restaurant that will look like an architect never set foot in it, with a design that is so timeless it won’t be dated in a couple of years.” That architect specialized in glamorous residences at the time, but Meyer wasn’t going there. “I knew exactly what I wanted,” he says. “I had visited trattorias in Italy, bistros in France, and liked the casual 1980s bar-and-grill culture of San Francisco. I’d been collecting ideas for years that I recorded in a notebook.”
The restaurant space was a rabbit warren of low-ceilinged rooms joined by narrow corridors. What Bogdanow produced looked like a club, with wide-plank cherry floors, a 27-foot bar, vintage wood tables and chairs, green wainscoting, and, everywhere, colorful paintings by Judy Rifka. It was low-key, laid-back, and the food was good.
It was an immediate success and soon came to be known as America’s neighborhood restaurant. But that particular neighborhood got a little less seedy over the years and is home now to high-tech headquarters, design firms, and high-end eateries. So in 2014, when Meyer’s landlord wanted to double his rent, Meyer decided to move. He spent the next year and a half looking around Union Square. His requirement? The place could be no more than a six-minute hand-truck walk from the Union Square Greenmarket, where his chefs shop.
When he found a space on 19th Street and Park Avenue South, he asked the architect David Rockwell if he could recreate the old Union Square Café there.
That Meyer would hire Rockwell Group, a firm known for jazzy theater sets and flashy restaurants, to replicate an unpretentious joint is surprising. But, says Meyer, “David’s office is on Union Square. He had been eating at the restaurant for 25 years, and I needed to work with someone who truly understood the original. At the same time, I told him, ‘I don’t want a Rockwell.’ ” Rockwell understood.
“What was memorable about the original was the feel and the experience; the idea was to take its DNA and implant it in a new body,” Rockwell says. “This gave us the opportunity to examine on a granular level what made the old one special.”
Because of its size—far larger than the original, with 1,800 square feet in the ground floor dining area, 2,400 on the mezzanine, and 4,700 in the cellar, which holds the bakery and main kitchen—Rockwell’s concept was to break it down into distinct zones. “We wanted to define the space so the rooms had an appropriate scale,” he says. The new place can accommodate 215 diners and 20 bar seats. Private dining rooms upstairs can feed another 50.
The new restaurant sits on a prominent corner, but Rockwell put the entrance on the side street to give it a neighborhood feel. He installed two-story-high mullioned windows on both facades to mimic the windows of the old place and give it a sunny interior. The space next door, also leased by Meyer, was transformed into a separate establishment called Daily Provisions, that sells drinks, sandwiches, and fresh bread from the on-site bakery at reasonable prices. “Danny said we had to give the neighborhood a gift, a place for people to start the day, have lunch, and get things on the way home,” says Richard Coraine, chief of staff of the Union Square Hospitality Group.
Past the entry vestibule and the maître d’ desk at Union Square Café is a mahogany bar—still 27 feet, 1 inch long, like the old one—bordered by colorful cement tiles (to recall the former terra-cotta ones). The old DNA continues with wide-plank cherry floors, green wainscoting, and the same Rifka paintings. Opposite the bar are five round walnut dining tables for walk-ins.
A dramatic new staircase serves as both focal point and space divider. From eating balconies on the two upper levels, diners can survey the action below. In the rear is a smaller upstairs bar (transplanted from the original space) and an alcove with red leather banquettes.
Rockwell designed new café chairs in ash, with elongated, curved backs, for comfort, and square cherry tables with elegant brass inserts. He introduced many other refinements. Custom golden pendant lights hang at precisely the ceiling level of the old restaurant, 9 feet from the ground, and divide the soaring height of the space in half visually. LED strips inside them point up toward bronze mesh “hats.” Here the Broadway set designer shows his mettle. “It’s hard to create sparkle with LED lighting,” Rockwell says. “If you have flat lighting, your eye falls asleep. So he installed spotlights on the ceiling that beam down on the mesh fixtures—making them glow.
Danny Meyer is famously sensitive to noise; tables are purposefully spaced far enough apart so conversations cannot be overheard. For sound absorption, Rockwell installed ceiling panels wrapped in acoustic fabric and wood beams with micro-perforations. Explains Rockwell: “Here the sound is alive, but you can hear yourself.”
“Danny and I met twice a week to review every detail,” says Rockwell. “We retained the soul of the place by not trying to copy it.” In his 2006 book, Setting the Table, Meyer wrote: “In the end, what is most meaningful is creating positive, uplifting outcomes for human experiences and human relationships. Business, like life, is all about how you make people feel. It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.” Amen.
Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Founder and President: David Rockwell, FAIA
Architect of record:
Old Structures Engineering (structural);
Food Service: Jacobs Doland Beer
Acoustical: Cerami Associates
Shawmut Design & Construction
Emily Andrews (718) 536-7820 Rockwell Group/Emily Andrews
Metal/glass curtain wall: Metal Mesh Laminated Glass
Wood: Custom Beadboard Ferrante Manufacturing. Co
Sliding doors: Hafele
Fire-control doors, security grilles:
Upswinging doors, other: Lever Passage Door Handles
Locksets: Privacy Indicators Vintage Hardware and lighting
Exit devices: Panic Bar at Exit Dorma
Pulls: Door Pulls
Acoustical ceilings: Acoustical Panel
Paints and stains: Benjamin Moore
Paneling: Artisan Plaster and Red Plaster Panel
Special surfacing: Antique Bronze-Satin Brushed Copper-Burnished Copper
Floor and wall tile: Concrete Tile at Bar
Resilient flooring: Cherry Wood Flooring
Carpet: Mats at Entry
Special interior finishes unique to this project: Antique Mirror
Chairs: Custom Bar Stool and Custom Dining Chairs
Tables: Walnut Endgrain PDR Tables
Upholstery: Green Leather @ Bar
Interior ambient lighting: Entry Vestibule Pendant Fixtures