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04.16.2008
Food and the City
They come from different sides of the business, but restaurateur Danny Meyer and architect David Rockwell both know a thing or two about what makes a restaurant work, from the straightforward challenges of circulation, lighting, and seating planning to the more evanescent issue of creating atmosphere. But they also understand that in a city like New York, a restaurant can have a role that goes beyond dinner. AN sat down with the two at Gramercy Tavern as they talked about design, public space, and the give-and-take between a restaurant and its neighborhood.
David Rockwell and Danny Meyer at Gramercy Tavern, March 27, 2008.
Adam Friedberg

AN: We’ve been thinking about restaurants and their role as public spaces, and the way they interact with and influence the life of a neighborhood. In different ways, both of you have worked to expand that role. Danny, this neighborhood has changed a lot [20th and Broadway] in the last 15 years, and must have seemed on the fringe when you decided to open. What brought you here?

DM: It’s hard to give language to what was a gut feeling. With Union Square Cafe in 1985, it was an infatuation with the Greenmarket. In 1993, this was still sort of a no-man’s-land, bizarre but true, but the architecture in the neighborhood wasn’t going to change dramatically. It is also a classic feature of New York to have pockets of industries, and here, they were on the wane: In Union Square, there was the men’s garment district, and literally you couldn’t get down the sidewalk on 16th Street without bumping into rolling garment racks; you knew that wasn’t going to last. In Madison Square, there were wholesale industries, like toys, tabletop, kitchens …

DR: How much of that was a conscious process?

DM: When I realized I’d dumbed into making it work at Union Square, I thought, ‘Well, this can work anywhere,’ and started looking for dying industries. In 1985, I walked around the Meatpacking District and thought it was one of the world’s great stage sets. Later on, it hit with a combustibility that made it completely unattractive for me.

DR: Now you’ll have to wait for its revival in 50 years! It’s like South Beach without the beach.

DM: It doesn’t have a natural balance of residences and businesses; it’s still a stage set. If you’re the kind of chef who likes Las Vegas, this is where you would do it in New York.

DR: Thinking back 15 years to when we designed Nobu, Tribeca had a lot of the characteristics you’re describing, like great architecture, but it also had residential pockets. I think part of the appeal for people going to restaurants is the exotic journey to a place where they didn’t live, the notion of a destination. The Meatpacking District is by-and-large design boutiques and restaurants, as opposed to being embedded in a fabric that’s kind of growing around it.

DM: I always felt that if the balance tipped either way too much, it would be less appealing. Why? Because I wanted to be busy at lunch and dinner. Midtown was never interesting to me because it was all business, and the Upper West Side, because it was all residential.

DR: There is also something about authenticity, in being the quintessential embodiment of the neighborhood. Think of the Theater District: I’m a huge theatergoer, and after all these years, I still go to Orso’s on 46th Street because it feels like an integrated part of the community. As a designer, that’s fascinating to me. Design has become a bigger discussion point in restaurants—which it wasn’t when we started 22 years ago—and what has become clear to me is that there has to be a leader—a restaurateur or a chef who has a vision that the design can relate to. If not, it becomes sort of an alien object. I was going to Union Square Cafe long before I knew Danny, and what I admired about it most is that you couldn’t put your finger on the single ingredient that made it work. That’s what we strive for in design: to have the design embedded in the concept of the owner and the operator in a way that it provides a back story; then design decisions aren’t arbitrary.

DM: The neighborhood is the frame that provides the context, and the restaurant has to belong in that frame. I wanted to pick neighborhoods that I felt comfortable in. One of the reasons you don’t see me in Las Vegas (so far) or you wouldn’t see me in the Meatpacking District, is that it’s not who I am.

DR: Another week, you never know!

DM: But it’s not going to ring true. I always thought that, like Union Square, I’m weird, but not too weird, and normal, but not too normal.

DR: You know it’s interesting you mentioned Vegas, which is nothing like this city. Just take the circulation in Vegas, for example, where it’s a one-way corral—there’s a way in, there’s a way out, and you’re largely directed like cattle. I think most people who look at restaurant design don’t understand that the biggest decisions really aren’t what things look like. The biggest decisions are about choreography, circulation, scale, a series of views that unfold, the ability to get the food to the tables, how the first 15 people feel—all of the basic decisions that break down the scale of the room. And all of those decisions have to be driven by a relationship with the restaurateur or chef.

AN: Those are all urban design issues, too.

DR: Exactly.

DM: I think a good designer is like a really good shrink. The information is there, you just don’t know how to pull it out of your subconscious. This is what I’ve loved about the relationships I’ve had with architects. It was dumb luck that I met Larry Bogdanow, who designed Union Square Cafe. I didn’t know the first thing about architecture. I told him I wanted a place that looks like an architect was never in there, and that you’d never know it had been designed in 1985. But what I learned was that all these small episodes that happened because of that architecture are what people wanted. Here at Gramercy Tavern, I wanted to create episodes so that, as a diner, wherever you are, you’re in your own neighborhood. Another neat thing happened—David probably figured this out 30 years ago, but I hadn’t—when you create more small communities within the restaurant, you multiply the number of corner tables!

DR: Another fascinating thing is the collaboration that goes on in a restaurant. It’s a social place in which you are eating food that is handmade for you, so you have the ability to make links between all of these things and the texture of a place. I think more than ever, since we’re in this world of sameness and can replicate a design through CNC milling a million times, that the notion of craftsmanship and sense being touched by the human hand is increasingly important.

AN: We wanted to ask you both about private programming in public spaces, in particular the controversy over replacing the restaurant in the old bathhouse in Union Square. On the one hand, there’s been a seasonal restaurant there, Luna Park, for years, but many argue that it amounts to a privatization of public space. 

DM: It’s a fascinating issue for me. Any question that begins with ‘What does the community want?’ always leads me to wonder, ‘Well, who is the community?’ Whether or not you ever went to Luna Park or ever believed it should have been put smack dab in the middle of Union Square, there were lines of people trying to get in every single night. There was clearly a community of people who loved having a place to go. To some degree, it made others feel safe because there were people in the park. These are people who may not go to community board meetings or get politically active. Then there are also preservationists, and people who think there shouldn’t be any money exchanged in a public space unless it’s for the public good. It’s kind of like religion—no one religion can be all right unless the rest are all wrong. All these constituencies need to be balanced: There is a playground constituency, a Greenmarket constituency, a food constituency, a dog-run constituency… I’m very comfortable, for example, with the model we have at Shake Shack, where we have a partnership with Madison Square Park Conservancy so that we can return money to that park.

DR: The opportunities for architects to work with public/private partnerships to create interesting new opportunities is going to grow exponentially—with tighter budgets, there’s just less and less public money. We’ve been thinking for three or four years about playgrounds, and wanted to establish a pro bono, not-for-profit group in New York. I realized early on that we had to build in parents as a constituency—the people who use playgrounds had to be comfortable with it. And so when we were making our presentation—it had to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Seaport, and Community Board 1—it was hard for them to understand at first that there was no reason for us to do this other than to contribute, and we volunteered to raise money to endow the organization. That’s when the light bulb went off for them. Now we’re approached by every community in New York that wants a playground. They’re all private groups for public places.

DM: People are okay with playgrounds because you don’t have to pay to use them.

DR: But the link that I’m making is about the programming of public spaces. And one of the things that we haven’t touched on, Danny, though it is an interesting point, is to look at the city inside-out. Look at the role of restaurants, and by extension hotel lobbies—New York’s inner spaces. During the 1920s, which was the golden age of hotels in this country, lobbies were an extension of the public realm; they’re private spaces but opened to the public. The city looks so neat and organized from the air, and then when you get down to the ground, it’s much messier and it’s much more vital—that’s what is fascinating.

DM: I moved to New York for good because I had fallen in love with the Algonquin lobby.

DR: I moved to New York because when I was 11, we came into the city, went to lunch, and then went to the theater to see Fiddler on the Roof. And with both of those city experiences, a kind of light bulb went off and I knew that this is where I wanted to be. I got a sense of the relationship between communal spaces and storytelling, and it was a real eye-opening experience for me, to see the relationship between audience and performer.

DM: Well, that’s New York. In fact, it’s the dialogue between whoever is performing and whoever is the audience, everywhere. Those were my first experiences, too—it could have been theater, it could have been jazz, it could have been in a restaurant. There’s always someone who has something to say and someone who’s there listening. That’s what the whole city is about. 

Anne Guiney and Julie V. Iovine