Tuna Burger at Union Square Cafe

Biting into a Memory at Union Square Cafe in New York City

In NYC, Restaurants by Daryl & Mindi Hirsch40 Comments

Lunch at Union Square Cafe, on a recent sultry July afternoon, transported us back twenty years to a different time and a different New York City. Manhattan in particular.

Union Square Cafe in New York

Union Square Cafe

The mid-nineties were a great time to dine in New York City, and we were in the middle of it all.

It was the era of towering food at Gotham Bar & Grill and the beginning of Eric Ripert’s tenure at  Le Bernardin. Tom Colicchio was not yet the boss of Top Chef but was instead cooking at the newly opened Gramercy Tavern. It was an era when promising young cooks could afford to live in Manhattan. Sushi, while not in its infancy, was still a relatively new thing to diners including us. Nouvelle cuisine had taken hold in the city, and simple food featuring the best ingredients was the order of the day.

Mindi was leasing a rent-stabilized L-shaped studio apartment on the Upper East Side. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, she took advantage of business lunch opportunities whenever possible. Sometimes these lunches cost more than her grocery bill for the week.

Daryl was living outside Philadelphia in Bucks County but commuting to the Garment District where he worked with his father. They too had business lunches and got to try many of the best restaurants within the city.

Before the internet, we both relied on the little red guide to pick out the best of the best restaurants for these business lunches. To us, this was the Zagat era of dining. We didn’t know each other yet, but we were already like-minded in many ways. We used these business lunches to try restaurants beyond our budgets and life experiences.

It was a special time for us. Both in our 20’s and single, we considered a last-minute lunch reservation at the Union Square Café to be the Holy Grail of business lunch dining. The restaurant was that popular – and that good.

Anybody who has enjoyed lunch at Union Square Cafe has surely enjoyed the yellow fin tuna burger. It’s one of those dishes that has inspired dreadful imitations throughout the country. However, the original was, and is, a classic – an invention born of conservation (leftover ends from the prime cuts of tuna used at dinner) and great cooking. The high quality tuna, the deep umami of the mustard soy glaze and the tangy tart chew of pickled ginger makes the burger more than some reckless combination of ingredients. We hadn’t eaten it in many years, but the taste experience was seared in both of our brains.

Fast forward to the present. Manhattan is now more expensive than ever. Rents have sky-rocketed, and Times Square has gone from feeling like Skid Row to Disneyland. But some things have remained the same, like Union Square Cafe. We haven’t been lately, but we knew that it was there.

That was enough for us until the news broke that the historic (at least to us) restaurant would be closing its current location due to a massive rent increase. Owner Danny Meyer even wrote an editorial about it in the New York Times. With this news, the game was on and we had to eat the tuna burger once more. Stat.

As luck would have it, we were recently in New York for some family stuff. While we were making our plans, we looked at each other and simultaneously said “Union Square Cafe”. We knew it was too late for a reservation but figured it was worth a try. You guessed it – we scored a last minute lunch reservation. Game on indeed.

The food may be simiilar after the big move, but the experience just can’t be the same. The vaulted modern, but not quite minimalist, space is strewn with art and bathed by the light of 16th Street. The welcoming bar, an unusual central feature of the restaurant, was one of the first to feature a new and eclectic beer list. Union Square Cafe still carefully curates their beer list, including the Stillwater Existent – a beer described as a black saison, which Mindi enjoyed at our meal. (Daryl enjoyed a glass of Rosé, if anybody is wondering.)

Union Square Cafe Dining Room - Lots of Art and Not One Empty Seat in New York

Union Square Cafe Dining Room – Lots of Art and Not One Empty Seat

Artistic Back Room at Union Square Cafe in New York

Artistic Back Room at Union Square Cafe

Lunchtime at the Bar at Union Square Cafe in New York

Lunchtime at the Bar at Union Square Cafe – Also No Empty Seats

Some memories should stay as memories. Revisiting them only ends in disappointment. Thankfully, this was not the case with lunch at Union Square Cafe.

The bread service is still great. We had rustic sesame rolls along with flat bread, served with butter and olives marinated Mediterranean style with orange zest . It was a simple yet auspicious start to our meal.

Bread Service at Union Square Cafe in New York

Bread Service

We each ordered a tuna burger, plus one starter and one side to share. It took one bite for us to know that our memories were true. The sugar snap pea salad starter exuded a vibrant freshness. The polenta side was decadently rich and topped with roasted walnuts. And then there were the tuna burgers.

A Starter to Share: Sugar Snap Pea Salad "Tagliatini" with Guanciale, Mint and Pecorino Romano at Union Square Cafe in New York

A Starter to Share: Sugar Snap Pea Salad “Tagliatini” with Guanciale, Mint and Pecorino Romano at Union Square Cafe

A Side to Share: Anson Mills Polenta with Gorgonzola and Walnuts

A Side to Share: Anson Mills Polenta with Gorgonzola and Walnuts

Biting into a Memory - Yellowfin Tuna Burger with Ginger-Mustard Glaze, Grilled Red Onion and Cabbage Slaw at Union Square Cafe in New York

Biting into a Memory – Yellowfin Tuna Burger with Ginger-Mustard Glaze, Grilled Red Onion and Cabbage Slaw

Cooked to an ideal medium rare level, the sushi-grade tuna burger was topped with pickled ginger and a pungent glaze and then set inside a poppy-seed bun. It sounds a little hokey for today’s food scene, but this sandwich crosses the line from cliche to classic.

With each bite, we took a trip down memory lane. Unlike the 90’s, we took the trip together. And the trip was good.

Union Square Cafe is located at 21 E 16th St, New York, NY 10003, United States.

Traveling soon?

Research your travel using Booking.com or TripAdvisor and support 2foodtrippers at the same time. When you click here and search for hotels, we receive a small commission which we put right back into this site - at no additional cost to you.


    1. Author

      Food, like music, can definitely be a memory trigger. The Union Square Cafe tuna burger is like a favorite song that makes you think of that special time at that special place, at least for us.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much Jenny. We definitely had nostalgic feelings, and it’s good to know that they came through. Oh, and the polenta was quite delicious.

  1. I love how food and travel experiences from your past can bring back so many fond memories. I think it’s the main reason why I travel, for the memories that I can enjoy forever. I’ve never heard of this place before but it looks and sound great. As NYC is my favourite place in the world I’m sure I’ll be back there one day and will add this my list of places to try.
    Jen Seligmann recently posted…How to Budget for TravelMy Profile

    1. Author

      This is exactly why we love combining food and travel – not only for the amazing experiences but also for the memories. Well said!

  2. So glad it lived up to hopes – and that you got to go together. My first holiday with my husband was to NY in the early 90s, so good memories for us there too….

  3. Last month, my sister who recently had her vacation in New York City mentioned about this place, Union Square and she said that it’s a must to try eating in that cafe since they serve a lot of great dishes. And now I’m starving. I’m excited to try this one out 3weeks from now since i will there with my husband for a conference. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Author

      You should definitely listen to your sister and make a reservation. Enjoy!

    1. Author

      Agreed. Now we have a shared memory of Union Square Cafe to go with our individual memories.

  4. Great post! I ate at Union Square Cafe when I was an intern in NYC back in 1992! It really did open my eyes up to a much better world of food that I’d never experienced before. I distinctly remember the infused mashed potatoes…I didn’t even know you could do that. Now I MUST get there to try this tuna burger.
    Lisa | LLworldtour recently posted…I Am an AmericanMy Profile

    1. Author

      Those mashed potatoes must have been something special for you to remember them 22 years later. Now that’s an awesome memory!

    1. Author

      There are still many reasonable places to eat in NYC. Rent, however, is a different story.

    1. Author

      Actually, the restaurant hasn’t moved yet. You still have time to check it out if your travels take you to NYC.

  5. Having found myself in New York City 3x in my life, I am always impressed by the things you find in Manhattan. No other city compares, and only London comes close, in my opinion. Not to slight my fellow Torontonians, but NYC is in a league of its own.

    1. Author

      It sounds like it’s time for you to go back for another meal…

Leave a Comment

CommentLuv badge