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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.