Disclaimer: Some of our articles contain affiliate links. We may receive compensation if you click on these links and make purchases, but it won't cost you anything extra.

Tuna Burger at Union Square Cafe in New York City

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

In North America, Restaurants, USA 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 City

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 in 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.

Union Square Cafe Dining Room in New York City

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

Anybody who has enjoyed lunch at Union Square Cafe has surely enjoyed the yellowfin 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.

Artistic Back Room at Union Square Cafe in New York City

Artistic Back Room at Union Square Cafe

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 similar 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 during our meal. (Daryl enjoyed a glass of Rosé, if anybody is wondering.)

Lunchtime at the Bar at Union Square Cafe in New York City

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 flatbread, 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 City

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.

Sugar Snap Pea Salad at Union Square Cafe in New York City

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

Anson Mills Polenta at Union Square Cafe in New York City

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

Yellowfin Tuna Burger at Union Square Cafe in New York City

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 now located at 101 E 19th Street, New York, NY 10003, United States.


Hungry for more? Check out where we ate during our most recent New York City Quickie weekend. 


Research New York City Hotels

Click here to research rates for hotels in New York City.

Book a Tour

There’s more to do in New York City than eat great food. Click here to find an awesome New York City tour or try one of these tours:

Buy a Travel Guide

Lonely Planet New York City (Travel Guide)
List Price: $21.99
Price: $18.13
You Save: $3.86
Price Disclaimer

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

Comments

  1. This looks like the place to be for lunch in NYC!
    Love how a restaurant can be the anchor so many memories 🙂

    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.

  2. I love when places are just as good as you remember them! This cafe looks great, and those burgers look sooo tasty.

  3. So lucky you scored a last minute table and were able to reminisce along memory lane… together.

  4. 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.

    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!

  5. 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….

  6. 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!

  7. NYC has quite the little gems, I really hope to visit soon. From the atmosphere to the food, sounds just amazing there!!

    1. Author

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

  8. 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.

    1. Author

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

  9. Looks like a lovely place to visit. I havent been to NYC but I can imagine how things have increased in prices over the years. London is the same and yet people still turn up in droves to see it. Just like I wish I will see NYC soon…

    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.

  10. Great post! Food can always bring back such memories and nostalgia. It looks like a great place and the food looks amazing!

  11. 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…

  12. Oh wow – my mouth is watering now. I’m heading for NY in November so 3 months before I can get stuck into one of these fab burgers – that’s going to be a long wait…

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required