Beloved NYC eatery’s closing stirs decades of memories

Gail Appleson is a writer for Armstrong Teasdale LLP and freelancer who lives in St. Louis. 

By Gail Appleson

In a strange intersection of Jewish geography and small-world coincidences, lies a famous Manhattan restaurant called Union Square Café. If you’ve visited — or lived in — New York City, perhaps you were lucky enough to have eaten there. It’s owned by Danny Meyer, who grew up in St. Louis and went on to open a number of very successful restaurants in Manhattan.

I bring this up now because Meyer recently announced he was going to close this iconic restaurant by the end of next year due to the soaring rents in the Union Square area of the city. As a former New Yorker, I found this news both shocking and heartbreaking. But I got no sympathy from a former St. Louis colleague who poo-pooed my dismay. Meyer, she pointed out, was quoted in published reports saying that he hoped to reopen the café — the flagship of his New York restaurants — in a new location.

So I ask all of you — not just those who’ve been to the Union Square Café — but anyone who has a favorite restaurant or a special place linked to memories: How would you feel if it moved or no longer existed?  

I was living in New York City when Union Square Café opened in 1985. Suddenly fine dining didn’t have to mean snotty French male waiters. Instead, fine dining could be casual with lots of fresh local vegetables and wines from all over the world, even New York.  And women could work in the front of the house. In fact, it became one of the few New York restaurants to have a woman sommelier. And she wasn’t even French. She was from Nashville. As the New York Times reported this month, the restaurant also became a leader in offering living wages and benefits to employees. In an industry with constant turnover, Union Square now has 13 employees who have worked there for more than 20 years and many others for more than a decade, the Times reported.

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The restaurant caused quite a stir when it opened. Because of that, my then-boyfriend and I went there to celebrate my new job as a correspondent for Reuters. As struggling journalists, we didn’t have much money and weren’t dressed very well. But we were still treated like royalty, because in Danny Meyer’s world, hospitality is everything.

It was a wonderful first experience and so were the ones that followed. In the years ahead, I even had the opportunity to write about Union Square a few times and interview Meyer. But most important are the memories I associate with the restaurant. Although it’s been years, I can remember sitting on the quirky, narrow balcony for my birthday and requesting a main floor table when my parents would visit from Memphis. Even after my father passed away, my mother and I kept the tradition when she came to town.

Then one day — actually it was the second day of Rosh Hashanah in 1994 — I was visiting my mother in Memphis, when she had a heart attack as we were getting dressed for shul. She ended up having emergency open-heart surgery. The cardiologist rushed me to the operating room area to sign a release and stay with my mother before she was sedated. As the nurse told me to kiss my mother goodbye, Mom grabbed my hand tightly. “Don’t worry,” she said bravely. “I can’t die yet. I have to go to New York and Union Square for my birthday.” 

There were tough times ahead, but my mother was a fighter and she did make it to NYC and Union Square Café for her 73rd birthday on June 23, 1995. Before going to our table, we decided to have a glass of white wine at the cramped but cozy bar. The label on the wine was Thelema. My mother’s name was Thelma so we figured we had to have it. It was such a great moment…sitting at that bar with my Mom, my very special friend. She remarked how sophisticated she felt. I remember it like yesterday: our place at the bar, the taste of the wine, the look of delight on my mother’s face. 

When the restaurant celebrated its 10th birthday, it solicited letters from diners recalling their favorite experiences there. I wrote about my mother’s birthday visit and the restaurant included my letter in a bound scrapbook covering the time period from Oct. 21, 1985 through Oct. 21, 1995.

At the time, neither my mother nor I knew that we would one day move together to St. Louis. In fact, it was only after we ended up here that we learned it was Danny Meyer’s hometown. Meyer’s mother still lives here (in the same building as one of my current colleagues) and is a philanthropist who gives generously to Jewish organizations. 

I also learned from Meyer’s book “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business,” which was published in 2008, that Meyer has his own memories of special places in St. Louis. In fact, Ted Drewes was the inspiration for his popular Shake Shack, an upscale burger and frozen custard stand located in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park.

So, I can’t help but find it strangely coincidental that the man whose restaurants provided so many of my Manhattan memories was stirred by the childhood experiences in the city where I now live. In fact, St. Louis has a role in the dramatic conclusion to the New York Times story about the planned closing of his restaurant.

The June 24 article quoted Ari Ellis, the landlord of the property that houses the Union Square Café.  Ellis grew up in the Union Square neighborhood and his father was Meyer’s original landlord. According to the Times story, Ellis said that while the closing would be painful, a small fine dining restaurant could no longer operate in one of New York’s “busiest crossroads.”

But he could still see a partnership, he told the Times. 

“A Shake Shack,” he said, “could do very well in that space.”