The most enduring memory that restaurateur Danny Meyer has of opening Gramercy Tavern in 1994 is a concurrent cover story from New York magazine about his second restaurant’s arrival. “For about a minute I thought it was pretty cool,” says Meyer. “And from the next minute through the next two years we came to realize it was almost the same curse as when a baseball rookie is put on the cover of Sports Illustrated.” That’s because the article fawned over the success of Meyer’s first restaurant that had opened nine years earlier, Union Square Cafe, and then amplified the promise of then chef/partner Tom Colicchio—almost as if the two had written the article themselves. “It was like putting a target on the restaurant, giving the sense that we had lacked humility,” says Meyer, noting some of the initial poor reviews from both critics and customers alike. “But it did help us grow up more quickly.”
Twenty-five years later and the MICHELIN-starred Gramercy Tavern has certainly matured, becoming an institution in New York’s Flatiron District and a culinary benchmark for the world. By the second year of operation, the team had hit their stride. The rave reviews finally started to arrive and they have continued to pour in ever since. Nevertheless, it is clear that this brush with overhyped media attention has informed Gramercy Tavern’s direction. When the restaurant closed one evening last month for its 25-year anniversary party, there was no red carpet, paparazzi or who’s who of New York society. Instead, the 500-person guest list stuck mostly to those directly involved with the establishment—line cooks past and present, purveyors like Norwich Meadows Farm and Island Creek Oysters, famous alumni including Colicchio.
“The celebrations surrounding the anniversary have been more inward-facing instead of press related,” says executive chef Michael Anthony, who took over the kitchen when Colicchio left in 2006, garnering critical acclaim in his own right along with four James Beard Awards. With this level of modesty, Anthony’s team has managed to host a Monday-night series called “Tavern Takeover” without requiring reservations and it has gleefully avoided the mania of gourmand-influencers overrunning the place. This isn’t to say the room sits empty on these special evenings, but the restaurant maintains its signature atmosphere—one that balances bustling popularity with a serene and welcoming warmth.
In celebration of Gramercy Tavern’s past 25 years, “Tavern Takeover” invites notable alumni to collaborate on the a la carte menu made for the tavern, which is the more casual section in the front of the restaurant. Last month included former line cook Jonas Offenbach, executive sous chef of downtown’s two-MICHELIN-starred Ko, who served a grilled sea bass bathed in a creamy shrimp sauce and topped with pine nuts and paper-thin slices of raw summer squash. “It was made with nostalgic techniques for Jonas,” says Anthony, noting the restrained use of ingredients. The seasonality of it—with most items in the dish being sourced from the nearby Union Square Greenmarket—made it quintessentially Gramercy Tavern.
August saw the return of former wine director Paul Grieco—now the owner of the esteemed Terroir wine bar in TriBeCa—who presented flights of Riesling coming from New York, Australia and beyond. Next month will feature lauded chef Jonathan Benno of New York’s Leonelli restaurants as well as Marc Rosati, who started working at the tavern’s famous wood-fired grill (for free) and is now the culinary director of Shake Shack. Plus, Gregory Marchand of the beloved Paris restaurant Frenchie visits later this fall. (For the full schedule, click here.)
“This happens in the art world all the time,” says Meyer, referring to leading artists with studio apprentices who go on to become celebrated artists themselves. “Tavern Takeover is doing what museums do when they exhibit the artist and apprentice side by side. In a culinary sense, we provide a chance to see the through-line between what a person is doing now and where they came from.”
Looking forward, Anthony emphasizes an ethos of evolution over revolution. Nevertheless, he says change is part of the restaurant’s DNA. “We’re always finding a better way,” says Anthony. He references Nick Anderer, former chef and partner of Maialino (another restaurant under the umbrella of Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group), who introduced Gramercy Tavern’s pasta program when he was Anthony’s sous chef. “Anderer showed how pasta could be a vehicle for seasonal and American flavors. He wasn’t guided simply by tradition,” says Anthony.
In the same light, Meyer sees a longevity in Gramercy Tavern from a change that isn’t something explicit, but more a natural constant based on the restaurant’s relationship with its purveyors. “I don’t think there’s a restaurant in New York that buys more product from the Union Square Greenmarket,” says Meyer, pointing out the sheer size of Gramercy Tavern compared to most nearby eateries. “Show me what grew in the last 24 hours within a three-hour drive of Union Square and I’ll tell you what’s new at Gramercy Tavern.”
Hero image by Maura McEvoy.