This weekend, essential New York City restaurant Gramercy Tavern celebrated its 20th anniversary. Restaurateur Danny Meyer calls Gramercy Tavern his "first second restaurant" because it was the hotly-anticipated follow up to his iconic Union Square Cafe. Over the course of the past 20 years, the restaurant has come to embody Meyer's school of "Enlightened Hospitality."
Remarkably, only two chefs have ever led the kitchen: opening chef Tom Colicchio and James Beard Award-winning current chef Michael Anthony who took the reins in 2006. There are similarly impressive numbers in the front of the house, where only one manager has been hired from outside the organization in the past 15 years.
Yesterday, Eater spoke with Meyer, Anthony, and managing partner Kevin Mahan to take a look back at 20 years of Gramercy Tavern. In addition to considering the restaurant's staying power, the team also discussed what will keep the restaurant going in the future, including a mission to always push the restaurant to be the best it can be.
"The restaurant has succeeded in being a beacon for its community," says Meyer. But as Anthony points out, it has also been in a "constant state of evolution." At the end of the Summer Mahan is leaving after 15 years with the restaurant, joining a network of alumni that extends around the world and includes big names in the restaurant industry like Jim Meehan, Marco Canora, Jonathan Benno, and Gregory Marchand. "I'm not sure actually when I come here if I'm coming to a family or to a restaurant," Meyer reflects. "And I don't think our guests are sure whether they're going out or coming home."
Congratulations on 20 years! How are you feeling?
Danny Meyer: Humbled. What do you do when you have a 20th birthday party for a restaurant? That's a big deal for restaurants to hit 20 years. It's a big deal to hit 10 years. What I loved was that the absolute reflex choice was to turn it into a reunion for people who have worked here before, because it's really quite remarkable how many exceptional people have given their gifts to this restaurant, as cooks, as captains, as bartenders, as wine directors.
Kevin Mahan: Nothing felt more comfortable and heartwarming than the night of the party what we put on the chalkboard was, "Welcome home." That couldn't feel any more appropriate for everybody that was there. It is a family. Going back to this restaurant, combining the first question with the second question, is I was absolutely honored and blessed to feel like I've been a part of something, a family. This restaurant has attracted — from the beginning to back when I started in '99 and all throughout the years — has attracted incredible talent.
DM: I think, when I use the word humbled, I remember when we opened the restaurant. I remember very, very well, almost as if it was yesterday. We had all the ingredients that it takes to make a restaurant that can endure and a restaurant that matters, but just having the ingredients doesn't mean you're going to achieve it. But almost everybody who was on that original team, and I would argue that everybody who has played a leadership role since, came to Gramercy Tavern not only with amazing gifts, hospitality, culinary, beverage, all the leadership gifts, but also with something to prove.
"Gramercy Tavern is almost like a microcosm of New York." — Danny Meyer
Gramercy Tavern has captured this alchemy of people who very much like anyone who lives in New York, no one's here by accident. This is a tough city to live in, but Gramercy Tavern is almost like a microcosm of New York. It's people who are coming here and really trying to build something important. Because of its heritage, because people like Kevin and Mike have been such exceptional stewards of that heritage, the rich get richer in terms of talent. Really talented people know how many other talented people have walked on this floor, and so they want that to be part of their career as well.
In the restaurant's cookbook, you called Gramercy Tavern your "first second restaurant." And now Union Square Hospitality group is an empire. How do you see Gramercy Tavern fitting into that larger group?
DM: The first thing that I'm pretty consistent about [is] rejecting the word empire because I think that connotes some interest in gobbling up land, which is about as far from anything we're interested in as there is. But, you know, Gramercy Tavern is an exceptional restaurant. It's an exceptional business. More than anything, it's an exceptional group of relationships. That's what I love about the restaurant business.
I think restaurants that matter are restaurants that over time build those meaningful relationships with the people who work there, who used to work there, people who dine here, who used to dine here, the community in which we live. We named this restaurant for its community ... This is not a theme restaurant, but the original idea was to try to recapture the role that taverns used to play 200 years ago in their community, which was obviously a time when we didn't have telephones or email or Eater.
Today are your guests still locals? Are you finding it's mostly returning customers or first time visitors?
DM: It's all the above. We created a place that would assume a contemporary role that was connected to what taverns existed for 200 years ago. [The tavern] was the place you went to meet people. That was the place you went to do business. That was the place you went to do politics. … I don't know if people went out on dates 200 years ago, but it was the best restaurant in town. It was the only restaurant in town.
"The restaurant has succeeded in being a beacon for its community." — Danny Meyer
I think that the way that we set this up originally by having a front room where no reservations have ever been taken makes it possible for people, for a lot of people, to come here very spontaneously and very regularly. But I do believe that the restaurant has succeeded in being a beacon for its community and ... for people well beyond its community. There's not a night that goes by that there's not a chef that we admire, maybe from some other country or from some other city, who wants to dine here. Or a wine director who wants to be inspired by our wine list. Or a bar manager who wants to be inspired by our bartenders.
That just feels ... That's what I meant by humbled. We don't take anything for granted. Again, I'm going to shine the light on Kevin and Mike, but these guys come to work every single day inspiring really, really talented people to bring their best and it feels ... I'm not sure actually when I come here if I'm coming to a family or to a restaurant. And I don't think our guests are sure whether they're going out or coming home.
There's a fascinating statistic that I think is absolutely unprecedented, at least as far as I'm aware, for such a large restaurant. In 20 years, two decades, why don't you take a guess how many front of house managers we have hired from the outside? In the last 15 years.
DM: The answer is one. What that means is that somebody will start here as ... Why don't you tell the story?
Because you started as a server and are now managing partner.
KM: We always say that it only takes one person with enthusiasm to get anything done. This restaurant attracts, has attracted, legions of people with incredible enthusiasm for pushing this restaurant forward. And I think, to go to your point and question about what is this restaurant, what role does it play, not just in the industry but in our company, I think that it is that. It's that this restaurant has constantly attracted people with incredible enthusiasm to push not only themselves, but this restaurant, to continuously evolve.
This restaurant has done more firsts than any restaurant that I can think of. There's never been a time where we've gotten just comfortable. There's always a slight agitation with this energy of people that come here wanting to push it further. It's an amazing thing. We've let them push us. We've pushed them. Then we graduate them. Most of them have stayed within. That's why we were able to go 14 years without hiring a single front of the house manager outside this restaurant. You can point in any direction and I can tell you two or three restaurants that have a GT alum as their head chef or GM.
DM: Including in our company.
KM: Yeah. It's amazing. This restaurant allows for that energy to be tapped and allows people to run with it, to create new and amazing tweaks and aspects to what we've already, what was already great from the beginning...
DM: The breadth and depth of the alumni network ... It's just exceptional. Just exceptional. All over the country. All over the world.
"People feel needed here." — Michael Anthony
Michael Anthony: In addition to being a springboard for people's careers and a graduate school of the restaurant industry, which is obvious when you take a look at that list, I think one of the magical qualities of this restaurant is that throughout the years, people feel needed here. It's a learning experience and they feel that, when they come to this restaurant, they're not only allowed to but expected to add to the story.
I had to a chance to say thank you to Peter [Bentel, the architect] the other night at the anniversary party for [creating] a space that allowed for generations and generations of people to come and add new ideas to the story. If he had simply leaned on nostalgia to design the restaurant, then a lot of those new ideas would feel out of place and not welcome. In a sense, the restaurant that Danny, Tom [Colicchio] and Peter designed and built together is not just a physical venue but it's a structure that people feel connected to. They're yearning to add to that story and they feel like they can't ... They feel needed. I think that's different than most restaurants that I've experienced in traveling.
Speaking to that idea of coming in with new ideas, when you took over for Colicchio in 2006, you had some big shoes to fill. How did you approach starting your role here, joining a company that already had such a legacy to it?
MA: It's interesting. I feel like that legacy is one of the driving forces behind what gets people excited about working here. There's something to live up to. There's an expectation. There's admiration for what's been done before us, but at the same time, my personal entrance into the restaurant couldn't have been met with more support. We never talked about shoes to fill. We never talked about fixing a broken spoke. We always talked about inspiring people and having fun. That's really the way we've gone about it.
That still seems to be a driving force for the three of you now. Can you tell me about your team dynamic and how decisions get made at Gramercy Tavern today?
DM: My role is to try to stay out of the way. Seriously. My job is to help to pick exceptional people and to make it clear what the cultural boundaries are, and then let them do their job. This is a beautiful ecosystem here, of all of its stakeholders, and it's in beautiful harmony as well right now.
MA: To add to that, the company operates on a kind of unique and somewhat counterintuitive principle that we take care of each other first. I think that decisions in this restaurant are a dance of how does each decision put the people who work here in a better position to respond creatively and at the same time, very open-minded of how well are we doing it. Are we attracting attention? Are we getting better? Are we moving forward? I think that's a bit of a dance. Kevin has been a protector of the essence of what keeps a team together.
KM: There's no decision that's ever been made here that feels like it's happening to the team or the restaurant. There's a great amount of inclusion and I think that's also tying into the buy-in of why people feel invested and important is that they're part of the decisions, whether it be all the way down to the newest back waiter. If we want to make a large change, we open the discussion so that we can really understand how this will impact not only the guests and the experience, but how does it impact the team and our ability to do what we do...
DM: Back to what Mike just said is that, when people come here, they know they matter. If we can pick great people and not just pay lip service that they matter, but actually invite the innovation that comes from their fresh look. The only thing that we require is that you share our cultural priorities, which is that we put our customers second. We put our staff first, we put our community third, and our suppliers fourth, and our investors fifth. If you embrace that, then we want you to bring your best and greatest ideas.
"I don't recall one instance in 20 years where there's been a tension when it comes to taste." — Danny Meyer
One last thing on this topic, going all the way back to Tom Colicchio. You asked about our dynamic. I don't recall one instance in 20 years where there's been a tension when it comes to taste. Like picking a new chair, picking a new plate, picking a new curtain, what a new menu design should look like, what kind of a server would we want to hire. That's a gift. That's not to be taken for granted.
I think that in addition to having a common sense of why we're in business — like what's the higher purpose of this business — happily there's a high comfort level when it comes to taste. What wine should be on the list? What art should be on the wall? It doesn't mean that we don't pull our own hair out trying to decide between these five plates, but that can actually cause tension in a business relationship or a marriage where some guy loves this tie and some guy hates that tie. We always agree on what's the better tie, so to speak.
With that in mind, how do you guys approach then keeping things innovative after 20 years?
MA: From the beginning, Kevin mentioned that there were so many firsts, so there's a spirit of not necessarily judging the restaurant based on the industry, but judging ourselves. Making ourselves our own toughest critics. We think about just how delicious is that dish and are we really serving it in a way that makes someone walk away from the experience feeling genuinely welcome. We think about the kinds of preparations and drinks and stations that we've added to the restaurant. We're doing that because we're in love with what we do.
"The restaurant is organized so that we play to our strengths." — Michael Anthony
I think the fortunate thing is that the restaurant is organized so that we play to our strengths. I think so many people have jobs that force them into doing things they hate doing, and I've heard you [Danny] say this before, that you're in the position that you are because you love food and decided to do this way back when, because you're in love with the restaurant business. I think we're very lucky that we get to play to our strengths. We get to do what we love to do.
KM: I think there's an energy and an openness ... It grows from the staff, I think, that in regards to always trying to make this restaurant come up with new firsts and being extraordinarily relevant and pushing the envelope, no matter what it is. Whether it's a coffee program or just the tavern beer tasting menu. It all has felt, it is, just so natural. There's no real, full-on system. I can't tell you that every Tuesday we sit down with captain, waiter, and the sous chef, and say, "How can this be better?" It just happens. There are no official meetings and that's what's incredible is that that fresh energy and that alacrity is just constant.
DM: Take a couple examples. Coffee, you just said. There's a natural sense, "Let's make our coffee better." So we taste a bunch of coffees and I guess it was about eight years ago, Gramercy Tavern picked a coffee no one had ever heard of in New York called Blue Bottle Coffee. It showed up here before it showed up anywhere else in the city, but that wasn't enough. It was then developing a really strong relationship, not supplier-purchaser relationship, but collegial respect for another artisan relationship. I would argue that, just taking that one example, that gave Blue Bottle a really wonderful opportunity to get to know New York, to have the courage to open here in New York.
Another example, I remember, one of our managers here had an idea to create a list of vintage beers. New York hadn't seen that before. Old beers on a wine list.
KM: These are areas where there wasn't anybody coming in, demanding or calling for them ... It's making choices that are going to be incredible for the overall experience, but are challenging. In regards to the time and effort, and the money that was put in to re-invest in that whole coffee program, nobody was telling us that we had to do it. Guests weren't saying "We're not coming back because the coffee's terrible."
DM: But we were telling ourselves. Good enough is never good enough ever at Gramercy Tavern.
How else have you seen the restaurant improve over the years?
MA: In my time, I've seen us not have to sacrifice the essence of the restaurant in order to challenge ourselves to do better. It takes a lot of courage to be able to say there's nothing broken, but yet.
I'll say specifically, I didn't know how to practice the concept of congratulating our team and ourselves for a job well done. That's something that I learned in coming to this organization. In the past, it always felt that self-congratulations meant arrogance. I learned the power of taking the time to celebrate a job well done, take a minute to recognize that, and then have the courage to turn around and say, "I bet tomorrow we could do it better." I think it's a quality that we share and that I don't take for granted...
"The restaurant is in an almost constant state of evolution." — Michael Anthony
It's hard to grasp that [question] because the answer is massive. If you want to talk about the physical changes, we're looking at a lot of them. It's almost in a constant state of evolution. People ask, "How do we change the menu?" The answer is, it's always changing. There's not a day that goes by that we're not contemplating a new dish. How does the drink list change? It changes with every person that comes and wants to share an idea and talk about something delicious that they've tasted.
We've improved our systems. We've added jobs to running the restaurant, and they don't come from Kevin and me saying, "Let's put a new person here." They come from testing out an idea, and having everyone say, "Wow, we're so much better over the last week with someone in that position, than we were last week. Let's keep it."
Six or seven years ago, we had someone that said, "Listen, we're all interested in charcuterie. Why don't we, instead of do them as special ... Why don't we have someone dedicated to studying that and trying to move the needle forward by coming up with recipes that truly stand out?" Every person that's worked that brand new station in our kitchen, since the time we've created it, has grown it, taken it in new directions, added to the story. Literally added new recipes, but added new reach.
We have a pickling and fermenting station. We figured that we have a meat station, a fish station, a pastry station, like every restaurant. But what we were fascinated with was building flavors in a new way, so we decided that that would be someone's full-time activity of studying pickling and fermentation.
We've added physically. To a 20 year old kitchen, we've added a brand new, custom-made Jade range, which we had to save our pennies for years in order to do an incredible job. When we finally decided to put the range in, we had to alter the kitchen in order to get the old one out and the new one in. We found out that the kitchen was actually better by not building it back. We left the door frame open so that we had a much better flow of service and communication during service. Yet, if you look at the Tavern grill, it still looks 100 years old. Not in a sloppy way, but in a really intentional way.
How did the process of writing the Gramercy Tavern Cookbook impact the restaurant and the team?
KM The majority of the lift of that book was on Mike and Dorothy [Kalins, co-author] .... She, with Mike, wrote that book, and I think gave us the liberty in her style, starting with interviews for the individual pieces. That allowed us to speak from the heart in what our experiences were and then transcribe them so that we could then start with that and then edit them. As opposed to Dorothy or Mike saying, "Okay, Kevin, you need to sit down and write a 2 page, 500 word piece about yourself." I don't even know where I would start. I wouldn't feel very comfortable doing it. She made so many of the pieces that would probably be really difficult and like pulling teeth kind of seamless and natural. The staff loved being a part of it... Yes, it impacted business at times, but being part of a project and that book for me is different than any other cookbook.
[Photo: Paula Forbes / Eater.com]
Most people in this day and age, people are writing cookbooks in their first year, six months, first year and a half. To me, they're almost packages of trying to tell everybody what they want to be, whereas this restaurant, this book, was telling our story of who we are and who we've become. That's a much different cookbook. It's a story about this family and the history of this restaurant. You didn't have to come up with anything...
MA: The book is written, as Kevin said, from the voice of the people who are the restaurant, who have been and who are [here] currently. The book looks forward. It's not just backwards. It looks forward in the sense that it tells a story with a lot of hope and yearning. When you read that book, you are an insider to what it feels like to be a part of the family of this restaurant.
You're working on a vegetable-focused cookbook next?
MA: It is a little bit more of an individual project. I wanted to say something about my interests and inspiration and cooking vegetables specifically at the heart of the dish, the center of the dish. But very specifically, from a home cook's perspective. The book talks about, not encyclopedic knowledge about the botanical history of plants, but about my take on cooking vegetables. Helpful hints about how to make it more manageable, more delicious. And hopefully get people to understand what I feel and what chefs feel and people who work in restaurants today feel when they take a walk through the Greenmarket.
This sense of translating our knowledge of those ingredients, part of it's identifying and naming the things we cook, but giving the excitement to the idea of cooking with vegetables. It's not about vegetarianism. It's not about deprivation. It's all about a more healthy and well-rounded and exciting way to eat.
What's in the future for Gramercy Tavern?
KM: For me, I think this restaurant, it will continue to do exactly what it's done. We have to continue that story of growing the talent from within. There is a new general manager, Kim DiPalo, who's started with us about 9 years ago. She's just another confirmation of the story that we live and breathe every day in regards to attracting incredible talent, helping them grow and pushing them, and then graduating them up...
The answer is that energy will continue to push this restaurant. In what direction, what will be new or next or what will be the next first, I don't know. But I know that it's percolating in the brains and the minds of the staff. It's part of the DNA of this restaurant.
MA: Kevin is leaving the restaurant with about as fertile soil as you can imagine in a restaurant setting. The current team is performing in a way that's never been better in this restaurant. To leave a restaurant after as much time as he's spent here, and as old as the restaurant is, is incredible, and I think that Kim, being someone who is home-grown, right? Kim has worked in a lot of restaurants herself, but her training and I think her coming into being a mature manager has happened within Gramercy Tavern and in the essence of Enlightened Hospitality. There's something interesting and refreshing about seeing a woman take charge of, not just such a big place, but such an important place...
The kitchen in this restaurant has been and is going to continue to try to add to the dialogue of contemporary American cooking. We set out every day to try to say something that will take that dialogue a step further in representing what's distinctly from New York, from the Northeast, but also in the bigger dialogue of what's interesting about keeping this kind of idea of American cooking moving further. There's a sense of pride and now maturity in, not just cooking delicious food, but cooking things that are really connected to us here.