New York restaurateur, Danny Meyer, entrusted architect-designer and regular customer, David Rockwell, to preserve the familiarity of his first restaurant, the original Union Square Café (USC) when it relocated to new premises after 30 years from its home on 21 East 16th Street.
Credited with helping revitalise the neighbourhood, ‘USC’ is beloved for its quirky, comfortable charm and dishes featuring ingredients sourced from the neighbouring Union Square Greenmarket. In addition to maintaining all of the charm of the original restaurant, Meyer didn’t want to lose that proximity to the market on relocating and looked at more than 25 spaces in the neighbourhood before settling on the new location at East 19th Street and Park Avenue South.
Designed by David Rockwell and his studio The Rockwell Group, USC brings out the best of the much-loved design elements from the old space and injects new life through a fresh, contemporary design dining aesthetic in USC’s new home.
David Rockwell has been a regular customer of USC since Rockwell Group took up premises there in 1994, maintaining his own table throughout this time. Rockwell designed Meyer’s restaurant, Maialino at the Gramercy Park Hotel, another establishment in Meyer’s 13-strong portfolio.
The original USC – Meyer’s first restaurant – had a casual design and even an awkwardness embraced by customers. The service and the people defined the hospitality. Meyer adorned the walls with his collection of American art and the restaurant had a simple, cosy, neighbourhood feel, with a hodgepodge of small rooms on different levels with low ceilings.
In moving to a new, much larger location, Meyer wanted to preserve the charm, intimacy, and familiarity of the original USC — its DNA— for long-time customers, while also attracting a new generation of diners with a fresh, contemporary dining
Guests enter USC from 19th Street, a more intimate and residential transition from the street than busy Park Avenue South. The original USC red entrance canopy was reinterpreted here and the original neon red “Union Square” sign was relocated. The top halves of the three double-height window bays that run the length of the restaurant and face 19th Street are filled with panes of frosted wire glass that border transparent wire glass, framing views of the surrounding architecture. Café curtains are hung 5’2” off of the interior floor, in order to provide street-level diners privacy from the foot traffic outside.
When guests enter the restaurant from a glass and metal-framed vestibule with a residential-scale door, they face a mahogany wood bar, with a green leather accent stripe and bronze reveals, that is purposefully incorporated into the buzz of the rest of the dining area. It is lit by custom, spun metal pendant lights, with a burnished copper finish, that come to 6’10” to match the original USC bar pendant height.
A cherry wood stair with a wool sisal runner and bronze and wood railings leads to the mezzanine level dining spaces and visually divides the main floor in half, along with a coffee/service station.
The main dining area is scattered with a mix of 2-, 4-, 5-, and 6-tops. The floor is covered with wide-plank cherry wood (a more modern take on USC’s original narrow planks) and green and white concrete tiles surround the bar area, also a nod to the original USC. The bar is more integrated into the ground floor since many guests preferred to dine at the bar in the original space.
Inspired by the old location, the new bar design includes a mahogany top, cherry and walnut front panelling with an antique bronze inlay and green leather accent.
Custom pendant lights are staggered over the main dining room. They have perforated metal diffusers and enamelled metal shades below (in USC’s signature green, a distinctive hue used in the original restaurant). Rockwell alternated dark grey acoustic panels on the ceiling with light grey beams.
The pendant lights hang at 9 feet in order to bring down the scale of the double height space.
The walls are a bright white plaster with green millwork wainscoting. Artwork is still a key focus in the new USC, Meyer’s collection — featuring works by Frank Stella, Claes Oldenberg, Robert Kushner, and Judy Rifka —has been remounted and reframed and is featured throughout the restaurant.
BACK OF HOUSE
The main kitchens are located on the ground floor and in the cellar, and are more spacious than the kitchen in the former USC. The additional space allows the chefs to create more items in-house.
A kitchen on the mezzanine level helps ensure that meals arrive tableside at the perfect temperature for guests of the private dining room. The new space will also include a 650 SF wine cellar, champagne room, and luggage room for tourists visiting on their way in or out of the city.
The mezzanine level has clear sightlines to the ground floor, allowing diners to see the activity below through dark bronze metal railings.
There are two private dining rooms on this level—one is an open 16-seat wine room, and the other seats 54.
The larger private dining space has a herringbone patterned cherry wood floor and a dark green, coffered ceiling with white acoustic plaster inlay. Dark green millwork panelling on the walls creates a warm, study-like feeling.
A smaller bar on the mezzanine level is an important “artefact piece”—a 12-foot piece of the original USC bar and original glass pendant lights. This area has a designated dining banquette surrounding it and is envisioned for those regulars who are “in the know,” where it feels like coming home.
Images by Chaunte Vaughn and Emily Andrews.