My photo shows a love-in taking place around the pass, where chefs put dishes ready to go out to diners, at London’s River Café last week.
On the left is Sabato Sagaria, chief restaurant officer for Union Square Hospitality Group’s restaurants in New York. Next to him in the checked shirt is Danny Meyer, who founded the company almost 30 years ago when he opened Union Square Cafe just off Union Square, with his arm around Ruthie Rogers, who 28 years ago opened London’s River Café.
To the right are a group of chefs talking food with Mike Anthony, dark hair and dark shirt, furthest away. Anthony has steered Gramercy Tavern, also part of the Group, to many culinary heights over the years and will now also be responsible for the cafe and restaurant called Untitled when the new Renzo Piano-designed Whitney Museum opens overlooking Manhattan’s High Line on 1 May.
Meyer and Rogers have much in common: a love of Italian food and wine; a great sense of hospitality; and the drive to show their customers the best possible time – traits continuously on show in their respective restaurants. They also have tremendous respect for one another and will always choose to eat in each other’s restaurant. Meyer makes a point of always booking a late afternoon flight back to New York out of Heathrow so he can lunch en route at the River Café beforehand.
But these two perspicacious restaurateurs also share a common challenge, one that is rooted not just in the success of their restaurants but also in the name they chose to give them at the outset. Both face serious disruption to their businesses because of the development plans of their respective landlords and in each instance the name they so cleverly, and innocently, chose many years ago has limited their scope for manoeuvre.
In my book The Art of the Restaurateur I devote a brief chapter to the importance of a memorable name to a restaurant’s success. It has to be brief, memorable, geographically specific, if possible, and distinctive, a combination that is becoming increasingly difficult as the number of restaurants proliferates.
Meyer and Rogers chose their names well. Union Square Cafe describes so accurately the type of food served here and the friendliness of the place. While the River Café may be somewhat more misleading in reality – there is no real view of the river and the prices are not cafe prices – but it is very close to the Thames and it too is great fun. Both restaurants have also brought people, fun and recognition to areas that were, when Meyer and Rogers first intervened, much less valuable.
In each case today the landlords want to maximise this value at the restaurateurs’ expense. In Meyer’s case, this has manifested itself in an increase in the rent demanded that he has acknowledged is unfeasible. For Rogers this was going to lead to a building programme that would have made it impossible for her to continue in the style to which her customers have grown accustomed. As a result, both Meyer and Rogers have been looking for alternative sites, but each has been hampered by the name: Union Square Cafe has to stay close to Union Square, and although Rogers has been offered some impressive sites – and at terms other restaurateurs can only envy – she knows only too well that the River Café must stay close to the river.
There may be one happy, albeit noisy, ending.
As we were being escorted to our table by the affable Charles Pullan at the River Café, he explained that a modus operandi seems to have been found with the landlord and that the River Café will stay open throughout 2016 when the redevelopment work gets under way. ‘We’re going to live with it’, he explained, ‘and the work will be going on only Monday to Friday. We’ll have to ask them to be quiet during the lunch service. And I am hoping that the new design will give us a much more comfortable and spacious bar when it is finished.’
For Meyer, and for fans of Union Square Cafe, there does not at this stage seem to be even this ray of good news. This part of town, in no small measure due to Meyer and his restaurant, has become hugely popular and expensive and other landlords must rub their hands with glee when they hear he could be knocking on their door. The only time Meyer’s enviable smile faded during a recent 48-hour whirlwind tour of London’s restaurants was when there was the briefest mention of the restaurant that launched his career.
There were certainly only smiles around the table over lunch, however, thanks to a series of excellent dishes and a bottle of 2013 San Luigi Dolcetto di Dogliani from Pecchenino (£46). A Roman salad of tender puntarelle leaves; dark and white Devon crab; coils of grilled squid with finely diced red chilli; turbot with deep-fried artichoke; and an elegantly presented, and sliced, grilled Anjou pigeon cooked in the wood-burning oven.
Even though the taxi driver was texting to say he was waiting outside, Meyer insisted on two desserts – a slice of the chocolate nemesis and the pear and almond tart – just to show Anthony and Salgado how these desserts, served so simply with just crème fraiche, underline that undeniable principle in life as well as cooking that ‘less is more’.
I do hope the landlord of the building fortunate enough to house Union Square Cafe appreciates this principle too.