Recreating a Classic: Inside the New Union Square Cafe With Designer David Rockwell

The 12-seat bar at the new Union Square Cafe. | Emily Andrews
The 12-seat bar at the new Union Square Cafe. | Emily Andrews

One thing you immediately notice about Danny Meyer's new and improved Union Square Cafe is the sweeping height of the ceilings and the restaurant’s cavernous size -- it's 10,000sqft versus 6,300 at the famous NYC restaurant’s original location. Yet, the 12-seat mahogany bar is the exact same length. This is entirely on purpose.

Also intentional: green custom concrete on the second-floor landing, reminiscent of the original space’s terra cotta flooring, and the custom café chairs, designed as a more comfortable take on the old seats. The new tables are spaced exactly as far apart as the old tables were arranged, so that guests can hear themselves talk yet feel a part of the energy of the restaurant.

The obsession with the tiniest of details is a hallmark of the restaurant’s architect, David Rockwell. Rockwell has a Tony Award for designing the musical She Loves Me; he dreamed up the JetBlue Terminal at JFK Airport and W Hotels in New York, Vieques, Paris, Singapore, and Madrid. He also has a staff of more than 200, which is why I was taken aback to find him standing on one of the new Union Square Cafe’s many balconies just a week after its opening, surveying the spot -- at 5pm, already buzzing -- and personally inspecting a small flaw in a single light bulb.

“New York is all about working with the space you find"

Rockwell has a soft spot for Union Square Cafe. He says he was a longtime “customer and a friend” of the original location, which opened on East 16th St in 1985 -- making USC well beyond ancient in New York City restaurant years. It’s been almost exactly one year since the iconic spot shut down due to a rent hike. Since then, Rockwell, Meyer, and their teams have been hard at work dreaming and planning the second incarnation of the beloved institution, which opened last week on the corner of 19th St and Park Ave.  

It was not an easy task. “Instead of approaching the design from a big, high concept perspective, we had to assemble a collection of experiences and moments,” says Rockwell. Eating at Union Square Café was about hospitality, service, and finesse -- not really about design. “It was the first time I ever had the chance to study a place in a way that wasn’t about how it looked,” Rockwell says. He created an 8in-thick pile of sketches of the details and nooks of the 16th St location. He focused on becoming deeply familiar with “what it felt like to be in the space.” He built a scale model of the new space so that they could move postage-sized scale replicas of the original artwork around to determine the optimal placement for each.

At 10,000 sqft, the new restaurant is bigger than the original. | Chaunte Vaughn

On 19th St, the same paintings hang on the walls, reframed and relit in a soft glow. To customers of the old USC, there’s an uncanny effect -- this place is the same, yet different. (Likewise, Executive Chef Carmen Quagliata takes a similar same-but-different approach to the menu, with old standbys like ricotta gnocchi and Bibb salad, as well as new dishes that embody the restaurant's familiar, simple yet elegant, farm-to-table style.)

The 16th St spot was episodic, with one room leading to another. “It was more like you might find a residential space, room after room,” Rockwell says. His challenge was capturing that intimate feeling of dining in a small restaurant-within-a-restaurant in an almost opposite space. Where the old building was low-ceilinged and labyrinthine, the new one is tall, open, and airy.

“New York is all about working with the space you find,” Rockwell explains. His solution was to take the idea of multiple rooms and arrange them vertically, with an open balcony and multiple terraces with communities of tables overlooking the main floor. Custom lighting fixtures hang at the exact height of the ceiling on 16th St. A grand staircase acts as divider of space and a central hub, and gives the restaurant a “kinesthetic feeling.” Meyer and Rockwell decided the entrance should be on 19th St rather than on Park Ave, to emphasize the neighborhood vibe.

The service stations are handmade with cherry wood. | Chaunte Vaughn

For a restaurant so renowned for its hospitality, it only made sense to focus on building “service and hospitality into the DNA,” Rockwell says. At most restaurants, service stations are afterthoughts, tucked in the back. Here, they are handmade cherry wood standouts, used to mark space and celebrate USC’s commitment to its hospitality.

Frosted glass outlines the new USC’s big windows, framing the view of the city outside. “When I fell in love with New York, it was from here, from the ground level,” says Rockwell, citing happy childhood memories of visiting restaurants in the city. As it has been for 30 plus years, dining at Union Square Café means to Rockwell that “you become a part of it -- the city and the restaurant.”

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Hannah Howard is a food writer who lives in Brooklyn. Her memoir, Feast: True Love In and Out of the Kitchen, is coming out in 2018. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.