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Making History at Madison Park

Danny Meyer continues his one-man urban renewal project with a stellar new restaurant that evokes old New York
BACK IN 1985, WHEN DANNY MEYER WAS 27 and about to open his first restaurant, near Manhattan's Union Square Park, he had a dilemma: what to call his new place? "I had a list of about 20 really bad names," he recalls. Among them: Gorgonzola, the Blue Plate Grill and Piazza dell'Unione. Frustrated, Meyer took his list to his father. "He told me, 'Why don't you call your restaurant what it is? It's the Union Square Cafe.'"

Meyer had learned a lesson. When he opened his second restaurant, near Gramercy Park in 1994, there was no short list of "really bad" names. The obvious choice was also the simplest: Gramercy Tavern. "I really enjoy affiliating my restaurants with great parks, or at least potentially great parks," Meyer says. 

He's about to get another--perhaps his greatest--chance. 

Meyer and his Union Square Hospitality Group plan to have Eleven Madison Park, a 168-seat restaurant in the lovely Art Deco Metropolitan Life building on Manhattan's historic and long-neglected Madison Square Park, open in October. (A few months later, they will also open Tabla, a smaller, Indian-themed restaurant, right next door.) Meyer's new space, and its location, are dramatic. Through the restaurant's towering 35-foot windows, diners will gaze up not only onto the park's trees but also at the Flatiron and other century-old buildings. "When you look out these windows, you simply can't see the late 20th century," says Brian Goode, the chef Meyer brought aboard for the initial planning. (As of this writing, Meyer hadn't yet named an executive chef for the restaurant's opening.) The views will be similarly striking from Eleven Madison Park's intimate wine bar, which will serve two to three dozen wines by the glass, with an emphasis on France, as well as a superb selection of Calvados. Meyer likes to refer to Eleven Madison Park as a "New York restaurant with a French soul"--a mixture of classicism and New World brio evident, for example, in a chanterelle and arugula salad with toasted hazelnuts and croutons spread with Vacherin cheese and in veal shanks with a Swiss chard, butternut squash and apple risotto (the recipes follow). 

By settling on Madison Square Park--where no major restaurants currently exist--Meyer once again stakes his claim as a culinary pioneer. But as he points out, the park actually has a rich, if largely forgotten, dining history. At the turn of the century it was home to such landmarks as Delmonico's restaurant (which re-opened recently in the Financial District), the Fifth Avenue Hotel and Stanford White's original Madison Square Garden. "I love walking in the footsteps of history. Delmonico's represented the greatest food and hospitality of its time, and that's what we want this restaurant to do." 

To that end, Meyer pored over old menus from Delmonico's. One thing that struck him was the simplicity of the descriptions on the restaurant's large menu. "The Delmonico's menus have been inspirational for us," Meyer says. "They would list simply 'Partridge' or 'Snipe' or 'Thrush' instead of the flowery descriptions you see on so many contemporary menus. You'd trust the chef to accompany the dish with whatever was the best, and freshest, at the time." Menu items at Eleven Madison Park are similarly direct. But as Goode says, "Just because Delmonico's stated things simply didn't mean they cooked simply. These were world-class chefs. The chefs at Eleven Madison Park aren't going to cook simply, either." The menu will emphasize seasonal items--the Union Square greenmarket is close at hand--but it will be large enough to include updated versions of the classic preparations of sweetbreads and tripe. "Those things are always fun for a chef to cook," Goode says, "even if diners only order them a half-dozen times a night." 

Meyer being Meyer, his plans for Madison Square Park's 6.8 acres are almost as big as his plans for his new restaurants. With help from Met Life and other area businesses, he hopes to raise $5 million to restore the park to its former glory: Theodore Roosevelt and Edith Wharton both lived along it; P. T. Barnum's Greatest Show on Earth got its start there; and in 1876 the Statue of Liberty's arm was raised on the lawn to further the collection of funds for the statue's construction. Meyer would also like to complement the park's 19th-century statues with a rotating show of contemporary sculpture. "You have to give people a reason to use the place," he says, "or it'll just go back to how it was." 

New Yorkers will doubtless appreciate a great sculpture garden. For many, though, a new restaurant from Danny Meyer will be reason enough to visit.

Recipes adapted from ELEVEN MADISON PARK; text by DWIGHT GARNER, a senior editor at the on-line magazine Salon.

Published November 1998
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