New York is a city of rooms. Most of them are tiny, dark, lonely and the wrong temperature. Meyer makes rooms that are exquisite — overlooking, in the case of the Modern, the greatest sculptures of the 20th century — and intimate. You feel at home. His goal, he told me, is for customers to make his restaurants their clubhouses.
Meyer’s track record is near perfect: one closing (Tabla, a 283-seat Indian place that lasted for 12 years), 25 openings and counting. And for most of his career he has expanded without repeating himself. He has created new restaurants as though they were each his first and only — the singularity of a place always as important as the food. His looseness and precision are qualities more reminiscent of an athlete or an artist. Whatever Meyer is engaged in — jaywalking, French-speaking, grease-inhaling — receives his complete attention.
Some of this is hereditary. Meyer’s father, Morton, owned hotels and had a gift for hospitality. As Meyer told me, “My dad gave me the gene to enjoy cooking, and to enjoy consuming good food and wine.”
…It has taken Meyer 26 years to go from the owner-manager of a single place to C.E.O. of a company — Union Square Hospitality Group — that employs 2,200 people and oversees the operations of all his restaurants. His mother calls the company “his business family.” Its core is a tight-knit group of five general partners whom Meyer has known for an aggregate of 102 years. Together they oversee three places that are in the Zagat Guide’s Top 5 (Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Union Square Cafe), plus the Modern, Maialino, Blue Smoke, the two cafes at the Museum of Modern Art, the newly opened restaurant at the Whitney, a jazz club, a handful of seasonal stands including one at Citi Field and a catering and events company. Meyer is on the board of Open Table, the Internet restaurant reservations service that not only allows him to materialize midlunch for a full-body hug but also tracks the eating habits of his 3,500 or so fine-dining customers each day. (Shake Shack feeds more than 12,000 daily.) This has all taken decades. And Meyer might have remained an incrementalist were it not for Shake Shack, which began as a hot-dog cart that he told the staff of Eleven Madison to set up in the park across the street in 2001. The cart was such a sensation that he expanded the menu to include burgers and milkshakes and opened an actual 400-square-foot shack in the park in 2004. Eleven Madison owned Shake Shack from 2004 to 2009, when it became its own company — but the mobbed burger stand provided the capital required to hire the Swiss chef Daniel Humm away from a restaurant in San Francisco, reduce the seats in his new dining room, double his staff and establish a venue so elevated in its pursuits that it’s less a restaurant than a graduate program in taste. Four stars from The Times ultimately followed.
I know some people in the restaurant business in New York and they all speak highly of Meyer. He’s the Mariano Rivera of the industry.