Few companies have impacted New York City’s dining culture like Union Square Hospitality Group. Operational for more than three decades and boasting over 20 units, founder and CEO Danny Meyer’s restaurant empire remains just as relevant today as it was in the late 1980s, when he launched his first venue. The drinks business is a key part of that: Union Square Hospitality Group puts beverage innovation at the forefront, boasting expansive wine programs, creative cocktail lists, and varied craft beer menus, making many of the restaurants destinations for drinks as well as food. In a highly competitive market like Manhattan, the company is not afraid to take risks and evolve with the times, boldly eschewing conventional on-premise rules or flat out rewriting them.
Also notable is the company’s commitment to hospitality—always putting the guest first. Union Square Hospitality Group has earned a reputation for being incredibly welcoming, especially at its fine dining venues. In fact, hospitality is so important that the company has done away with tipping at most of its establishments, with the ultimate goal of removing tipping across the company—a pioneering idea that has paid dividends and made headlines while delighting guests.
“Our true passion is hospitality, and we know that if people are really enjoying themselves and feeling at home and welcome in our restaurants, then a cocktail or a glass of wine will inevitably taste better,” says John Ragan, Union Square Hospitality Group’s senior director of operations. “While the hospitality element hasn’t changed, our beverage programs have gone from being a great amenity to being an essential part of the business. The evolution of beverage—and having a robust beverage program—is vital to the health of the company.”
Union Square Hospitality Group has a varied portfolio of restaurants, ranging from fine dining concepts to relaxed cafes to fast-casual counters. The diversity of its roster is among its strongest assets. Fans of the company and its hospitality ethos are offered a wide array of experiences across its venues, without having to stray too far. Meyer launched the company in 1985 at age 27 with the opening of Union Square Café. The contemporary American restaurant has been a New York City fixture ever since, earning five James Beard Awards and nine No.-1 finishes on Zagat’s list of most popular restaurants in New York.
Union Square Café has certainly evolved in its nearly 35 years, especially in the beverage realm. When the venue first opened, it had no cocktail menu and a limited list of wines and beers—now those areas are a focus. Union Square Café offers both classic and contemporary cocktails ($18-$21), including the Empire Rye Old Fashioned, made with the company’s own private barrel of New York Distilling Co.’s Ragtime rye and house-made aromatic bitters, served over hand-carved ice, and the Blood Orange Sour, blending Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica rum, Cappelletti Sfumato Rabarbaro amaro, acidified blood orange juice, and aquafaba. These join a varied list of craft beers ($6-$8 a 7-ounce draft pour; $12-$16 a 14-ounce draft pour; $14-$24 a bottle) and a massive wine menu that spans roughly 90 pages and includes 25 glass pours ($12-$39) and a global bottle selection that emphasizes Italy, France, and the United States ($55-$2,750 a 750-ml.).
“From early on, Danny saw the importance of wine and beverage in the dining experience and invested in that,” says Jenni Guizio, an associate director of wine at Union Square Hospitality Group. “Some of our restaurants started without sommeliers or significant wine lists, but over time we’ve grown and expanded a lot of the programs.” The company puts major emphasis on beverage professionals today, employing approximately 40 sommeliers and wine experts, along with several highly trained bartenders and mixologists.
In 1994, nine years after opening Union Square Café, Meyer launched Gramercy Tavern. The rustic and seasonal restaurant has a la carte fare in its tavern and a prix fixe menu in its more formal dining room, and both spaces share an all-encompassing beverage program. There are tavern cocktails ($19) like the Church Key, mixing Ransom Old Tom gin, Cocchi Americano vermouth, Yellow Chartreuse, and lemon juice, as well as a lengthy wine list ($14-$38 a glass; $48-$3,200 a 750-ml.) with both traditional and unusual selections. But beer is the biggest player at Gramercy Tavern—the concept boasts an extensive beer cellar that houses brews and ciders from around the globe ($14 on draft; $11-$60 a can or bottle). There are labels from producers as local as Brooklyn Brewery and as far away as Japan’s Kiuchi Brewery, which makes Hitachino. Gramercy Tavern’s food menu includes Wagyu meatballs and fishermen’s stew in the tavern (entrées are $31-$36) and striped bass and lamb loin on the prix fixe menu ($134 for three courses).
Meyer debuted his third concept, the upscale barbecue concept Blue Smoke, in 2002, eight years after opening Gramercy Tavern. While wine was the drinks highlight at Union Square Café and he upped the beer list at Gramercy Tavern, Meyer made spirits and cocktails a focal point from the start at Blue Smoke. The venue, which now has two full-service restaurants in New York City and three fast-casual offshoots in New York and Washington, D.C., boasts an extensive selection of Bourbons, ryes, and other American whiskies ($12-$130 a 2-ounce pour). These join whiskey-based cocktails ($14) like the Evan Williams Bourbon-based Seelbach, Old Overholt Bonded rye-based Vieux Carré, and the Southern Crush, made with George Dickel No. 12 Tennessee whiskey, Contratto aperitif, and Other Half Brewing Co.’s IPA. The spirits focus, however, doesn’t mean that Blue Smoke’s drinks program isn’t well-rounded; the concept also offers draft and canned beers ($7-$10 on draft; $6-$42 a bottle or can) and approachable wines ($13 a glass; $46-$250 a 750-ml.) to complement Southern American comfort food, including ribs, burgers, and mac and cheese (food ranges from $3-$45).
“We always want the bar to be a stand-alone destination in itself,” says Mark Maynard, a 26-year veteran of Union Square Hospitality Group. Maynard co-founded and currently serves as director of Porchlight, one of the company’s drinks-focused bar concepts, though he’s held a wide variety of roles, including general manager of Union Square Café, and he consults on many of the concepts’ cocktail programs. “We want each of the bars to be unique and have its own point of view,” Maynard adds. “We try to make our bars among the most welcoming in the city.”
Company-wide, beverage sales comprise roughly 40% of total revenues for Union Square Hospitality Group. Wine leads drinks sales, but spirits and beer hold sizeable shares and have been showing steady growth. “We think of drinks as we do food, but that wasn’t always the case,” Maynard says. “Having creative bars gives people another way to love us. Some of our restaurants are hard to get into, so having a drinks program makes them more accessible. People come to the bar to get a great cocktail, wine, or beer even if they can’t get a table.”
All About Atmosphere
The management team at Union Square Hospitality Group obsesses over details, especially when it comes to design. From the height of bar stools’ foot rests to the overhang of the bar to amenities like a hook to hang a purse on and an outlet to charge a phone, comfort is key. The venues don’t chase trends, but they do stay modern by evolving to meet guest demands. Because of that and the variety of concepts, the company attracts a wide swath of consumers from varying age and economic demographic groups.
“All of our restaurants are current, but not necessarily tied to a fad or style,” Ragan says. “Hopefully your tastes can evolve and your interests can change and you’ll still feel at home at our restaurants. They’re vibrant because they always feel appropriate and comfortable, like an extension of your own kitchen and dining room.”
Even at the highest-end venues, Union Square Hospitality Group puts an emphasis on value, especially at the bar. Ragan notes that the company has always operated under the premise that it’s better to sell a bottle of wine for a few dollars less than expected to attract customers and entice them into buying a second. Guizio adds that this is especially true at the fine dining restaurants, where the company has recently expanded its depth of vintages to include hard-to-find, older bottlings that are still priced competitively. The Roman trattoria-style venue Maialino is a good example of this. The concept, which opened in 2009, has an extensive Italian wine program ($13-$72 a glass; $50-$2,200 a 750-ml.) that includes Barolos from the 1950s and ’60s.
“A lot of guests are really interested in exploring those wines,” Guizio says. “But they can be unattainable for many people, so we try to make them more accessible. We attract wine connoisseurs, beverage connoisseurs, people who want to learn and explore, and even people who like to have just a glass of wine with their dinner. They’ve come to expect they’ll get something of great value at our restaurants and we’re proud to be known for our quality, not just in scope but also in service.” Along with Maialino’s upscale wine program, the restaurant offers an aperitif menu with vermouths ($13-$15 a 2-ounce pour), Italian-influenced cocktails ($18), and Italian and American beers ($9-$27 a bottle or can). These join a food menu with charcuterie, pastas, and meat and fish dishes (entrées are $24-$58).
The Modern, a Michelin-starred contemporary American restaurant that opened in the Museum of Modern Art in 2005, also has a massive wine list and an impressive collection of rare vintages. The venue offers German Rieslings from the 1970s, Loire Valley Vouvray from the 1920s and ’30s, and Bordeaux from the 1970s and ’80s (wines are $48-$7,500 a 750-ml.). The Modern also serves creative cocktails ($20-$30) and craft beer and cider ($10-$48 a bottle or can), all alongside a six-course prix fixe dinner menu ($228). On the other end of the dining spectrum, Union Square Hospitality Group operates Marta, a Roman-inspired pizzeria and grill. Though the venue has a smaller beverage program than some of its portfoliomates, it offers wine, beer, and specialty cocktails.
“Across the board, our restaurants all have an incredible bar dining scene,” Guizio says. “The bars draw a lot of people to the restaurants. We’ve gained a reputation through the years for being deep into hospitality, and guests expect to feel welcomed and receive great service and food—the quintessential New York experience. Beverage is always at the forefront of that for us.”
The New Guard
Union Square Hospitality Group took its commitment to beverage alcohol in a new direction in 2015, opening the cocktail bar Porchlight in New York City’s West Chelsea neighborhood. The Southern-influenced drinks den—the company’s first stand-alone drinks destination—was well received from the start and continues to thrive. Maynard was a driving force behind the conceptualization of Porchlight.
“The bar has always been a great place for gathering before and after dinner, and we’ve always made that a focus,” Maynard explains. “The drinking culture has changed over the last ten years. We now have people who come to drink at the bar and never enter the dining room—that’s why I wanted to create our first stand-alone bar.”
Porchlight lists 20 specialty drinks ($18) on its menu, organized into categories like Tried and True; Guzzlers; Sippers; and Nerdy, which showcases experimental cocktails. The bar boasts draft cocktails as well. Standouts from the winter menu include the How Now, made with chocolate milk-washed Old Duff genever, Aperol aperitif, Nonino amaro, Carpano Antica and Cocchi Americano vermouths, and Angostura bitters, and the Counselor’s Soda, mixing Aviation gin, Cherry Heering liqueur, Collective Arts Brewing’s Dry Hop Sour beer, and house-made pineapple syrup. Along with creative mixed drinks, Porchlight offers a wide array of whiskies ($13-$36 a 2-ounce pour), craft beers ($10-$39 a draft pour, bottle, or can), and wines by the glass ($13-$18). A menu of Southern snacks and sandwiches ($5-$19) is also available.
Maynard notes that cocktails are an ever-growing, ever-important part of the business, driven in part by an increasingly knowledgeable consumer base. He says that guests these days ask for a wide range of spirits, from vodka to more unusual selections like genever, amaro, and rhum agricole. “We think a lot more about cocktails now and how they fit into each concept,” he adds. “We have collaborations with chefs, bartenders, and beverage directors.”
Porchlight’s success spurred the debut of a second drinks-focused venue, Vini e Fritti, in 2017. The wine bar offers a lengthy list of Champagnes and Italian white and red wines ($11-$24 a glass; $44-$320 a 750-ml.) to complement upscale snacks ($6-$16). Wine highlights include the 2005 Blanc d’Argile Vouette et Sorbée Extra Brut Champagne ($195 a 750-ml.), the 2014 Emidio Pepe Trebbiano d’Abruzzo ($180), and the 1998 Cavallotto Vignolo Riserva Barolo ($250). “The interest in wines from Piedmont, Barolo, and Barbaresco has skyrocketed,” Guizio says. “We’re seeing amazing success with Vini e Fritti and we’re excited to continue evolving it.”
Evolution is important for Union Square Hospitality Group and this year will be a busy one for growth. Following last summer’s debut of Manhatta—an upscale, seasonal, French-inspired concept located on the 60th floor of the 28 Liberty Street skyscraper—the company is developing another new restaurant and a couple of more drinks-focused bar concepts—including Cedric’s at The Shed, part of the burgeoning Hudson Yards development—all slated to open in 2019.
“We’ll continue to blur those lines for where you can provide hospitality,” Ragan says. “We’re looking beyond the norms of fine dining restaurants and examining elements of going out and coming home. Even the fanciest restaurant should have elements that feel like coming home, and the most casual restaurant or bar should have a component that feels like going out. Every experience should be comfortable and a little special.”