Editor's note: In "Apps Only," Ben Fishner will be eating his way through New York's appetizer, bar, and lounge menus as your guide to fine dining on a budget.
Danny Meyer's first restaurant, the Union Square Cafe, is a staple of New York's fine dining scene—it consistently serves up some of the finest meals in the city, and reservations in the dining room must be made months in advance. But the Cafe also has an easy access bar—which is where I found myself last week.
When I arrived, we were told that there weren't any available seats at the bar, but that in about ten minutes a pair of seats would open up. We put our name down for that pair of seats—no elbowing for bar stools here—and waited. Ten minutes turned into about thirty, but the service more than made up for the extended wait. The host and other members of the staff apologized to us profusely and, more importantly, genuinely. That good-natured service was the theme of the night, as it has been for decades here.
"Would you like some bread and olives?" our bartender asked when we finally landed. You can guess what our answer was. Union Square's bread basket is one to be reckoned with. Bread, rolls, and flatbread, with a small bowl of citrus-scented nicoise olives. A nice treat as we cracked open our menus and ordered some wine—you will find that at the bar of the Union Square Cafe, it is hard not to order a glass of wine (or three).
The appetizer section of the menu has a number of enticing choices, and we settled on the Tuna Tartare ($13), raw cubes of the freshest tuna tossed in lemon juice and olive oil, sprinkled with a good amount of parsley and capers. Served with a flaky cracker covered in cracked red pepper, this was a simple and refreshing treat. Perhaps not the most filling item on the appetizer menu, but still a decadent and satisfying treat.
I never order lasagna when I'm eating out. In almost every case, quantity trumps quality—copious amounts of ricotta and mozzarella cheese swimming in a lake of red sauce and thick, gummy noodles coming along for the ride to bum everyone out. But after seeing Union Square's version of the dish go by to another diner, we had to have a half order ($17). On top of a very conservative dollop of ricotta cheese sits a stack of the thinnest sheet noodles I have ever seen, with Berkshire pork, mushrooms, and other vegetables interspersed between. Red sauce is also used very sparingly, barely more than a splash of color. Instead, the Cafe's lasagna uses fresh pesto, giving the whole thing a lightness that separates it from any lasagna I've ever had. The serving size may look small, but the dish is so rich that we were both stuffed by the time we finished it. Quality over quantity.
The Union Square Cafe hardly flies under the radar, but with Meyer's expanding empire of Shake Shacks, museum cafeterias, and new restaurants, the original can get lost in the shuffle to some degree. And while its pedigree makes it an unlikely candidate for an affordable meal, the Union Square Cafe stood up to the Apps Only challenge. The only tricky part is snagging a seat at the bustling bar. For $15 before tax and tip, we were able to have one hell of a meal at one of the most well-regarded joints in the city—one that it turns out is still turning out top notch food after all these years.