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Union Square Cafe

Opening Hours
Location
101 East 19th Street
Neighborhoods
Union Square Cafe 1 American Flatiron

General Manager Max Rockoff is proud of everything that the newly-reopened Union Square Cafe (USC) represents. When I sat down to speak with him, I learned that he began as a back waiter at USC on 16th Street in 2013. That was his first restaurant job. "It was my baby," he said with a smile, making it clear how passionate he feels about everything Union Square Hospitality Group represents. When I asked him if there was anything that he could share about the latest rendition of this iconic restaurant that has not already been said, he piped up and offered, "It is always about service and the people." He then told me that one of the biggest hurdles in opening this location after being on 16th Street for some thirty years was that the original restaurant ran on regulars. "They were celebrities unto themselves." The customers dictated how things went, and then the challenge in 2017 became, "How can we keep those regulars returning to the new restaurant while also attracting new ones?" When pressed for one more line, Max said, "There is nothing really new to say about USC, except that in the most genuine way, 'It's about heart.'"

On a special private tour of the kitchen downstairs I was able to observe the entire crew in action. "This is Union Square Cafe at its finest," Max stated, as he pointed out what was transpiring in every corner of the room. Daily Provisions and USC share the same bakery space, where the two establishments churn out amazing baked goods and so much else. Max shared that patrons from 16th Street appreciate that the Union Square Hospitality Group has made an effort to hang some of the art from the original space, and it is always fun when someone recognizes the old USC bar that they have moved to the upstairs dining area. USC has proven itself able to intertwine the past with the present.

Several months after reopening, Max told me that he is seeing new regulars. "The goal is to not be the same restaurant, but to have a soul similar to 16th Street, and we are witnessing it happening." He added, "It’s cool to be a part of it." In the current environment, the story remains the same for Danny Meyer and his crew; the food is some of the best the city has to offer, and the service continues to be impeccable, as the restaurant welcomes the next generation.

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More American nearby

Lost Gem
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Harding's

In the way that so many Flatiron restaurants are, Hardings is situated in a large and imposing building, yet manages to appear out of nowhere providing a perfectly comfortable oasis for dining. A large, impressive bar dominates front and center, creating a comfortable area to grab a drink or wait for friends. We ate here on a Sunday evening, but have stopped by at various hours during the day to discover Hardings to be a popular lunch or after-work spot for Flatiron professionals. One cannot help but feel patriotic when walking through the doors. Rather than naming this American-themed restaurant after Washington or Lincoln, the owners chose the 29th president of the United States, Warren G. Harding. The entire space -- bathrooms included -- are a tribute to American history. An American flag, that dates back to the late 1800s, hangs impressively from the exposed white brick side wall, and a trip to the restroom leaves one lost in old, authentic newspaper clippings. The entire cocktail, bar, and restaurant menu is domestically sourced, and it showcases a variety of cuisines. The fluke crudo was delicate with citrus, the house salad of mesclun greens, shaved raw artichokes, fennel, radishes, lemon and olive oil dressing was unique and the grilled romaine was perfectly crusted with lemon, garlic, and shaved grana. A vegetarian dish of sauteed baby artichokes, peas, shallots, chickpeas was presented in a simple white wine broth and slices of grilled bread to dip. The flourless chocolate cake was good, but it was the Griddle Cake that was the show stopper. We all agreed that it was reminiscent of a heavenly breakfast. A warm pancake was served with raw maple syrup, lemon and vanilla ice cream melting on top. For creative American food and the ability to brush up on American history at the same time, we found Hardings to provide an entertaining evening.

Lost Gem
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Javelina

Javelina opened in the middle of a snowstorm in 2015, and was suddenly inundated with over eighty customers. They are the ultimate restaurant success story, and Matt Post, the owner, says it is all thanks to the Texas network. While speaking to me at the bar of his seemingly always-full new space, he let me know that when Texans would get together before Javelina opened (“we always find each other, ” he said), the conversation would steer towards how there was no good Tex Mex food in the city. Despite the fact that there were many places in the 1980s, there has been a noticeable dearth in recent decades. Matt suspects the reason is that people overdosed on cheap, badly-done Tex-Mex. “Any place with a frozen margarita machine called themselves Tex-Mex, ” he explained. There was, however, one Mexican restaurant that Matt liked, called Los Dos Molinos in Gramercy, nearby his apartment. When that eatery closed in 2009, Tommy Lasagna took its place and Matt momentarily forgot about it. It was fate, therefore, when Matt started looking for a decently priced space in which to open his very first restaurant, and discovered that Los Dos Molinos’ old home was for rent. He embraced the good karma and opened Javelina. A lot of research and preparation went into Javelina. Matt found an excellent chef in Rich Caruso, who had fallen in love with Tex-Mex on a barbecue research trip to Austin. He grew up in South Brooklyn, however, and so he did not know what “queso” was. Matt informed me that queso is central to Tex-Mex, and the first thing a Texan would ask him when they heard of his plans for Javelina was “Will there be queso? ” Rich therefore spent five days tasting forty different kinds of queso before developing four varieties for Javelina. We tried his “Bob Armstrong” queso, made with guacamole, pico de gallo, ground beef, and sour cream. The north easterners who make up a part of the Manhattan Sideways team were delighted by the perfect balance of creamy cheese and zingy spices – we became immediate converts. The décor was also carefully thought out, as Matt brought in a designer from Austin in order to ensure that the ambience would be authentic, without too many of the kitschy southwestern aspects that Tex-Mex restaurants often have. There are, however, many fun quirks that Matt specifically requested. For example, he told me he that he had to fight to get the taxidermy hog behind the bar, and that he was responsible for the “True Tex-Mex” sign. The restaurant also had the clever idea to put pictures of Texans on the bathroom doors. When we visited, we saw the faces of Beyonce and Matthew McConaughey. “We spent so much time on the restaurant design, but people end up instagramming the bathrooms, ” Matt chuckled. Taking a seat at the bar, we met the bartender, Adam, who made us “the most contrasting colors on the menu: ” The extremely refreshing avocado and prickly pear margarita became an instant hit with us, and, as Matt proclaimed, with his regular customers as well. Matt brought out some San Antonio-style puffy tacos, which were deliciously crispy and piled high with guacamole. With a broad smile, he declared, “I have all regions of Texas represented, ” and pointed out the different dishes for each geographic area. When I asked Matt how his experience opening his first restaurant has been, he looked happily exhausted. “It’s been surreal so far. ” He has been thankful for word of mouth and the positive press: He has already heard stories of Californians bonding over visiting his restaurant while in New York and a friend backpacking in South America who met a fan of Javelina on the trail. Though he explained that Murphy’s Law is the governing rule of the restaurant business, he said, “It’s been really fun. ” He is pleased to have provided New Yorkers (and especially transplanted Texans) with a kind of cuisine that has been missing from the streets of Manhattan. As we were leaving, Matt said, “People keep thanking us for opening, which is bizarre…and wonderful. ”

More places on 19th Street

Lost Gem
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Burger and Lobster

The moment I walked into Burger and Lobster, I knew that it was not a typical seafood restaurant. Huge lobsters swam in tanks by the door, and a whimsical chalkboard announced the restaurant’s grand total of three menu items: the burger, the lobster, and the lobster roll. When Burger and Lobster opened in January of 2015, no one knew whether its limited menu would appeal to New Yorkers. Vanessa, the general manager, was especially skeptical. “But after just a few weeks, ” she told me, “the restaurant was a huge success! I couldn’t believe it. ” Since then, Burger and Lobster’s reputation has continued to grow, and the wait on weekends can be up to an hour. When I stopped by on a sweltering July afternoon, I could see why the restaurant has become so popular. Housed in a former tae kwon do studio, Burger and Lobster feels both casual and upscale, with high ceilings and simple décor (I especially liked the lobster trap light fixtures). With seating for up to 300 people at a time, the restaurant can easily accommodate large groups, and the downstairs space is available for private events. Even better, every item on the menu is $20 and comes with generous portions of salad and fries. Burger and Lobster has a distinctively American feel, so I was surprised to learn that the company is based in the UK. According to Vanessa, it all started out with four friends who had known each other since high school. They already owned several high-end London restaurants, and when they decided to do something fun and different, Burger and Lobster was born. The first restaurant was so successful that the business multiplied, and now has eight locations in London and several others in Manchester, Wales, and Dubai. All of Burger and Lobster’s locations have the same laid-back atmosphere, but Vanessa told me that the New York restaurant is the most fun. “A lot of our servers are actors and actresses, ” she explained, “and they’re always having a good time. Last week, two of them performed a scene from Dirty Dancing, and everyone loved it! ”In spite of its relaxed environment, Burger and Lobster is very serious about the quality of its food. Vanessa explained that they buy all of their lobsters from the same group of lobstermen in Nova Scotia, while their beef comes from carefully selected Nebraskan ranchers. “We work really closely with them to make sure all of our food is of the highest possible quality, ” Vanessa added. We had the opportunity to try the food for ourselves just a few minutes later, when the server presented us with all three of Burger and Lobster’s menu items. The lobster paired perfectly with the lemon garlic butter (as did the fries), and once we managed to bite into the towering ten-ounce burger, we found that it was juicy and filling. The Manhattan Sideways team especially enjoyed the creamy lobster roll on soft butter brioche, a choice that felt refreshing and summery. Though we did not sample the drink menu, Vanessa told us about the signature cocktails and wines that Burger and Lobster has on tap, as well as its many beer options. When we had eaten as much burger and lobster as we could—the portions were quite large—Vanessa took us on a tour of the restaurant’s lobster lab. This area, which was designed by a marine biologist and is regulated by a complex computer system, can hold up to 4000 pounds of lobster at any given time. “We go through a lot of lobster, ” Vanessa told us. “On weekends, sometimes we use as many as a thousand per day. ” While the smaller lobsters are kept downstairs in the lab, the “big boys, ” as they’re affectionately known, are kept on the main floor for customers to admire. Between six and eighteen pounds, some of these lobsters are estimated to be eighty or ninety years old, and they are quite an impressive sight. We even got a chance to hold one of the big boys, a six-pounder who remained surprisingly calm as we lifted him by the claws. Burger and Lobster’s Manhattan location has received rave reviews, and Vanessa told us that the company will soon bring its high-quality food and impressive service to other locations in New York and the United States. But until then, anyone hoping to experience Burger and Lobster will have to make their way to this cool, casual spot on West 19th Street.

Lost Gem
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Peter McManus Café

Four generations of the McManus clan have operated this jovial Irish tavern, making it among the oldest family-run bars in the city. Its originator, Peter McManus, left his quaint Irish hometown and disembarked in Ellis Island with “basically five dollars and a potato in his pocket, ” as the story goes. He opened the first McManus as a longshoreman’s bar in 1911 on West 55th Street, which he then converted into a thriving general store during Prohibition while migrating his liquor business into a number of speakeasies. Once the restrictions ended in 1933, the shop was so successful that Peter kept it going and found a new spot on 19th Street in which to revive his bar. Peter’s son, James Sr., spent close to fifty years working in and later running the pub. It then passed into the hands of James Jr., who now stands beside his own son, Justin, serving beer and cracking jokes over a century later. Knowing that they will find pleasant conversation and an intriguing cast of characters at McManus, people often come alone to see what the night holds for them. The atmosphere at McManus is merry, but patrons still respect the history and charm that suffuse every corner of the space. Much of the bar is original, including the stunning Tiffany stained glass windows, the hand carved woodwork and crown molding, and the terrazzo floor that can no longer be made today. “We try to preserve it and are pretty protective of it. This bar was built to last, ” Justin said.