Union Square: Dining mainstays evolve as next-gen stars arrive

Savory fare at the new Cava Grill in Union Square. Photo courtesy Cava Grill

Whether you’re a foodie or not, you’ve probably seen, heard and read a lot about Union Square’s dining scene lately.

“Union Square truly does have one of New York City’s richest culinary scenes, and this year, we’ve seen a lot of activity within the district,” said Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership. “With exciting news — from storied neighborhood institutions, to a bevy of new concepts opening up — more restaurateurs are looking to find space in the square and become a part of the district’s dynamic foodie culture.”

Union Square Cafe has long been known as a staple of the district’s deep-rooted culinary culture. This past winter, Danny Meyer debuted the restaurant’s new larger location on Park Ave. South to much fanfare. The eatery, which first opened in 1985 and has remained one of the Greenmarket’s biggest patrons, boasts an updated space while maintaining its original ambiance, and was awarded three stars by The New York Times’s Pete Wells just last month.

“We are thrilled to have brought our new home to life with the dishes we have been working on for the year,” said Carmen Quagliata, executive chef of Union Square Cafe. “It put a big smile on my face to settle back into the cadence of the kitchen, and re-engage with the Greenmarket, the seasons and our guests.”

Union Square Cafe wasn’t the only Union Square veteran to show off new digs lately. Blue Water Grill celebrated its 20th anniversary this past summer with a renovated interior, a new executive chef and a raw bar and cocktail concept dubbed Metropolis on its lower level.

Even as the district’s treasured institutions continue to thrive, many new eateries have joined the district’s dining landscape. And with more than 100,000 employees commuting into Union Square each week, the area’s constantly growing variety of dining options is sure to satisfy anyone’s taste, no matter how particular.

New fine-dining eateries have further proven Union Square’s importance as an incubator for new concepts. Jean-Georges Vongerichten unveiled his highly anticipated eatery abcV on E. 19th St. this past winter, offering a sustainable menu based on a plant-centric diet. TsuruTonTan, a Japanese Udon noodle brasserie, opened in Union Square Cafe’s former space on 16th St. With 12 restaurants in Japan, the restaurant is TsuruTonTan’s first location in the U.S. And just last month, Israeli chef Meir Adoni and Breads Bakery founder Gadi Peleg joined forces to open Nur, a modern Middle Eastern concept that marks Adoni’s first stateside restaurant.

“Nur was opened in Union Square for many of the same reasons I selected the area when opening Breads Bakery,” said Peleg. “The neighborhood is the epicenter of the New York culinary scene, and the Greenmarket serves as the district’s heart and soul. We are thrilled to add Nur to the culinary landscape of this unique neighborhood and strive to be part of this exciting scene for years to come.”

Trending eats have made a name for themselves on Union Square’s dining scene, as well. As the poke (“poh-kay”) craze spread through the city, the district saw four different takes on the popular Hawaiian fish salad. Even the food-hall trend made it to the square this year in the form of Union Fare, the part-restaurant part-gastro hall offering everything from baked goods to street food.

Many of the newest concepts in Union Square are fine / casual eateries. Combining fine dining’s regard for high-quality ingredients with the price point and service model of a grab-’n’-go, the trend has spread through the district with concepts like sweetgreen and Make Sandwich.

Shortly after Union Square Cafe opened in its new location, it debuted Daily Provisions — the most casual eatery in Danny Meyer’s portfolio — offering coffee, baked goods, sandwiches and other savory items next door to Union Square Cafe. Washington, D.C.,-based Mediterranean concept CAVA Grill chose Union Square to open its first New York location with its chef-driven, customizable menu.

“Union Square is an important and historic intersection where people from all backgrounds come together and the roots of food are shared through the seminal Greenmarket,” said CAVA Grill C.E.O. Brett Schulman. “It has been the ideal place for us to introduce the culinary force of CAVA to Manhattan.”

Even GrowNYC — the operators of that seminal Greenmarket — brought something new to the square. Building off of the Greenmarket’s success, GrowNYC unveiled a new state-of-the-art sustainability center dubbed Project Farmhouse. The new space, located just off the square on 13th St., allows New Yorkers to explore environmental issues through the lens of food, horticulture, the arts and more, and is also open for booking private events.

“Union Square’s dining scene has had a truly remarkable year,” said Falk. “Our inventive food culture continues to thrive and we can’t wait to see what next year brings.”

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