February 1, 2010

A Table for Two: New York Hospitality By Danny Meyer and David Rockwell

When they became friends, 25 years ago, David Rockwell had recently founded his design studio, the Rockwell Group, and Danny Meyer was about to open his first restaurant, Union Square Cafe. Today, the two New Yorkers are kings of their respective realms. Millions have experienced Rockwell’s theatrically inspired vision, perhaps by checking in at the W New York—Union Square or Canyon Ranch Hotel & Spa, Miami Beach, or tuning in to the Academy Awards broadcast at his Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. Meyer’s name, meanwhile, is synonymous with the brand of comfort-minded hospitality that hastened the demise of 1980’s haughty cuisine.

Still, these old friends had never completed a professional project together. That changed with Maialino, the Roman trattoria-style restaurant at New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel. “I didn’t think that I deserved David,” Meyer jokes. “Until now.”

What inspired you to work together after a quarter century?

DM: Over the years, we’ve had many conversations. When my restaurant group was considering making a proposal for the space that used to be Tavern on the Green, David and I spent a lot of time conceiving and designing it. That was a really nice fantasy.

What would your version have been like?

Tavern on the Green was interesting, because it was a draw for tourists in Central Park, but it wasn’t a draw for New Yorkers. We were thinking about a way to anchor the restaurant, so it could perform both those roles.

How would you compare that to Maialino?

Danny told me Maialino had to happen quickly, on a controlled budget, and be a real neighborhood place.

DM: We’re each at a point in our careers when we don’t have to prove anything to our respective professions. Obviously, we set out to do an excellent job. But a Roman trattoria is organic, a palimpsest. It’s kind of antithetical to the notion of intentional “design.”

DR: We didn’t reproduce an actual place in Rome literally, and it’s not a contemporary abstraction either. It came down to a feeling.

And how should diners feel?

DM: We’re setting a tone of relaxation. Desserts are plated right in the middle of the room. The wine cellar is at the front door, and it’s not a mausoleum of expensive bottles. Right now, the florist has her flowers in there.

Do Danny Meyer restaurants share certain traits?

DM: We love creating many communities within a single restaurant so that you can feel human, no matter the scale.

DR: If there’s one big, open space, the first five people to arrive are going to feel strange.

DM: Maialino is really two restaurants. One is the bar—ever since Union Square Cafe, I like having a place where you can eat without planning ahead. The second is the trattoria. And a banquette divides the trattoria in two. That’s what a trattoria is, a small community.

Prior to Rockwell, how did you choose your architects?

DM: It’s been different every time. For Union Square Cafe, I had no idea what the heck I was doing. My step-grandmother told me she had a friend in Kansas whose daughter was married to an architect named Larry Bogdanow. So we hired him. I’ve gone out of my way, in fact, to work with people who don’t usually design restaurants. When I brought in Bentel & Bentel to renovate Union Square Cafe, that was their first dining project. Then they did five more for us.

Several recent Rockwell projects are less theatrical than what your fans might expect.

DR: As a designer, I try to stay curious. The best experiences are the ones where I’m learning a design history. Danny’s legacy is more wood than shiny metal, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to do something exuberant or opulent ever again.

DM: I didn’t need David to do Ye Olde Trattoria. It had to feel authentic. I could hum the song—I just couldn’t play it myself.

Recent Projects