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Getting inside Danny Meyers' head

April 12, 2011 |  8:00 am

Meyer For most of the food world, restaurants are all about great chefs. But ask insiders about the most admired person in cooking and more often than not you’re going to hear the name of Danny Meyer, a guy who has never fired a saute pan in anger. Meyer is an old-fashioned restaurateur, as filmmaker Roger Sherman posits in his documentary "The Restaurateur." It's out on DVD now and well worth a watch.

While you may not know Meyer, you surely know his restaurants –- Union Square Café, followed by Gramercy Tavern, continuing all the way up to the Modern. Union Square and Gramercy are consistently ranked among the most popular restaurants in New York City, and both have earned three-star ratings from the New York Times. Eleven Madison Park has four stars. 

In fact, Meyers’ Union Square Hospitality Group has opened nine restaurants, and, he brags in the film, has never closed one, a remarkable record in the hypercompetitive Manhattan restaurant scene.

To try to figure how he does it, “The Restaurateur” documents the 1998 opening of two restaurants almost simultaneously -- Eleven Madison Park and Tabla. We see everything, starting with the raw gutted building, meet all the various players (a restaurant group like USHG is actually a small corporation) and get the inside story on the dramas -- the chef who gets fired just weeks before opening and his replacement, who eventually gets shifted to catering after back-to-back two-star reviews in the Times.

The most interesting part of the film, though, is when it focuses on Meyer, who is both a gifted restaurateur and a guy who's got a way with words. A combination of dreamer and hard-nosed businessman, he takes an almost psychological view of the restaurant experience. "What we’re doing for our guests is creating a bubble around every table where the world around them gets forgotten" is one of his aphorisms.

And he sums ups his vision of service by saying it's about asking, "How would I like to be treated; how would I like to be cared for?," and then finding a way to teach the staff how providing that service can be fun.

"The Restaurateur," Florentine Films/Sherman Pictures, $24.95.

-- Russ Parsons