Union Square Cafe-Guess Who’s Back?

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Buttons Bursting

Pants at a Glance
  • scene: Classic upscale tavern that feels both informal professional
  • sip: Small pours of wine, cocktails, etc
  • savor: Cauliflower Sformato; any pasta; USC burger
  • sit: With your parents for a special dinner; with friends from out of town; by yourself at the bar
  • spend: $$$
  • address: 101 East 19th Street (entrance on Park) and multiple locations
  • phone number: 212-243-4020
  • website: www.unionsquarecafe.com

As  (former) long time Union Square residents, Union Square Cafe holds a special place in the hearts of the Pants. Union Square Cafe and its iconic sign were synonymous with the neighborhood of its origin, it’s vibe so effortlessly low- key, that the exceptional service and high-quality food were a comforting surprise. The closure of Union Square Cafe served as the face of an increasingly greedy New York City real estate scene, the most high-profile retaurant to be forced from its home due to ballooning rents. It seemed as though the closure of Union Square Cafe marked the end of an era, but the re-opening of the restaurant on Park Avenue South meant that the loss of the original location was merely a semi-colon in its story, rather than the period.

The original  USC space was awkward and the menu never quite able to be defined (my best guess was greenmarket to table with Italian influences), and don’t get me started on the ladies’ room, but Union Square Cafe, year after year, held the hearts of New Yorkers. The new space, on Park Avenue and 19th Street, deftly pays homage to the design of the original, but on a larger scale. The room features a welcoming bar you when you walk in, which is still an ideal place to dine;  a large multi-tiered mezzanine level including some pub-like booths, and even a private dining room.

Service is the hallmark of a Union Square Hospitality restaurant, and every time I visited it improved, as I am confident it will continue to do.  Management is always present and able to swoop in and correct any missteps or oversights by servers.  The main gripe of my dining companions is the size of the pours from the bar- both wine and martinis were strictly served at an ounce /ounce and a half, a little less than generous for the thirsty.

But now, the food. Every time I went I tried new items (two lunches, one dinner), and everything was delicious. Below, a run-down of the food:

Trust me, this cauliflower dish is a flavor bomb

Cauliflower Sformato with Romanesco and Black Truffle Fonduto-  a whipped, decadent starter, very creamy and unique in texture, and deep in flavor.  If you don’t think about it, you might forget there are vegetables in it…

Ring a ding ding…

Fried Calamari- fairly straightforward, non- greasy, lightly breaded lovely rings of calamari.

Eat yer greens

Bibb and Red Oak Leaf Lettuces-  a light, bright way to get your greens in without filling up too much.  In contrast, the chicken salad we ordered for lunch one day was too salty to eat, oops.

The Manolo pump of burgers…classic

USC Burger- A staple of the USC menu, this burger is straightforward and perfectly executed.  The high-quality ingredients make the difference- springy, moist brioche, substantial, thick-cut bacon and Beecher’s Flagship cheddar all bring significant taste without making the flavor of the meat.


Ricotta Gnocchi- Another classic dish, perfectly executed; the gnocchi are large and extremely light and fluffy, and the sauce has the necessary acid to make it pop…pillows of heaven.

‘Toni, Rigatoni

Rigatoni with Carrots, Fresno Chiles, Scallion, Greek Yogurt and Pancetta- the texture of the rigatoni is perfect for soaking up the sauce, and the yogurt adds a bit of tang; people love this dish, but for some reason I just can’t really get into it.

Oh so good

Torelloni in brodo- I die for this dish, it makes me feel comforted and happy. The tortelloni are dense and full of flavor, and the broth feels like it can heal you. My suggestion is to have this dish as your main course for lunch (with a starter) or as a starter for dinner if you are not having pasta as a main course. I crave this…

Too bad you can’t smell this through your screen

Lasagna- La la la layers of amazingness!

I also recommend the fagioli as a side dish. To be honest I don’t remember any of the desserts that I had on any visit, but I am quite confident anyone can find an option to properly scratch that itch.

Union Square Cafe is firmly back on the NYC dining scene and rightfully resuming where it left off.  The quirkiness and nostalgia factor has been replaced by a more shiny, well-rounded version of itself, but in some ways it is like it never left.

N.B. Reservations are available through Resy, but my suggestion is to pick up the phone and call, it is more efficient as to getting prime times.


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