When I bought the lease for my first restaurant, Union Square Cafe on East 16th Street, I made the deal with a man who had owned a restaurant in that space for the past 49 years.
It was Brownies, New York’s first bona fide vegetarian restaurant. But as I’d soon learn, and unbeknownst to almost anyone, the owner of Brownies — Sam Brown — would often sneak out for a steak. And the place he’d usually head for was a short stroll across Union Square Park, a steakhouse named Sparks on East 18th Street. Over the years, he became quite close with one of the Cetta brothers, Pat, who would go on to open a far larger steakhouse with the same name on East 46th Street.
When Mr. Brown and I completed the deal for me to buy the remaining 14 years on the Brownies lease, he invited me to join him for a celebratory dinner. And of course, he wanted to take me to Sparks.
This was in the spring of 1985, and to this point, I had only been to Sparks before with my dad. Unable to afford it on my own, I would ask him to take me there on his visits from St. Louis.
So I’m at Sparks for my dinner with Mr. Brown when Pat Cetta, the owner, comes to sit with us, with two or three bottles of red wine in tow. I distinctly recall one of them being a well-aged bottle of Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet and another being an early bottling of Inglenook Vineyards. This was something I had not expected, let alone ever experienced: the owner of a restaurant sitting with me, and drinking wine together while being regaled with restaurant stories. For the next three hours, we fell in love and I knew I had chosen the right career to embark upon.
The most amazing things happened after that meal. Once I opened Union Square Cafe, every five weeks or so Pat Cetta would appear unannounced at the restaurant, and invariably it was when I was facing some really tough problem. He had an uncanny sense of knowing precisely when I was in need of advice, and quickly became my restaurant guardian angel.
Now, we couldn’t have been more different in any shape or form, including the way we ran a restaurant. To say we were cut from a different cloth would be an understatement. For example, I was determined to seat everyone right on time for their reservation. He disagreed. He would tell me, “Luvah” — he’d always call me that — “A reservation isn’t a precise time commitment. It just means that we were expecting you.” He would always tell me to tell people to go have a drink at the bar; they’ll have more fun there anyway. And he would always ask me why I always wanted to greet all my guests at every table — “Just stand up, give the dining room a wave from afar, and you’ll be able to say hi to everyone at once.”
Almost 10 years later, I was finally ready to open my second restaurant, Gramercy Tavern. Tom Colicchio and I had just signed a long lease on 20th Street, and I told him that we’d need to take the landlord to Sparks to celebrate. After the success of Union Square Cafe, Sparks had become my good-luck charm.
So we took our new landlord to Sparks for dinner. I still recall the cocktail Mr. Rayburn ordered, may he rest in peace; it was a rum and Coke in an enormous goblet, with a big slice of orange.
Since then, for every restaurant we’ve opened, we celebrate with the landlord at Sparks. It got to the point where the minute I’d walk in, the maître d’ would ask me where the new restaurant was going to be. In fact, the last time I visited Sparks was with the Brookfield team behind Manhattan West, where we were planning our newest restaurants, Ci Siamo and Daily Provisions.
One of the many things that I love about Sparks is that you know what you’re going to get. The steak and sides always deliver, and the wine list is far better than you’d expect it to be at a steakhouse. I’m grateful that they’ve kept it up, not only because it takes a lot of work to maintain a great wine list, but also because I love big group meals there where everyone can select a bottle. The staff is professional and friendly, and it was there that I learned about the “satiation theory:” by changing the tablecloth between the main course and presentation of dessert menus, you forget that you’ve already consumed an enormous dinner. After that, the chances of your ordering a dessert skyrocket!
Classic restaurants always must walk a fine line between the old and new. It’s like going to a concert: if the band just plays the new stuff, it’s kind of a bummer. But if the band doesn’t play anything new, then they may as well just be a tribute band. Similarly, older restaurants have to introduce new dishes to keep diners excited, but also serve the classic dishes that people expect — after all, when people return to a restaurant, they are usually returning for a specific reason.
The balance is the same for a city, too. Our cities are at their best when both new and old restaurants are thriving. There will always be new restaurants, but there’s something so special about going back to places you love. And whether I’m traveling or here in New York, if the places I love aren’t there anymore, then the city doesn’t feel the same.
Danny Meyer is a New York City restaurateur.