United We Eat, Divided We Pay: The Union Square Cafe

On Amazon.com’s restaurant page, one may grow depressed to learn that The Outback Steakhouse, The Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s rank significantly higher than The Gramercy Tavern and The Union Square Cafe in terms of menu-viewing popularity. On a practical front it makes sense—-when most American families go out, they want reliable, moderately priced and familiar food. Actually, reading those statistics kind of puts things in perspective: it puts one on the defensive. How do you justify a lunch for two at The Union Square Cafe that would pay for dinner for four at Applebee’s?

Let’s begin with atmosphere. The Union Square Cafe is quaint and beautiful. Big neon sign out front:

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Inside, there are lavish floral arrangements, friendly hosts/hostesses, a crowded bar, and white walls with abstractly painted designs. We–(Lauren and I; she’s visiting this weekend)–were seated in the back room in a banquette near much more distinguished-looking people. They sat us so we were both facing out. At first, I thought this was cute, but it got to be irritating after a while.

Service.

Have you seen the Applebee’s commercials where they show the waitress going to work, but first she visits a little old lady who invites her to dinner and the waitress says she can’t she has to work and the old lady crumples in disappointment, and at the end the waitress surprises the old bag with dinner from Applebee’s? Or the one where the football team loses the game just as Applebee’s is closing up in a rain storm and the van pulls up with the players and they get out and see it’s closed and begin to feel even more defeated when the manager opens it up for them?

What the fuck ARE these commercials? Lessons in morality from a corporate giant that excels at mediocrity? “Come eat at Applebee’s, we believe in your eternal salvation and our food only sucks a little!” I find it so depressing that corrupt institutions (Applebee’s, George W. Bush) can exploit religious devotion for their own gain. Halleluljah!

But I digress. The service at The Union Square Cafe was a bit phony. Here’s what I mean by that. I was telling Lauren that I had to watch five movies this weekend for school and that I’ve yet to find a local Blockbuster. Lauren said, “I think there’s one in Union Square.” Just then the waitress came over. She said, “Are you looking for something in Union Square?” “A blockbuster,” I replied. “I’ll find out for you right away,” she said and scampered off.

She was gone for 10 minutes and she came back and asked if we were ready to place our order. Either she forgot or she has short-term memory loss. In any case, she took our order and then disappeared for huge lengths of time. Our meal went incredibly slow. Where’s Jesus when you need him?

The Food.

But, of course, the food was delicious. The best thing was this calamari:

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Really tender, wonderfully seasoned batter. The sauce was this anchovy dipping sauce which may seem gross to some, but it was really among the best dipping sauces I’ve ever had for calamari. This dish was a winner on all fronts.

Lauren ordered the tuna burger:

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I’m not sure she was in love with it, but she really liked the presentation. She liked the pickled ginger that came on top. She also liked the garlic potato chips.

I ordered the halibut special:

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The seasoning that formed a crust on the top of the halibut was terrific. Everything else was slightly bland. Or maybe it was subtle? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

I enjoyed the mushrooms and the spinach mixed in the sauce beneath.

Interestingly…

As I took these pictures, two older gentlemen stared at me with fascination.

“Aren’t you going to take our picture?” they said when I was finished.

“Haha,” I laughed.

“No seriously, take our picture,” they said.

I’d already put my camera away.

“A little bit later,” I said.

Then later, when I’d gone to the bathroom and the check had been paid, I came back to find Lauren talking to these men. They had asked her why I was taking pictures; she told them about my website. The larger of the two men asked, “Are you a cook?”

I said, “Well I like to cook; I’m still an amateur…”

“Bah!” he said. “You have to develop your tastebuds, otherwise you’ll always be an amateur.”

Duly noted.

“Do you know Marcella Hazan?” he asked.

“Well yes,” I replied, “she was featured in Saveur Magazine last month.”

“I was at her 80th birthday party,” he bragged.

“Wow,” I said, “that must have been amazing.”

“Unbelievable,” he replied.

“She teaches at the French Culinary Institute,” I attempted.

“Yes,” he said, “the founder of the FCI was sitting next to me.”

I looked at my watch.

“Well it was nice to have met you both,” I said, and shook their hands. Lauren and I hurried off.

I forgot to take their picture.

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