Reboots are RISKY business—for every The Force Awakens, there’s a The Phantom Menace. Remakers have the punishing task of satisfying two audiences simultaneously: the established fan base, those who experienced the original run, and the new demographic, the young’uns looking for fresh twists among the familiar beats.
Luckily, the force is strong with the new incarnation of Union Square Cafe, the beloved flagship of the formidable Danny Meyer empire that stood on East 16th Street since 1985, long before a Shake Shack patty ever sizzled on a griddle top. A rent spike at the original location prompted a move three blocks north to a 10,000-square-foot two-story space that’s nearly double the size of the bygone room; where the old boasted cramped low ceilings and a head-scratching multilevel layout, the new is a light and lofty setting designed by architect David Rockwell.
For all of his updates, Rockwell also seasoned the space with nostalgia, little Easter eggs for the devoted set: the cherrywood service stations, the dark-green wainscotting, the quirky and colorful paintings that line the walls. The service is as well trained and personable as ever—though, recent meals commenced with long, winding PR spiels that we hope will be edited down as months go by—and a warm, convivial spirit still dominates the dining room. (Don’t be surprised if strangers stop to inquire about your bowl of tortelloni in brodo on their way to the restroom.)
But the most crucial holdover is in the kitchen, where executive chef Carmen Quagliata—who headed the original USC for a decade—can still be found overseeing staples like ricotta gnocchi ($18) and lunchtime tuna burgers ($29). Quagliata builds on those familiar comforts with new dishes that fit effortlessly with the oldies. Pastas like candele tubes sweetened with carrot and spiced with Fresno chilies ($23) and pappardelle ribbons slick with a rich sugo of duck and chanterelle ($27) are worthy castmates of that famed gnocchi. The old burger ($27) could use a tune-up—ours suffered from a dry crumb on a recent visit—but it’s reassuring to see the kitchen’s Greenmarket whims weren’t lost in the move: See the chicory and honeycrisp apples that crown the duck crostone ($19) and the turnips and Napa cabbage stewing beneath succulent butter-roasted monkfish ($38) for proof. It tastes like Union Square Cafe: The Next Generation.