My brain is a sieve when it comes to the details of meals gone by. If I didn’t write it down or eat it 12 times, it vanishes into the ether. But I still recall everything about my first visit to New York’s Gramercy Tavern, a few months after it opened, in 1994. I remember being greeted by a young woman who appeared to be having a very good day. She walked my wife and me jauntily through the busy, mural-wrapped bar she called “the tavern”, where there seemed to be a lot more eating than imbibing going on; past an expansive but homey main dining area accented by copper wall sconces and early-20th-century antiques; and, finally, into a quiet, comfortable back room. She talked knowingly and enthusiastically about the menu, and she went out of her way to make sure nothing was amiss without, somehow, ever seeming to go out of her way.
The food was American and French and Italian all at once—all the best parts of those cuisines, without too many fancy flourishes. I had a braised lamb shank that was akin to something my mom might have made in her rural New Jersey kitchen, only better. It was served with perfectly caramelized roasted root vegetables and pommes anna. I’d made the latter dish many times at home; it’s little more than sliced potatoes coated in butter and seasoned with salt and pepper before being baked until golden and bubbly. This version was so good—evincing some mysterious added touch—that I never made mine again.
At first, critics didn’t know what to make of the place. Was Gramercy Tavern—opened by Danny Meyer, whose casual Union Square Cafe, a few blocks south, had introduced the city to the restaurateur’s idea of “enlightened hospitality”—the new face of fine dining or just another culinary version of business casual? Was the tavern for drinking or was it for eating? Were they to call the menu haute American? Rustic regional French? By the time our desserts arrived at the end of that first visit, I didn’t care. I knew that the restaurant set a new benchmark for dining in New York City, and beyond.
The chef was a then unknown cook named Tom Colicchio, who has moved on to achieve his own set of benchmarks, in New York, on television, and elsewhere. In 2006 Michael Anthony took up the reins and—by improving on a solid theme with new dishes like his outstanding pan-roasted chicken with a sweetly nutty madeira sauce and trout filets smoked to order over applewood and served with a cipolline onion puree and pickled-onion vinaigrette—has made Gramercy Tavern feel as vital and new as it did when it first opened. In a city as fickle as New York, that’s saying something. —Bryan Miller, former restaurant critic for the New York Times. Click here for more information on Bryan Miller.