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Q&A with Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group

As luck would have it, Danny Meyer’s plane sailed into SF yesterday morning right like clockwork, giving him just enough time to grab an early lunch with me at Piccino before he was off to give a talk at the California Culinary Academy’s swanky new pad in Potrero Hill. (The lecture, Obama-esque in Meyer’s very earnest yes-we-can attitude, was all about giving the love back to your diners by way of excellent hospitality—not just sending them off with tomorrow-morning’s coffee cake.)
Soaking up the sun at one of the sidewalk tables, the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (Union Square Café, Shake Shack, Gramercy Tavern, The Modern and more) and the author of Setting the Table—easily the most famous restaurateur in New York—was more than happy to get the chance to tank up with some Blue Bottle. Over a double macchiato, a salad and a slice of margherita pizza, he affably talked shop.

How’s the coffee?
This is critical—the gasoline. My morning ritual in New York is, unfortunately, a grande from Starbucks. There’s nothing like this near my office. I love [Blue Bottle]. We really want to get these guys’ coffee [for Gramercy Tavern].

How often are you in SF?
I come in a few times a year for the OpenTable board meetings. They’re fascinating. I’ve been doing it since 2000. I’m the only restaurateur on the board. It’s like going to grad school. I don’t think I would have understood the world of internet venture capital without it. [When I'm here], I’ll normally go back to a place I know and love and to a place that I’ve never been to—tonight that’s Perbacco.

The places you know and love?
Slanted Door, Zuni, Chez Panisse—more often than not, the café—Boulevard, Oliveto, Delfina. I liked A16. That’s me. I’m pretty easy. These restaurants make me feel like I’m in San Francisco.

How’s the internet changing things for the restaurant world, beyond speedy reservations?
It never feels good when you screw up but you want someone to tell you at a restaurant that they had a bad experience; the next thing would be to write you a letter; the next thing would be to “cc” every restaurant critic in town; the next thing would be tell everyone at a cocktail party. But [the internet] is like the biggest megaphone. And the worst thing is, you can’t do anything but feel embarrassed.

Is Yelp big in New York?
It’s so funny, because someone was asking me about Yelp and I had never heard of it before—and it was someone from San Francisco. In New York, I think people definitely go to Eater, which can be pithy.

What’s your take on San Francisco as a restaurant town?
I adore it. The unencumbered sense of cooking from your heart. It hasn't been shouldered with what NY has been shouldered with—which is really a European mentality. The past 25 years, chefs have grown up cooking food they love to eat, not food that’s going to impress a New York Times critic. As far as the service is concerned, the thing about it is that it’s very “foodcentric,” so you get a sense that the people serving the food really love the food and what the chef is cooking. I don’t have any complaints.

Is it as hard financially to open a restaurant in New York City as it is in San Francisco right now?
Manhattan’s gotten so expensive real estate–wise. So you literally cannot afford to open a small restaurant with a point of view. The rent is sick. It’s $400 per square foot in a prime location, $200 in a non-prime location. I opened Union Square Café at $8 per square foot. Now, you’re basically in the real estate business. But we don’t have the living wage that you do here. San Francisco restaurants are a very reasonable value.

What’s an example of a restaurant without a point of view?
In New York, that’s the Blue Ribbon model. There are two factors to that—it’s like Broadway shows and Off-Broadway shows. The bigger the production—the more money you’re paying in rent, the more you had to pay to build the set, the more seats—the more people you have to please. Unless you have a small restaurant where you didn’t spend too much and it doesn’t take that much to fill your 40 covers, then you start to thinking: We’ve got to have a white fish on the menu, a pink fish on the menu, a red meat, a white meat, a fowl, if we have sweetbreads we can’t have brains, we can’t have too many esoteric things. It has to be a menu that covers all the bases. But I love going to Brooklyn right now. The restaurants there can afford to have more point of view right now.

Can I take your picture now for our blog?
Are you a blogger too? Give me your camera. I’ll take a really blurry, close-up picture of the grapefruit in my salad. When do you think people are going to start making fun of bloggers?