Last Wednesday, Danny Meyer, maybe the city’s most successful restaurateur, quietly opened a new 40-seat eatery, Untitled, in the Whitney Museum’s basement–that is, if the bright, soaring space tucked beneath the Madison Avenue monolith by architect Marcel Breuer can rightly be called a basement. “This was the case of the context driving the idea, or the frame driving the art,” Mr. Meyer told the Transom over a cup of his proprietary “Untitled Blend” of Stumptown coffee the afternoon before opening. The cafe menu was still being chalked up behind the bar and chefs and servers scurried about, but the tables had already been set.
Mr. Meyer–who has famously breathed new life into such staples as the hamburger and the barbecued rib–reinvented the idea of a museum cafeteria several years ago, launching the restaurants in the rebuilt MoMA and creating a draw that rivaled the art itself. Soon, every cultural institution in the city was ditching the chicken fingers for small plates and other refinements. But instead of repeating himself, Mr. Meyer has created the museum cafe that isn’t, a hybrid of Norman Rockwell and Vito Acconci on the plate.
“We don’t think of this as a museum cafe,” Chris Bradley, the executive chef, formerly of Mr. Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern. “This is our version of the Upper East Side coffee shop, the Greek diner, though through the filter of someone who has been through 11 years of fine dining,” said . Mr. Bradley said the goal is to strip down his cooking to its simple, homey essence. “We will be making our own pastrami, but we won’t be poaching eggs with agar or doing anything sous vide,” Mr. Bradley promised.
That said, Untitled is aimed not merely at tourists popping in for a bite between the Edward Hopper show and the Glenn Ligon retrospective, but at local residents. And yet this is the Upper East Side, a neighborhood where the default dining is haute French, overpriced Italian or Chinese takeout, and where the meals are as starchy as the collars. Will the gallerists, shop girls and ladies who lunch really come around to kale, chewy, pies imported from the banks of the Gowanus and nose-to-tail dinners on the weekends?
“Our main goal is to attract our neighbors,” Mr. Meyer said. “If we’re not doing that, we’re not succeeding.”
The bigger challenge they see is not conquering palettes but preconceptions. “Pretty much anything on the menu, you are going to have something to base it on, and some of them may be very emotional experiences, for example matzoh ball soup,” Mr. Meyer said. “Or the milkshake, people are going to say my mom made it better. Everyone here is going to have a view on pancakes. The goal is not to make the best pancakes in the world. The goal is to make the most thoughtful coffee shop that we can make.”
“Now you’re making me nervous,” Mr. Bradly blurted out.