NEW YORK — They were hanging paintings and making other finishing touches last week when the chef, Carmen Quagliata, popped in. Almost teary-eyed, he shook his head and said, “It’s unbelievable how much it looks like Union Square Cafe.”
He meant the old cafe, a beloved place that closed almost a year ago in response to a steep rent increase. The new Union Square Cafe, which is to open next week, is about four blocks from the original in a much grander, light-filled space with high ceilings.
Quagliata was marveling at how Danny Meyer, who opened the restaurant in 1985, and David Rockwell, the architect in charge of the design, had somehow captured the essence of the original’s eccentric hodgepodge of spaces.
“Nothing made sense in the old Union Square Cafe,” said Meyer, the chief executive of Union Square Hospitality Group. There was a collection of areas, mostly with low ceilings, including an awkward balcony with tight seating. Now there’s a similar balcony overlooking the main dining room, and down a passageway, an area called the alcove, with a big round table. It’s all different, but, as with an old friend who has had a nose job, the face and voice are still the same.
The new restaurant has increased the capacity to more than 150, thanks in part to the addition of a second bar area upstairs (using the old bar, slightly shortened) with tables and banquettes. Other touches that evoke the original are warm cherry wood, dark-green wainscoting, decorative elements with an Arts and Crafts look, and most of the art on the walls.
“I did not feel burdened to recreate it exactly,” Rockwell said. “It’s not about the physical space as much as the experience.”
Despite the airiness of the space — the former home of City Crab and Seafood Co. — there is a sense of intimacy, a hallmark of the original. Some sections, like the leather booths near the upstairs bar, have a warm, clubby feel, just the opposite of the Siberia that a second-floor, out-of-view table may suggest.
Veteran customers will find many old favorites on the menu, including gnocchi, calamari fried in graham cracker crumbs, a tuna burger (at lunch), pan-roasted chicken and a banana tart.
Quagliata is introducing some new dishes.
“Most of them are inspired by things we ran as specials,” he said, citing a hillock of crisp polenta with stewed sweet potatoes, marinated sardines with grilled avocado, and a classic braised lamb shank with salsa verde.
Now that there is more space, the restaurant will be able to bake its own bread. Justin Rosengarten, who was a baker at Lafayette and worked with Ben Glazer, a London expert who consulted on the Union Square Cafe breads, will be in charge of turning out sourdough loaves.
Quagliata, who has been the executive chef since 2007, now has several kitchens to run for the dining room, bars and rooms for private parties. He has hired more cooks, including some who had worked with him and went on to jobs elsewhere. Richard Coraine, one of Meyer’s partners, said all the managers and about a third of the waiters had come back.
As in most of Meyer’s restaurants, there will be no tipping; service will be included in the menu prices. And except in the bar areas, reservations will be accepted by phone and online.
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Union Square Cafe, 101 East 19th St., 212-243-4020, unionsquarecafe.com.