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As tends to be the way with New York food trends, Danny Meyer saw the current wave of fast-casual dining coming. Meyer had already helped shape modern fine dining in the city with restaurants like Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern. But as early as 2001, Meyer had been thinking about applying what he’d learned in the world of white tablecloths and tasting menus to a far less formal experience.
People were resistant. “I was told that if I wanted to open something more casual,” Meyer says, “I’d have to consider quality, speed, and price—and only be able to have two of those.” Unsatisfied, he decided to challenge the formula. “We were trying to figure out a way to serve thousands of people a day without compromising our standards.”
The result was Shake Shack: an ever-expanding chain of high-quality burger restaurants that transformed the dining landscape in the city and beyond. A decade and a half later, Meyer’s methods have become the norm. Star chefs and restaurateurs now provide not just your carefully plotted, multicourse tasting menus and big-night-out dinners but also your spontaneous, low-key weeknight meals. “People have more demands on their time,” Meyer says. “They want to eat more quickly, but they don’t want to go backward in terms of the tastes they’ve developed.”
For discerning diners, food-related innocence—or ignorance, for that matter—is a thing of the distant past. Purveyors are brands. Menus must meet patrons’ heightened critical standards. (Where exactly is that chicken from?) And speed is no excuse for sloppiness. After all, why shouldn’t a $15, lunch-hour smoked-salmon salad feature dill-caper relish and potato croutons as conceived by chef Daniel Humm of the world-renowned Eleven Madison Park? That salad, served at Made Nice in NoMad, the new casual concept from Humm and partner Will Guidara, follows Meyer’s ethos of the fine influencing the fast, the tightly choreographed routine acting as the antecedent to the less formal dance. “It’s all part of an ecosystem,” Meyer says.
That ecosystem is thriving. One recent morning downtown at Atla, sunlight washed over the modern, minimalist space as breakfast chilaquiles and ranchero eggs appeared, Instagram-ready. The all-day café is Enrique Olvera and Daniela Soto-Innes’s follow-up to their more formal Flatiron restaurant, the esteemed Cosme, where the herbed guacamole costs $17 and the duck carnitas take three days to make.
Inspired by the best cafés in Mexico City, where Olvera and Soto-Innes are from, the chefs designed the food at Atla to demand less process while still delivering serious flavors. Sitting at a corner table, drinking coconut licuado—the meat of the fruit blended with its water—Olvera seemed so relaxed that we could have been breakfasting beneath a palm tree. “This is where I want to be,” he told me.
These days, restaurants like Atla are where New Yorkers want to be too, so many of the city’s top chefs are thinking about what their own high-end Happy Meals might look like. There’s even Chefs Club Counter, a restaurant in Nolita that offers takeout and features a rotating roster of signature dishes from cult restaurants (Eggslut in Los Angeles) and big-name chefs (Jean-Georges Vongerichten). But beneath the drive to serve up Zeitgeist-y comfort lies a paradox. To diners, these restaurants feel utterly relaxed, but that’s only because of the extreme effort that goes into making them that way.
Take Sam Buffa and Jean Adamson’s VHH Foods in Dumbo, the spin-off of their popular restaurant Vinegar Hill House. Located nearby, in the courtyard of Empire Stores, a newly restored 19th-century coffee-roasting plant on the East River, VHH Foods has both table and counter service. Over breakfast tacos, Buffa explained his motivation for opening VHH Foods. “We wanted to do something more fun,” he says.
For Buffa, fun means cold-brewing coffee for 15 hours; it means smoking whole, pasture-raised chickens overnight before roasting them; it means spending months trying to persuade a Portuguese designer to send his chairs to the U.S. so guests might feel the same mellow vibes coming off an urban river that they would on the coast of the Algarve.
Meyer, meanwhile, has evolved his Shake Shack model to create Daily Provisions, a small storefront next to Union Square Café’s new location off Park Avenue. Carmen Quagliata, Union Square Café’s longtime chef, oversees the menu, which ranges from a breakfast gougère and seasonal salads to roasted chickens that cause a rush when they go on sale at 3 p.m. This summer, Meyer also debuted Martina, which aims to do for pizza and half bottles of champagne what Shake Shack did for cheeseburgers and frozen custard.
“New York’s tough,” says April Bloomfield, the celebrated chef of restaurants like the Spotted Pig and the Breslin, and a co-owner of White Gold Butchers on the Upper West Side. “I think about how to make things easier all the time. That might just mean providing simple foods made by passionate people.” To that end, White Gold Butchers functions as a sandwich shop during the day, a bistro at night, and a full-service butchery from open till close.
If anything exemplifies the trend of moving cuisine beyond the formal restaurant, it’s the multimenu food market. The entrepreneur behind the Queens Night Market, John Wang, a 36-year-old former corporate lawyer, for example, brings a distinct vision of what everyday food should mean. In 2015, Wang launched a gathering of independent food vendors, representing as many cultures and countries as he could find, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. “I wanted to make a lasting cultural impact,” Wang says. He described traveling to Taichung, Taiwan, as a child and seeing how the city’s night markets united the community. His market now runs on Saturday nights, April through October, with as many as 9,000 happily grazing the rows of vendors’ tents. Wang caps the price for food items at $6 and has featured everything from Antiguan ducana (a sweet potato dumpling) to Persian stew with crispy rice. “People assume I’m running a food event,” Wang says. “But to me, food is a vehicle to bring cultures and stories together. Although Wang, who relies largely on volunteers to keep his market going, doesn’t know whether hell have enough capital to reopen in 2018, the concept is here to stay.
Smorgasburg, a tented foodie carnival, draws thousands of visitors to multiple locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan with clickbait creations like spaghetti doughnuts and Japanese water cakes. Ivan Orkin of Ivan Ramen and Seamus Mullen of Tertulia both have stalls at Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen, while Waterline Square, a residential development on the Upper West Side, will have a food hall run by the Cipriani family. Hudson Yards, which markets itself as a “megaproject” on the Far West Side, will boast a vast epicurean bazaar where chef José Andrés will try to approximate the entire food culture of Spain.
Last spring, Claus Meyer, a cofounder of Copenhagen’s Noma, brought Danish cuisine to the masses with his Great Northern Food Hall in Grand Central Terminal. There are Danish Pastries like frosted, knotty, kanelsnurrer and almond, poppy seed-covered frøsnapper, as will as bricks of rye bread from its Meyers Bageri kiosk. Open Rye serves a variety of smørrebrød, Denmark’s traditional open-faced sandwich, with combinations like pickled herring with egg yolk and beef tartare with pickled pearl onions. “As much as I love to be in the F1 race of polished, Michelin-level dining,” Claus says, “this idea is closer to my heart, serving a more diverse customer base in a more democratic setting.” On a daily basis, more than 750,000 people pass through Grand Central; Claus hopes to make them all a little more Danish. If even a fraction of them try his koldskal and kammerjunker, he might just get his way.
One summer afternoon at White Gold Butchers, I sat with Bloomfield’s co-owners, butchers Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest, as a steady flow of regular customers trickled in. Each one seemed to know Guest and Nakamura well and seemed relieved to find they had returned from a brief vacation. “Thank God,” one woman exclaimed when she saw them.
As I finished off a house-made roast beef sandwich with pickled red onion, red wine butter, and a sharp hit of horseradish cream, Nakamura and Guest talked about their future plans. They floated the idea of doing a high-quality bagged-lunch offering for neighborhood parents to buy for their school-age children and discussed the pros and cons of opening a second location. “We want to make sure we do it correctly and ethically,” Guest says, as if readying to launch a progressive, populist movement. “We want to be the people’s restaurant.”