Danny Meyer, the restaurateur behind Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and Tabla, has often been quoted as saying he's not in the restaurant business -- he's in the hospitality business. Yet when it comes to barbecue, hospitality hasn't historically been much of a category. Service in a traditional American barbecue joint tends to be perfunctory, or at best sassy. As for decor, it doesn't even feel right to use the word or to speak of creature comforts at all when describing the average barbecue place.
So what does Mr. Hospitality bring to the table when opening a barbecue restaurant? Isn't "barbecue restaurant" an oxymoron? Indeed, isn't the sophisticated, urban restauration approach of Danny Meyer exactly the opposite of what is called for in the barbecue realm? Is Danny Meyer's barbecue experiment destined to be smoke and mirrors, the latest incarnation of designer pizza, thirty-dollar gourmet hamburgers, and lifeless sissified comfort food?
Moreover, isn't barbecue the kind of food that can't be separated from its region and culture? What's the point of opening a fancy barbecue restaurant in Manhattan? Has Danny Meyer finally lost it?
I don't know the answers to these questions. Maybe you should ask Danny Meyer. But what I can say is that I visited Blue Smoke when it first opened, and I've checked in since, and my experience of the place has put to rest many of the nagging doubts I had: For one thing, the quality of the Niman Ranch meat is outstanding (despite wrong-headed arguments that worse meat makes better barbecue). For another thing, the barbecue being turned out by the kitchen is tremendous, tender, smoky, "competition-quality" 'que. And for still another thing, I can't see the harm in getting delicious barbecue plus Danny Meyer's signature service all in a comfortable and attractive dining room.
As you all may recall, we discussed Blue Smoke in its early days. I still think the restaurant is in its early days, actually. An issue that I think most observers overlook is the slow learning curve of the typical Danny Meyer restaurant. It's easy to forget the early days at Gramercy Tavern -- which lasted a couple of years -- when the restaurant was constantly off balance and struggling to put food on the plate and get it still-warm to customers. Eleven Madison Park is in my opinion still finding itself. I attribute this in large part to his humane management style, which places long-term success ahead of short-term gain.
In any event, Danny Meyer's ears must have been burning when we discussed Blue Smoke, because later on he contacted me and expressed a desire to engage his critics here on eGullet. That's the kind of guy he is.
So, we're having a Q&A with Danny Meyer. The primary purpose of this Q&A is to discuss Blue Smoke. Maybe we can get him back for another Q&A regarding Gramercy Tavern or another of his restaurants, but this time around please try to maintain a focus on Blue Smoke and the general issues that might support the discussion. We'll allow questions that ask for comparison ("How did opening Blue Smoke compare to opening Gramercy Tavern?") but we aren't inclined to accept a large number of totally unrelated questions ("How do I get a reservation at Gramercy Tavern?").
We will be using a moderated message queue for this Q&A, as a courtesy to our guest. We haven't set a limit on the total number of questions -- we'll see how many can be answered and eventually if the number becomes overwhelming we'll cut off the discussion and announce that we've done that. Questions will be approved (assuming appropriateness) on a first-come-first-served basis, though we will accept only one question per user for at least the first day or so of the Q&A. If there's time later on, there's a chance we may release additional questions per user -- but it's not likely.
In addition to the Q&A, our users Jonathan Day and Robert Brown are running a moderated discussion in the Symposium on the subject of restaurateurs. We're hoping to stir up some Danny Meyer-related conversation there, and if you all make it tempting enough, who knows, he may comment there.
Likewise, feel free to continue sharing your observations and opinions about Blue Smoke on the thread where this all started.
116 East 27th Street
New York, NY
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