photo credit: Emily Schindler
Whether we like it or not, living in NYC makes a person more competitive. If there's an e-bike docked at a Citi Bike station, we walk fast to snag it. When a respectful, liberal, and employed boyfriend candidate appears on Hinge, he’s sought after like fishermen seek out 400-pound tuna (or, more likely, he’s a DJ). And if an iconic restaurant offers a bar menu as well as an “elegant five-course tasting” so famous that your family members who don’t care about restaurants have heard of it, New York life has programmed you to think you want the latter.
As it turns out, the dinkier option isn’t always worse than the first-prize pumpkin. In Gramercy Tavern’s case, dinkier means an incredible burger and a room so alive you could never mistake it for anywhere else.
Gramercy Tavern operates as two restaurants in one. The back dining room is reserved for people working their way through a $158, five-course tasting, and the front tavern area has its own casual feel and à la carte menu for walk-in diners. Go against your impulse to take this Union Square fine dining restaurant as seriously as it takes itself, and skip the tasting. Instead, treat Gramercy Tavern as the fun neighborhood spot your Thursday night self would more likely prefer. In the end, you’ll have gotten the best of the best anyway. And you’ll have spent a lot less money.
Let's regroup: Gramercy Tavern is Danny Meyer’s second-born restaurant specializing in American food that takes advantage of whatever seasonal produce is in its juiciest prime. If dodgeball were a culinary sport, Gramercy Tavern’s alumni network would make a very good dodgeball team. The words “James” and “beard” are likely said in tandem in this kitchen more often than they’re used to talk about dudes named Jimmy or nice chin straps. That’s all fine. Moving on.
If you’ve eaten at a fancy downtown restaurant in the last five-to-seven years, you’ve had the Gramercy Tavern tasting before–just in disjointed puzzle pieces rather than via an 80-minute progression. There might be a hamachi crudo (because of course there might be), and, in the past, we’ve tried nicely-cooked lobster pasta with sweet rock shrimp in a buttery tarragon sauce. Don’t be surprised if you see duck breast on the menu, and don’t be surprised if it’s delicious. We’d eat each of the tasting menu dishes again. But it’s not like we need to whip out our calendar right now to ensure it.
The fun of Gramercy Tavern happens up front, like a reverse mullet or the general admission section at a concert. It’s here that you’ll see people drinking beer with coworkers and ignoring their forks to bite into thick, pink burgers lined with cheddar and bacon. At Gramercy Tavern’s bar, nice tourists who just arrived from Louisiana might tap you on the shoulder and ask if you’ll take a horizontally-oriented picture of them. They’ll order cosmopolitans without a smidge of irony and say they feel like they’re really in New York City. You’ll sip a martini, text a friend who's running late because of subway drama, and realize you’re really in New York City, too. If that feeling isn’t enough to lure you into a restaurant, then what are you even doing here.
Even if Gramercy Tavern’s tasting menu were more distinct, the energy of the tavern room would always outshine the yawningly-large dining area. If you’ve never been to this restaurant or a long time has passed since you have, make a mental note to stop by on a day when you’re already in the area. Don’t plan months ahead or stress yourself out about it. Just let it happen naturally. Stop by at 6:30pm one day for a burger and a great salad, or maybe get a warm chocolate chip cookie served with a glass of (we’re not kidding) cold milk the next time you’re near Union Square and feeling a little wild.
Just because you’ve heard about something glossy, it won’t necessarily make you happier than the regular old alternative. So make up your own rules about what Gramercy Tavern is, and take a break from competing to experience all the Best Stuff In NYC. If you’re anywhere near Union Square, it’s right in front of you already.
Gramercy Tavern's $158 tasting menu comes with five courses that highlight whatever seasonal fish, vegetable, and meat the team can get their hands on. Everything tastes expertly-made, but nothing will stand out in your mind even a week after. It's all just... safe. Usually, things kick off with a marinated fish dish (we had cubed and cured hamachi with pears and thyme), followed by a larger cooked fish preparation, a pasta dish, something like duck or sirloin served with pureed and roasted veggies, and a rich dessert. You'll certainly be full after you go through all five dishes—but, unless you're at a corporate gathering and someone wearing a power suit is paying, Gramercy Tavern's tasting experience is not quite worth $158.
The Tavern Burger
We once ate this bacon cheddar burger in the dining room (a thing GT now allows you to do, FYI), and everyone around us who had ordered the tasting menu was looking at our plate as though we'd just stolen their husband. If nothing else, treat that anecdote as evidence that you should be coming to Gramercy Tavern for their burger, served with duck fat potato chips and a chipotle onion dipping sauce that tastes like a smoky ranch dressing. Dip every edible element on the table into this ranch, and ask the server for some extra pickles. (They're homemade and have the perfect vinegary snap.)
Golden Beet Salad
Gramercy Tavern's vegetable starters change with the seasons, but if you see this golden beet dish in the winter, make sure you order it. The beets are cooked so perfectly you can slice them with a fork (but they don't mush in your mouth), and there's a tangy yogurt sauce on top.
Crunchy candied pecans, sweet apples, crisp greens, and a mustard dressing that's punchy without wanting to seek revenge on your mouth. This is always a good thing to order with your burger.
There's always one pasta on the tavern menu, and it usually highlights a vegetable or two. In the past, we've had tortiglioni with mushrooms and butternut squash that tasted a little like the beauty pageant version of Annie's mac and cheese. (This is not an insult, to be clear.) You might encounter something like campenelle with swiss chard and bacon or strozapretti with tomatoes and eggplant. Split one of these with a friend, or make it a main if you're a vegetarian.
This dish comes with polenta and brocolli rabe. The texture is less like a meatloaf and more like a sausage with a crispy casing. That's alright, but certainly not what we were expecting. And there's not much polenta on the plate. If you're eating meat here, stick with the burger.
Cookie & Milk
"Never have I ever drank a cup of cold milk through a straw at a restaurant as an adult," is something you might be thinking. We thought the same thing. And then we had this high-rise chocolate chip cookie, and we'll never be able to play Never Have I Ever the same way again.