One day in November 1985, a man wearing an ascot walked into the just-opened Union Square Cafe on East 16th Street in New York City. He said to the restaurant's owner, Danny Meyer, in an accent Meyer describes as "inimitable," "I hear you have oysters." And so began Farrar, Straus & Giroux cofounder Roger Straus's patronage of the restaurant that has become downtown's go-to hub for publishing lunches.
"The very good fortune we had way back at the beginning that a small handful of publishers adopted Union Square Cafe as their lunch club has stood us in incredible stead all these years later," Meyer says. Among the publishing legends who've been regulars at USC besides Straus (whose office was less than a block away) are Abrams's former publisher and editor-in-chief Paul Gottlieb, Knopf v-p and editor-at-large Gary Fisketjon, and Grove/Atlantic president and publisher Morgan Entrekin.
Literary agent Mary Evans, who got her start at FSG in 1974, remembers when the restaurant was a health food store called Brownie's. "It's hard for people to understand how few lunch places there were in the neighborhood," she says, recalling only two options for the house's editors: Lüchow's, where she says a rat once ran over Straus's foot, and an Armenian restaurant called the Dardanelles on University Place. When Union Square Cafe opened, it gave publishers in the area a much-needed option.
Another agent, David Black, eats at USC at least once a week. Why? "Because the food is good, it is comfortable, and there is plenty of distance between tables so I can conduct business in an atmosphere I would describe as informal yet elegant." And, he adds, "in a business where it feels like you eat for a living, the menu is varied and healthy, if you choose." Deals are often made at the restaurant; Evans says she once had a lunch there, talked about a project, "and by that afternoon I had a well-into-the-six-figures pre-empt." And Norton executive editor Bob Weil has recently made a tradition of taking an author to USC to celebrate signing up a book.
With regulars come regular tables, and the restaurant has seen its share of standing reservations over the years, which can make for some awkward moments. "God forbid we ever are not expecting somebody and we give away their table. All hell could break loose," says Meyer. "One day we did that with Roger Straus's table. He ended up having lunch at the bar that day; he was a complete gentleman about it. So we made a deal with Roger and his colleague Peggy Miller. We said, ‘We'll put your name in the book every single day, and if it's fine with you, why don't you just call us when you don't want to use it?' Then I said, ‘What time would you like that standing reservation to be?' Roger and Peggy just looked at me and said, ‘Lunchtime—when else would we do it?'"
Of course, in a city like New York, publishing types have thousands of restaurants to choose from, and others—such as Michael's, the Four Seasons, and another Meyer outpost, in midtown, the Modern—are popular, too. But USC might be the industry's most popular downtown haunt. Evans calls it "the downtown Michael's, but the food is much better." Weil says, "Union Square Cafe is not a scene. It's just warm."
Twenty-five years ago, the publishing industry was in a very different place. But although the days of the three-martini lunch may be over, "doing lunch" is still a cornerstone of the business. As Meyer says, "The publishing business is very much a relationship-building business. That involves a lot of building comfort and trust, and I don't think there's a better place to build comfort and trust than across a table." Evans confirms it: "The publishing lunch is something of an endangered species with all the budgetary cutbacks. But Union Square Cafe still stands strong."
It doesn't hurt that Meyer deeply admires his publishing customers. The day he talked to PW, he'd received a book from Henry Holt president and publisher Steve Rubin, who'd been in for lunch: "We have fed the publishing industry cheeseburgers, black bean soup, and risotto, and they have fed our brains with great books and introduced us to great people."