Lunch with Michael Anthony

Michael Anthony

A conversation with the Gramercy Tavern's veg-minded chef.

I, like many, many others, have long enjoyed Gramercy Tavern restaurant on East 20th Street, New York. What began in 1994 as restaurateur Danny Meyer’s second foray after his highly successful Union Square Cafe was originally a partnership with chef Tom Colicchio. In 2006 Meyer switched partners and brought in Michael Anthony as executive chef, making him a partner in 2011.

Since then this restaurant has gone from strength to strength, garnering scores of awards and pleasing its clientele – on so many fronts. It has throughout this period – and 28 years is a very long time in ‘restaurant years’ – maintained its set-up of a free-and-easy tavern and bar alongside the more formal restaurant at the rear. It has kept up with all the changes in the drinks world. In 2013 I reported on the enormous pleasure that a magnum of Frédéric Mugnier’s Clos de la Maréchale 2005 gave our table, putting to one side the then ridiculous price of $475 for the magnum (it is at least that retail today!). At my most recent meal there, on my own, I enjoyed a bottle of stout brewed by Evil Twin Brewing in Ridgewood, Queen’s, served to me by a barman who, with his glasses, compassion and concern for his customers’ well-being, could well have been a caring professor.

Then there is the interior with the 20 panels of Robert Kushner’s artwork. Their folksy feel seems to delight everybody: visiting Americans see it as an expression of an era long gone but not forgotten while tourists see it as the personification of everything American, rural and homely. It has lasted well. According to Meyer, ‘Almost nothing has changed with Gramercy Tavern’s interior since it opened in July 1994. We’ve switched out some artwork, changed some curtains between dining rooms, and updated some service ware. But the furniture, light fixtures, antiques, etc have largely remained intact.’ Even when the bill is on the large side, which can easily happen, these surroundings seem to soften the blow.

But like so many others, I enjoy Gramercy Tavern particularly for its food. I have to say that I tend to prefer eating in the tavern part, simply because it is slightly lighter, with three rather than the five courses of the restaurant.

For this, responsibility has to rest upon the broad shoulders of Anthony, who I remember telling me that taking over from Colicchio made his job at the same time the hardest and easiest thing in New York. ‘It was easy because the restaurant had been successful for 12 years. It was incredibly difficult because I knew that changes had to be made but, initially, everybody other than me was reluctant to see this.’

These changes Anthony has now seen through and after the two-year closure enforced by COVID-19 Gramercy Tavern is now back and playing to possibly even fuller houses than before. And, probably even more profitably, Anthony admitted over a lunch I enjoyed with him a few weeks ago. I told him that this is not something he ought to feel ashamed of. After all, the restaurant, like the entire hospitality industry the world over, does have the previous two years of poor revenue to make up for.

But I wanted to start at the beginning so I asked Anthony where and how he first met Danny Meyer. ‘It was in a taxi we shared going from the airport to take part in the Food and Wine Classic that is held in Aspen every year. I was working as a chef at the restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns but I was seriously thinking about leaving and setting up on my own, for which I had a backer and a business plan. I asked Danny for his opinion and he was dubious. He then asked me what, if I were not to open my own restaurant, I would consider my dream job, to which I remember replying, “executive chef at Gramercy Tavern”, knowing that this position was taken.’

What Anthony did not realise at the time was that this very job was becoming vacant with the Meyer/Colicchio split imminent. Meyer listened (he is an excellent listener) and when the break occurred he had already lined up Anthony to take over. The rest, as they say, is history.

History that has been written by two individuals from strikingly different backgrounds. Meyer has proved to be the consummate restaurateur but only because of a last-minute intervention by an uncle when a legal future beckoned. For Anthony, it was languages that were to provide his introduction to cooking when he first worked in a professional kitchen in Tokyo, an experience that inculcated in him the importance of seasonality. But being able to speak Japanese and French was to prove an asset: it allowed him to communicate with the chefs there and subsequently in Paris, where he lived for some time, and where two of his daughters continue to live.

Anthony, a youthful 53, is conscious of his position. ‘When it opened, GT carved a niche for itself, it created its own category by making top-quality American food so approachable. A great deal of that is because of the relationship between the different menus in the tavern and the dining room. The tavern is open from 11.30 every morning and is extremely busy; it seems to change hour by hour. Quite a few journalists have written saying that we ought to make GT one or the other but that is to misunderstand what each brings to the whole. If it were just a tasting menu, it would appear too expensive, while the whole place could not survive on just the revenues from the tavern. And both together give our customers more reasons to return. GT lives on the loyalty of its customers.’

‘The existence of the Tavern also allows me to experiment, to introduce new members of the kitchen, to introduce new members of the team. I say to all the members of our kitchen that the kitchen at the tavern is ideal. It is a 40-seater restaurant. You will be able to use your own wood- burning oven and all of this in front of what must be one of the best-looking bars in America. Who would say no to such an offer?’

On top of this comes Anthony’s personal charm, which must make his modus operandi easier to execute. I have always found Anthony both sympathetic and empathetic so I was not surprised to hear Will Beckett, one of the founders of Hawksmoor, which recently opened on East 22nd Street, describe Anthony as ‘the nicest guy in the New York hospitality scene’.

This side of the individual may explain one more attribute. ‘I think that because I personally accept and like change as part of my routine, I have been able to welcome it whenever it has needed to be embraced, which is something that happens quite regularly in restaurant kitchens. There comes a time when the bands that hold restaurants together disintegrate. It happened with COVID-19, fatally with the closures of Maialino and Untitled [two other Mayer restaurants]. But that has given me the opportunity to create a new, younger team which it is my preoccupation to protect and to nurture.’

Anthony plans to continue to do this in a routine that he has long followed. ‘I am in the kitchen, in my whites, five days a week. I am pretty hands-on and the whole brigade is tasting every dish almost every day. That way, the kitchen can guarantee consistency and all the dishes belong to this kitchen collectively rather than to one person.

Cooking for the past 25 years has been beneficial to Anthony. He has risen to a partnership in a highly successful restaurant; he has published two cracking cookbooks, The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook and V is for Vegetables; and it has provided him with lifelong interests. During lockdown his interest was taken by finding out more about Quahog clams and creating a new dish, summer fluke with a sauce of Quahog clams. More recently, he has been pursuing a consistent source of American eels. ‘I’ve been looking for a long time and think I may finally have found them on Long Island’, he explained with his customary smile.

This ethos has also established a firm partnership, and a deep friendship, with Danny Meyer, who shares many of Anthony’s concerns for a fairer society and, overall, for a more equitable union between producers, customers and the natural environment. Not surprisingly, when I asked Anthony how he would react if his younger daughter were to follow in his footsteps and seek to carve out a culinary career, his response was immediate, ‘I would be thrilled’.

Gramercy Tavern 42 East 20th St, New York, NY 10003; tel: +1-212-477-0777