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Spring 2005

Table 38

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Danny Meyer

Editor's note: This piece was one of the dozen or so eulogies delivered at the memorial gathering for Roger Straus held on September 29, 2004, at the 92nd Street Y in New York. It was our favorite of the bunch (as it was for many other listeners), so we asked if we could publish it.

It was an enormous personal honor when my friends at Farrar, Straus & Giroux invited me to share my reflections on Roger Straus. My grandfather, Irving B. Harris, passed away this weekend, and attending his funeral in Chicago is just about the only thing that could have caused me to miss being here in person today. I sometimes believe there are few accidents in the world, and the confluence of celebrating the lives of two such great men on one day is not lost on me.

When Roger died on May 25th, Union Square Cafe lost one of its best friends and most regular guests. By our closest estimate, Roger ate somewhere in the neighborhood of 3000 lunches at Union Square Cafe-easily more than any other human being, with the possible exception of the late Paul Gottlieb, his counterpart at the publisher Harry Abrams, who would easily have surpassed Roger's meal count, had he not died about two years earlier. (In fairness, Paul should have earned extra credit for the prodigious amount of food and drink he could consume in any sitting.) But the fact remains that only Roger holds the record, and no one is liable ever to break it. Three thousand meals! Do the math. At $35 a pop, and with an average of 1.5 guests each time he lunched with us, that's a lot of clams. Imagine how much richer those FSG author advances might have been had he not invested so much into oysters on the half-shell.

Unlike many of you in this room, I was never invited to sit down at Table 38 and dine with Roger. Instead, I had to make my observations and develop my relationship while standing.

But you can learn a whole lot about someone from that point of view—or any point of view, for that matter—when you repeat the exercise nearly 3000 times. Roger was a man of comfortable habits who thrived on habitual comfort.

You could count on him to be happy at least every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, after having begun his day with a gentlemanly stroll through the Union Square Greenmarket. Unlike so many self-reverential foodies, he never talked much about what he had shopped for that morning, but he clearly took great pleasure in tasting how those same ingredients were worked into his lunch on those days. He always dined at the exact same table at precisely the same time: lunchtime. I'll never forget one morning in the early years of Union Square Cafe when I was working on the telephone lines to train a new reservationist. Lunch was booking up rapidly that day, and I wanted to underscore the importance of taking care of a good "regular" like Roger. I instructed the new reservationist to call Roger's office, to let him know that we were down to our last table, and were wondering if he would be coming in. Up to that point, he may not have been planning to lunch at Union Square, but with the idea planted in his mind, he said, "I'll take my table."

"For what time, sir?" asked the trainee.

"What time?!" he bellowed. "Lunchtime! When else do people eat lunch?"

We never bothered asking again.

Roger also had the habit of walking into the restaurant with his guests-typically one or two paces behind them. I always thought that was his way of allowing them to receive the warmest possible welcome, with his glowing halo behind them. He was proud of the people with whom he dined, proud to be bringing them to our restaurant, and it was important to him to introduce his friends to his friends with the most gracious and generous spirit. Once those niceties had been performed, he would discreetly pull me aside so that no more than at least two of his guests could hear it, and tell me in his droning voice—in whatever that accent was—how tired I looked, or that I needed a haircut, or that my suit was particularly nice today, or that he had noticed I was spending too much time in the other restaurants. Sometimes he would ask me if I knew who the son of a bitch was on Table 30 or Table 28 or Table 36. When I said I didn't, he was always kind enough to introduce me.

Although I overheard him using expletives all the time, Roger never once cursed at me (or about me, that I know of). But his pugilistic side nonetheless emerged in an unorthodox way. When he wanted me to visit his table for any reason whatsoever, he was effective at beckoning me—sometimes from as far away as the opposite side of the dining room—simply by crouching down in his seat and eyeing me keenly while jousting and jabbing the air like a prizefighter in warm-up mode. I often wondered if that boxer's gesture was saved for me, or if others had experienced it as well.

Above all—and you would not be here if you didn't already know this —Roger was supremely loyal. He was barely willing even to sample any of the restaurants I opened subsequent to Union Square Cafe, and you could almost sense that he felt treasonous just for trying them. He couldn't wait to go back to his home on Table 38. He was loyal to brands: though he liked drinking port, he only loved Graham's Six Grapes. He was loyal to his colleagues, and to his authors, and to his friends. He would even give up his table so that one of them might use it in his stead. Once, when we had mistakenly thought that Roger was taking a day off from Union Square Cafe, we made the misjudgment of seating another publisher at Table 38, who had expressly requested to experience Roger's table. (That was a rare event: on days when Roger would not be using his table, it was our policy only to seat walk-ins or other strangers there, lest any other regular might get too comfortable.) The collective jaws of the Union Square Cafe staff dropped that day when Roger unexpectedly walked in for his table. Needless to say, it was lunchtime. There wasn't a table to be had in the joint, but there were two spaces open at the bar. Roger was delighted to take those two bar seats and, without one word of resentment or rancor, he simply enjoyed his lunch. I'm certain that at least part of his pleasure in sitting at the bar was the opportunity it gave him to turn his back on the publisher who was squatting at his table.

Roger seemed to confine his barking to matters of the book publishing world. He was as lovely and easy-going a guest as a restaurateur could ever dream of. He was respectful to every member of our service staff, and even on those occasions when the food was too slow, an error made with the order, or a risotto made too al dente, I never once saw Roger express his dismay in anything but the most respectful manner. He was always grateful for what he got. Our staff loved him, and though his visits had become increasingly sparse in those last months, a humid veil of sadness lingered over the restaurant when he died.

During those final weeks, I had hoped to send Roger some of his favorite foods to enjoy in the hospital or perhaps at home or during one of his rare final visits to his office. I was at the ready with oysters, or black bean soup, or an omelet, or even an absolute favorite like vitello tonnato, smoked steak sandwich, or oyster stew. But that was not to be. His habits were no longer providing him with much comfort, and few of us could conjure fresh ways to bring him pleasure. It was a bittersweet gift to me and to the restaurant that Roger made an ill-advised final trip to Union Square Cafe just a very short time before he died. It was lunchtime. He held court at a cafe table near the bar, not because we had given away his table, but because he could no longer amble down the steps toward Table 38. He managed a meek smile when I approached the table. No jabbing at the air, without his trademark ascot, and looking gaunt. I leaned over, kissed him on his forehead, and in a voice loud enough that only two or three people at his table could hear it, I told him that he looked tired, and was in sore need of a haircut. He looked at me with that wry smile for the last time, and said, "I love you too, baby."

Danny Meyer is the president of the Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and other restaurants, including, most recently, The Modern, Cafe 2, and Terrace 5 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

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