Untitled opened on the ground floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City when the museum moved downtown to Gansevoort Street. In the meatpacking district, under the umbrella of uncertainty in a new location and as part of a larger picture, its success depended on more than tasty bites and good service. What happened next is etched in the diners’ and staff celebration of the restaurant’s third birthday this month, a culture of so much more than menus and mouthfuls. In Untitled, the Union Square Hospitality Group has created a culture of cordiality in an artful space.
Gia SanAngelo is the general manager of Untitled, which she says is just over the new restaurant hump and blossoming into its own. In the seasonal American restaurant, where so much of the focus is on what’s available at the Union Square Greenmarket, it’s impossible to base a menu on the same demographic or guest background. Here, such oft relied-upon barometers run the gamut and are too scattered to matter much. Many of the diners are there to grab a bite while catching a glimpse of what museum curators are showing at the Whitney – which can wildly vary according to exhibit.
So what is the key to longevity at Untitled in what can be a fly-by-night industry? It’s easy to assume the answer is in the trendiest cuisine or architecture. And while Untitled remains contemporary and fresh, the staying power secret in meeting guest expectations is good old-fashioned consistency. “There are a lot of good restaurants in the world, in New York City, even on one block, in one neighborhood where it’s easy to have a good meal, but a lot of people don’t have their expectations met on a second or third visit,” says SanAngelo. “So for us as a group, we concentrate on making it great the first time, but we really want to make it great the second, third, and two-hundred-and-fiftieth time.”
SanAngelo maintains part of that process is understanding guests and what they may be looking for in each experience. Guests aren’t always forthcoming about those desires, so SanAngelo encourages servers to listen in more ways than just verbal cues. “Guests may not tell you out loud, but reading the guests at the table is important, such as if they want to be left alone for a business meeting or if they are really engaged, visiting New York and want to communicate,” says SanAngelo. “For our regulars, we want to be there for them and that consistency comes from food and service.”
SanAngelo believes a restaurant is only as good as the experience a guest has that day – not collectively over time. Guests can patronize a place for what seems like forever, but it only takes one time to shatter that. “It’s tempting to think making a mistake and letting them down once will be fine, but that’s not the case,” says SanAngelo. “Every time that customer sends friends or dines with new guests, it’s the biggest compliment they can give a restaurant in wanting to share their good experience with someone else.”
That experience includes Untitled’s food, which makes vegetables the star of the menu in bites like grilled carrots served with honey and ricotta, plus items like the light and delicate roasted monkfish served with lemongrass and dashi. “There is always something new and the menu changes rather frequently, so we are all excited when the warm weather comes to get into colorful spring and summer vegetables,” says SanAngelo, who credits the biggest shift in the industry with being how people want to eat. “Part of that is there are just more ways to eat now with the rise of delivery programs and apps and specifically in desiring really good bites of everything.”
Along with making sure the food is a standout, SanAngelo says presentation from when the guest enters the restaurant to when they walk out the door is critical to meeting expectations. This can include the varying the size of dishes, the layout of the menu, and how the servers describe it. “There is no wrong way to do it, but in our case, we don’t just have headings like appetizers, entrées, and desserts – we list our dishes as snacks, small plates, large plates, and vegetables,” says SanAngelo of the nomenclature that works well in a museum where diners may not need or want a heavy meal.
Attention to detail extends to all of the Union Square Hospitality Group premises. At Untitled, for example, tables for two will always be wider than tall, even by a few inches, so diners are always closer to their party than strangers next to them. Choosing winning locations is also part of the company culture. “A lot of effort goes into where a restaurant should be in that neighborhood, what that neighborhood needs and also details of what’s in the actual restaurant, too,” SanAngelo says. “Because Renzo Piano designed the building, that appeal transfers over to the restaurant.”
Appreciation for regulars may seem like a no-brainer, but at Untitled, regulars feel unspoken cues that make them feel welcome. “The easiest and the hardest thing to do is to really listen to the guests and not just what they are saying but what they want, what they need and make changes for their benefit over time as the industry and neighborhood changes,” SanAngelo says. “It’s not specifically any single grand gesture that keeps guests coming back, but all of the little things like remembering their child’s name, asking about their new dog, or recalling how on their last visit they mentioned going on vacation and asking about that.”
The lost art of anticipation is alive and well at Untitled, something SanAngelo says is another way to guests feel invited to return. “Knowing that that they always drink sparkling water instead of asking if we can bring one over to them, or remembering another favorite drink, or the way they like their food are other ways we let them know they are important to us,” says SanAngelo, who can’t stress enough how important a cohesive team is in making it all work. “Our team is one-hundred percent why we can be successful and why we can do what we do.”
Photo credits: Tim Schenck (interior); Melissa Horn (Gia SanAngelo); Liz Clayman (food).