How Porchlight Fits In to Danny Meyer's USHG Empire

Union Square Hosplitality Group managing partner Mark Maynard-Parisi at Porchlight
Union Square Hosplitality Group managing partner Mark Maynard-Parisi at Porchlight
Courtesy USHG

Danny Meyer may get the spotlight, but Porchlight (271 Eleventh Avenue, 212-981-6188) is really the handiwork of Blue Smoke managing partner Mark Maynard-Parisi, who found a window into the West Chelsea bar scene where there literally wasn't one before. "It was a full catering kitchen, and all the windows were boarded up, it had drop ceilings," he says of the address. "But I saw the bones of the building and I knew what it could be."

Maynard-Parisi saw the potential as his friendship with the landlord evolved from 2010, and when he saw the rustic-industrial space down the block from Union Square Events as both a conceptual fit for the area and a business investment in a burgeoning neighborhood, he made his move. However, he bristles at the notion that Porchlight is a concept bar. "I just wanted something as comfortable as a neighborhood bar, but special enough you have to travel for it," he says.

"All of our restaurants are real. That's such an important thing; they're not authentic to a concept, but authentic to who we are. I don't think Blue Smoke or Gramercy Tavern is a concept, so likewise we don't feel Porchlight is a concept. We feel it's something the neighborhood needs, and that makes it easier, because you don't have to convince anyone of anything."

Convincing diners of exploring a new neighborhood, on the cusp of gentrification, has always been a Danny Meyer trademark, however, from Union Square Cafe's opening in 1985 to the Blue Smoke debut on East 27th Street in 2002.

How Porchlight Fits In to Danny Meyer's USHG Empire

"When I opened Blue Smoke it was one of the best places to find a prostitute," he recalls. "It's amazing to think of that. Battery Park City, though not a dangerous neighborhood, was in need of service; Gramercy was like that too. It's not uncommon for us to take a little risk in terms of betting on a neighborhood." And while he acknowledges Manhattan remains Union Square Hospitality's wheelhouse, he can foresee a bar like Porchlight eventually coming to Brooklyn. "I wouldn't want a 10,000-square-foot bar in Chelsea or in Brooklyn, but a 3,000-square-foot Porchlight? I can fathom that," he says, looking to the future.

If anything, Porchlight is an evolution of Blue Smoke, with a food menu crafted by its cross-town chef Jean-Paul Bourgeois, who developed the small-plates menu of dishes like boiled peanut hummus and smoked swordfish in consultation with head bartender Nick Bennett, formerly of Booker & Dax. "There are so many Southern things that go well with drinks, and they collaborated on everything together — 'Hey, I'm working on a whiskey drink, what do you think will go well with it? I'm working on a savory dish, what drink would you like to have with that?' " Maynard-Parisi says, noting the collaborative spirit is pervasive among the entire staff, who have a hand in the daily rotating cocktails and happy-hour drink specials.

There's a team of industry veterans from inside and outside the Union Square Hospitality family working at Porchlight, and like all Maynard-Parisi and Meyer's properties, the common core, he suggests, is niceness. "We demand a lot of our employees, but what we demand most is a generous spirit — no order divas, no 'my way or the highway.' If Nick were not a nice guy, he wouldn't be working at Porchlight."

One more thing Bennett isn't? Poached. "We didn't poach anyone, and even if I did," he jokes, "I wouldn't admit it. It's just like not being a concept. It's easier not to do that."

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