Before you gaze at the menu at newly opened Hudson Square restaurant Union Bar and Kitchen (300 Spring Street; 646-791-0005), your eyes will likely fix on the artwork of Clifford Bailey, whose paintings are inspired by the grand lifestyle of the roaring twenties. Those, coupled with the refurbished wood, the subway tiles, and the dangling Edison light bulbs suggest that this is another new Manhattan restaurant capitalizing on our collective nostalgia for the city of the past.
But unlike the decor, the menu isn’t a throwback to the Roaring ’20s.
Owner, chief designer, and executive chef Jonathan Renert, who spent time honing his craft in Japan and San Diego, accentuates his courses with global ingredients. Hamachi tartare shares menu space with panko fried oysters, chili-infused tonkatsu (Japanese fried chicken), and SoCal-inspired taquitos. Main courses are American staples, like marinated hanger steak and a half or whole rotisserie chicken, but dessert offerings, like ancho chili brownies and peanut crunch chimichangas, veer south of the border, showcasing Renert’s experience with Mexican cuisine.
Pair your meal to equally modern cocktails like the trouble maker, made with mezcal, ancho chile liqueur, fresh lime juice, agave nectar, and absinthe. There are also eight beers on tap and a selection of wines by the glass.
We caught up with Renert, who talked to us about his new venture and finally becoming a restaurateur.
What inspired you to make the shift from your previous career in finance into the restaurant world? Was there a specific moment that convinced you to open your first restaurant?
Food and wine has been my passion since I was young. I knew I always wanted to do it but there were other things I was interested in as well. Working in Japan, I had been unhappy in finance for several years but did not have an escape route planned or even a general idea of how to go about it. Finally, after my two children were old enough to comprehend the fact their daddy was not happy, I decided to make the move and figure it out. I felt it was important, if not imperative, that my children see me happy and enjoying my life and work. It is safe to say that I have run the entire spectrum of the emotion curve — at times, all on the same day — but I would not change anything. It has been an incredible and wonderful experience. I refer to it all as “positive” stress…at least this for my business and a greater goal versus working for someone else. It sounds hokey, but I am living the dream. This is what I have always wanted, and it has been an amazing feeling.
The design of the space as well as the artwork had a classic NYC feel to it. When deciding to open your first restaurant, did you have a few ideas you were playing around with as far as the concept? Or did the space and surrounding neighborhood guide you in finalizing Union Bar and Kitchen? What personal touches or life experiences did you bring to the restaurant?
I had a general idea of the feel, but much of it was dependent on the space. The name Union is meant to reflect the fact the food, the space, and the vibe all reflect the various experiences I have had traveling and living all over the world and learning to cook different styles of food, and in general, I wanted to create a place where people want to visit. I love the fact I can have someone eating fish tacos and a mezcal margarita and watching a game at the bar while a family of four have a rotisserie chicken dinner in the back; all the while, a couple is having a romantic dinner with a fantastic rack of lamb and a high end bottle of Bordeaux. I do not mean that to sound weird, but I do want this to be a neighborhood place but also a destination. I feel the layout and the decor lend to this feel.
What were some of the challenges you did not foresee when opening your restaurant? Did anything take you by surprise, both in terms of difficulty or ease?
Everything costs more than you expect (or were told it would cost) and takes longer than you think it will (or are told it will take). I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly licenses and permits were approved. The city moved quite quickly and that helped me gut renovate and open this place in six weeks.
Do you have any advice (financial, culinary etc.) for other restaurateurs in the making?
There is no such thing as too much detail or information when it comes to this process. Provide everyone with as much written detail and be prepared to go over it multiple times….and always have more money available. It will always be more expensive than you think!
Check out the photos on the next page for an early look at the restaurant’s food and drink offerings.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 2, 2014