Growing up, Henry Meer didn’t eat at home
very often. His mother didn’t cook much, so his family would eat out in its Yorkville neighborhood or travel to the Lower East Side to eat at Ratner’s or pick up appetizing at Russ & Daughters. On Sundays, his grandfather would shuttle from the West Side with glass juice jars filled with homemade soup — mushroom barley or split pea — and sealed with waxed paper and rubber bands. From an early age, Meer loved to eat and realized that he’d better learn to cook.
A man with a soulful demeanor, Meer, 55, has been cooking professionally for more than 30 years. He is now the chef and owner of the popular downtown restaurant City Hall, which he opened in 1998. Located on Duane Street, not far from its namesake, the handsome high-ceilinged dining room attracts city officials, judges, lawyers, lobbyists and politicians at lunchtime, and business people, local folks and families for dinner (kids are charged their age in dollars).
Restaurants may be the last holdouts of family businesses in New York City. But as mom-and-pop grocers, bookstores and boutiques are rapidly folding, individually owned restaurants are also feeling the pinch of the economic downturn.
Meer says he is something of a dinosaur: In a city with more than 20,000 restaurants, the number of fine dining establishments that are run by a chef proprietor are dwindling. Many restaurants are owned by corporations, or have sister restaurants around the city and country. He says that ever-rising costs, maintenance and the city’s changing regulations make New York a challenging place, but he remains passionate about his work, civic minded and socially conscious.
With its original cast iron columns and large black-and-white photos of vintage street scenes — among them views of stoop stands on Orchard Street, the Essex Street Market and kosher wine for sale during prohibition — City Hall evokes old New York. Soon after the restaurant opened, a woman dining there recognized the photo of “Chick’s Candy Store” on Pitt Street on the Lower East Side — her late husband, in the photo, was Chick.
The 1863 building used to house a shoe factory, as did other buildings in the neighborhood. The dining room was the showroom of the Lester Pincus Shoe Corporation, and shoes were manufactured on the upper floors. On the lower level, in the Granite Room — available for rent for private parties (though the restaurant is not kosher, kosher caterers use the space) — the bar is made of 19th-century bricks and the old coal chute is visible. The room’s uncommon ceiling is actually the underside of the sidewalk.
The menu features prime steak, chicken, fish, burgers, salads, and sides that are meant to be shared. Meer has kipa-wearing clients who eat only cold salad, and for those who keep kosher and will eat fish, Meer makes sure that their dishes are prepared carefully. The chef likes to say that the restaurant’s cheesecake is the best in New York, and is also very proud of his classic chicken soup. It is made in 55-gallon pots, and features “gold coins” (shimmering traces of schmaltz, or chicken fat) on the top — with matzah balls that float. Often, Meer serves complementary bowls of soup to regular customers, first-timers or people dining alone; he’s mindful of his nurturing grandfather with his jars of homemade soup.
At age 15, Meer got his start in the restaurant business when he was hired as a dishwasher. Luckily for him, the chef, who enjoyed free drinks from the bar, preferred sitting to standing and trained the young man to cook.
After graduating from the University of Florida and studying politics, he enrolled at the Culinary Academy of America in upstate Hyde Park. In his externship, he worked at the Manhattan French restaurant, La Côte Basque, and later worked at another temple of French cuisine, Lutèce, under the mentorship of Andre Soltner. He recalls that as the only American among a lot of French workers in the kitchen, he faced a certain amount of hazing, but nonetheless learned a lot. Looking back, he says he wasn’t as humble as he probably should have been, but was one of the hardest workers there.
About City Hall, he says, “This is not culinary arts. We’re craftsmen. I’m not a creator but a nurturer. I feed people,” he says.
During a morning interview at City Hall, Meer’s 8-year old daughter comes down into the restaurant from their home upstairs, and like a cat comfortable with her quarters, slinks around the restaurant, where she has grown up. When Meer takes a reporter downstairs, a pile of her board games line the stairwell. For Meer, the great thing about living above the restaurant is that he and his family have dinner together every night.
His days begin early, waking his daughter to say Shema together and then taking her uptown to the Heschel School. By 9:30 he’s back at City Hall, where he wears many hats, working with a multi-national staff of 56 people.
Meer has had done every job in the restaurant and pitches in to stack the dishwasher, mop the floors, serve food, bus tables and interact with guests. As he gives a tour of the kitchen, he points out the pastry area, the wine room and then a washer and dryer in an alcove — and I’d guess that if he were alone, he probably would have tossed the wash into the dryer.
About an hour before lunch and dinner are served, the staff sits down for “family meal,” where they’re served a meal cooked by the chefs. After that they have “pre-meal,” a staff meeting with a bit of pep rally, in which they share information about the day’s offerings and motivational advice. Several of his most longstanding employees have been promoted from within — dishwashers who have become cooks, busboys who’ve become waiters. An abhorrer of waste, he encourages the staff to take as much food as they would like — but to finish everything that they take.
He sees waste as morally irresponsible. “One of the most expensive piece of equipment in the kitchen is not the stove or refrigerator, but the $15 plastic garbage can, “which we fill up with food every day.”
“Judaism informs my life, which translates down to my work,” Meer says. “I try to be a better employer because of my Judaism.” Shabbat mornings, Meer attends services uptown.
Every Christmas Eve, since 1999, he closes the restaurant to host a lunch for 300 needy New Yorkers, mostly single mothers. They dine as any customer of the restaurant, served full meals on china and glassware. The mayor and governor often stop by.
Whenever asked, as chefs often are, what he would choose for his last meal, Meer looks back to his childhood and without hesitation mentions the meal his mother would make: three soft scrambled eggs served with buttered rye toast.
City Hall Cheese Cake
2 lbs. cream cheese
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, plus 3 yolks
1 vanilla bean,
4 oz. sour cream
1/4 cup heavy cream
Blend all ingredients together.
12 crushed graham crackers
1/4 cup melted butter
Combine the crust ingredients and press them onto the bottom
of a cheesecake pan.
Add the wet ingredients to the cheesecake pan. Place the pan in a larger pan of water and cook in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for 1 hour or until done.
Remove and let cool
on a rack.