If you encounter Mike Cunningham on the streets of New York, chances are he’ll be on his bicycle, sporting a chapeau, peddling to or from Gramercy Tavern. Since 2006, the lifelong New Yorker has been a three-times-a-week regular at Danny Meyer’s lauded restaurant, considered by many to be one of America's top dining destinations. Located just north of Union Square Park, the fixed-menu, multi-course Dining Room is bisected by the more casual, but equally refined, à la carte Tavern, where Cunningham likes to post up at the bar.
It might sound like a tony setting to become a regular, but when it comes to establishing a routine, Cunningham is the kind of person who prioritizes atmosphere as much as the food and drinks. "Everyone's like, ‘You must be a millionaire eating there so often,’ but actually it's a pretty reasonable place, especially for the quality experience you're getting,” explains Cunningham. "They don't rest on their laurels and just think they're the best. They're always focusing on being better and have such a strong attention to detail.”
The 60-year-old jazz aficionado has worked in film and TV production since graduating from NYU film school. He started out as a production assistant on Martin Scorsese's After Hours and Susan Seidelman's Desperately Seeking Susan, two '80s-era cult classics. He was part of the team on Sesame Street for over a decade and works as a tech manager behind the scenes on numerous productions and award shows. "I've worked a million shows," he says. "I'm the longest-serving crew member on the Tony Awards. I've been a part of that for almost 35 years."
The disruption of the pandemic has affected Cunningham's line of work almost as much as the restaurant industry, including his beloved Gramercy Tavern, which has cycled through extended closures, staffing issues and limited hours of operation. Since March 2020, Cunningham has been splitting his time between his East Village apartment and his family home on Great Neck, a Long Island village with a history of attracting what he calls "showbiz types" like W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Irving Berlin and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Just as things were starting to look somewhat normal this fall, the omicron variant wreaked havoc once again on bars, restaurants and livelihoods. Cunningham has been back to Gramercy on and off, but he's eager to return to his three-times-a-week routine. With so many unknown factors still at play, however, that will have to wait. "It's hard to be a regular during COVID times in New York,” says Cunningham, “but I'll be back."
How long have you been coming to Gramercy Tavern?
I went to Gramercy a few times back when Tom Colicchio was the chef there. It was the restaurant then, or one of them. But it was when I first tasted Michael Anthony's food when he got there that everything clicked for me. Since 2006 I started coming in a few times a week for lunch. Back then the soup and sandwich special used to change daily instead of weekly like it is now. They used to call me the king of the soup-and-sandwich lunch special.
When can we usually find you here?
I don't go to dinner much at the Gramercy. I might stop in late for drinks, but I always go in for lunch. You meet some interesting people at lunch. Everyone has a little more time for you and you get to talk to the bartenders and everyone at the bar. It's that leisurely New Orleans thing. Come in, have a great meal, have a couple drinks. A restaurant should take you away from your hectic life and change your attitude for an hour or two. I always leave Gramercy way better off than I was when I got there.
Do you have a favorite seat at the bar?
The commanding seat is the one at the corner by the window that looks out over the entire room. There was a regular named Arnie who had been going there forever and that was known as his seat. Every Friday night he would come in and hold court. He was a really charming guy. Looked like William Powell. I heard he retired and moved to Vermont. That's my favorite seat.
What's your go-to drink?
This is going to be boring, but I love Gramercy Tavern's iced tea. It's the best in the city. I always drink an ocean of iced tea when I'm there. But I love Negronis. That's my favorite drink. I like the science of it. This is a drink to get your body ready to eat. That Italian way where everything is delicious but also has a purpose to your meal.
What's your favorite feature of the Tavern itself?
I love the light coming in through those big windows and all those beautiful flowers. Roberta, the woman in charge of the flowers, follows the season and there are slight changes and edits to the displays almost daily. Whatever is happening in nature is what you'll find in her displays at Gramercy Tavern. There's such a strong attention to detail in every facet of everything they do. They never phone it in. I don't know if you can say that about a lot of other restaurants. You know how in New Orleans they have the word lagniappe? That little extra gift? The flowers are something they don't have to do but they spend a lot of money on and it just adds that extra touch that makes it so special. Even if they don't register with you, they just set the mood as soon as you walk in.
Do you interact much with the people sitting next to you?
I'm like the town crier, in more ways than one. When people have a question, the bartender will always say, "Talk to him." The city is important to me and I'm always tapped into what's going on so I'll know this cool thing that's happening at the Met or Greenwood Cemetery.
And the other regulars are so interesting. There was one guy who ran hospitals, a multi-Tony Award-winning art director who did all the big Broadway hits in the '70s and '80s, a publishing executive who was an absolute jazz scholar. Even now he'll email me a link to a YouTube clip from 1957 with, "You've got to listen to this." When you go in there interesting things happen all the time. It's never about just grabbing a sandwich and moving along.
Do you have a favorite celebrity sighting at Gramercy Tavern?
I love architecture and I.M. Pei used to come into Gramercy all the time. He never stopped at the front desk; he'd just go sit wherever he wanted. They loved him. They didn't care. One day I'm sitting at the bar reading the Times and he sits right next to me. I noticed him glancing at a section of the paper I'm not reading, so I look at him and say, "Would you care to read this?" He thanked me and took it and read it and after he put it down, we started talking and I tell him, respectfully, I'm a fan and I love architecture. I ended up talking to him for 15 minutes about architecture and life. That's something someone would pay $5,000 for—to have lunch with I.M. Pei and talk architecture. It was one of those amazing, only-in-New York experiences. He kept coming in until the very end of his life and he'd always say hello to me. One time I was sitting at a table and someone is pushing him in his wheelchair and he paused to say hello. That's the Gramercy Tavern in a nutshell.
What makes a regular, a good regular?
I think it boils down to respect. Understanding the amount of work that goes into the jobs everyone's doing at the bar and acknowledging it by treating them with respect. You've got to be pleasant. It helps to joke with the bartenders a little. Have a sense of humor about things. These are highly trained people doing a demanding job. Just be a kind person. Like you'd be with a friend.
Do you have a favorite bartender at Gramercy Tavern?
Come on, man. I can't answer that. I'd get in trouble if I ever said I had a favorite.
And you're really into jazz, right?
My gateway drug to Danny Meyer was Blue Smoke, and Jazz Standard was my home. It broke my heart when Blue Smoke and the Jazz Standard closed. The first time I ever met Danny Meyer I was at the bar at Blue Smoke and the staff had given him a big build-up about me and my patronage and I was gushing about how much I love the place, and the first thing he ever said to me was, "How can I make this better for you?"