On the afternoon before Christmas, restaurateur Henry Meer served 320 meals to homeless families at City Hall restaurant, sharing a feast on fine china and sending each child off with armloads of presents.
This was Meer’s 18th and final holiday dinner for the homeless, as the celebrated restaurant on Duane Street in Tribeca is closing on Dec. 31.
“It was awesome, I have to say, a day full of wonderful emotion, not just because we knew we were doing something important, but the smiles and love and gratitude we were getting from people eating will stay with us forever,” the chef and owner told The Jewish Week afterwards.
With cloth napkins at the set tables, the families are served by volunteer waiters, who bring three successive courses to each person, including turkey. There’s music and dancing, and as they leave, the children file by a friend of Meer’s dressed as Santa Claus, who piles on gifts. Then the next busloads arrive.
“When we talk about tikkun olam, we talk about the baby steps of doing repair. There was so much going on — I’m not sure who was being repaired,” he says, referring to the dinner guests and the volunteers. “We were all so grateful that we were all together. They escape from their other lives in city shelters. We escape from our lives of not appreciating how important life is.”
The restaurant, not far from its namesake, has been a gathering place for city officials, judges, lawyers, lobbyists and politicians. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called earlier this week to thank Meer and say that the place will be missed.
“We fought every day since we opened to stay in business. That’s the nature of our industry,” Meer says, explaining that the closing is due to a combination of factors — “not just the rising rent,” but the added costs of operating a small business in New York City with changing regulations and the rising costs of supplies. He is proud that they weathered Sept. 11 and Hurricane Sandy as well as the financial downturn.
With its high ceilings, original cast iron columns and large black-and-white photos of vintage street scenes — including stands on Orchard Street, a candy store on Pitt Street and kosher wine for sale during prohibition — circling the walls, the restaurant evokes old New York.
He says, “What I keep hearing from a lot of people is that the food was great, but it was more about the coming in and being cared for.”
The menu features prime steak, chicken, fish, burgers, salads and sides meant to be shared. For his kipa-wearing clients who eat only salad, and for those who keep kosher and will eat fish, Meer makes sure that the dishes are prepared carefully.
He plans to open Lore Wine and Spirits at Westfield World Trade Center, the redeveloped shopping concourse beneath the “Oculus” designed by Santiago Calatrava, sometime in the spring.
“I’ll miss everything,” Meer says. “I’ll miss the matzah ball soup and the people who are eating it; I’ll miss my team, such an integral part of the success; my guys — I mean the gentlemen in the kitchen who’ve been cooking with me for 25 years, first at other places and they came here with me and stayed. I’ll miss Ali, a Muslim from Senegal who makes better matzah balls than a Jewish grandmother.”