‘Tradition’ lives on at Union League

A painting of a pheasant hangs above the coat closet. The molded ceiling, large glass windows and red-veined marble exemplify traditional refinement.

Even the structure of the Union League Cafe reinforces the aura of tradition that defines the New Haven landmark. Carved above the fireplace is an inscription reading, “This club house stands on the home lot where Roger Sherman lived and where he entertained George Washington in 1789.”

Union League promises traditional ambience as well as a more casual dining option. City officials say its success has helped boost New Haven’s dining scene.
Rachel Engler
Union League promises traditional ambience as well as a more casual dining option. City officials say its success has helped boost New Haven’s dining scene.

In the midst of the new and exotic dining options along Chapel Street and throughout the New Haven area, the Union League Cafe has come to represent tradition.

But the restaurant is only 15 years old.

The Union League Cafe, which has been run by lifelong friends Jean-Pierre Vuillermet and manager Jean-Michel Gammariello since its opening in 1993, represented the beginning of Chapel Street’s revitalization and continues to participate in New Haven’s renaissance, said Mike Morand, the associate vice president of Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs. Morand said “their success has inspired others.”

“The Union League, Jean-Pierre and Jean-Michel were really among the first to take New Haven dining to a higher level and to maintain that higher quality,” he said.

Morand said New Haven’s recent emergence as “a dining destination” would not have been possible before the Union League’s success. He said the assortment of restaurants that fit into a wide range of budgets, from the nuevo-Latino cuisine of Sabor and upscale Ibiza to scone-selling bookstore Atticus located one block away, has “made New Haven a place people want to come.”

But despite Union League’s position at the forefront of the Elm City dining scene, Vuillermet and Gammariello said they do not innovate for the sake of innovation. Instead, they said they maintain a tradition of quality and understand that their patrons have certain expectations of the menu and ambiance. When asked why he continues to bring Jonathan Edwards College’s freshmen to the restaurant for “fireside chats” at the beginning of each year, Master Gary Haller said the choice is an obvious one.

“The food is competitive with a quality [New York City] restaurant, the service is excellent, the staff friendly, they have a good wine selection,” he wrote in an e-mail. “What more could one ask? Or say?”

Arched stained-glass windows that face Chapel Street and, inside, mirrors lining the walls of the main dining room create an impression of grandeur.

The two rooms in the main dining area represent the Union League Cafe’s dual role as both a symbol of tradition and a culinary and professional innovator. In the more spacious front room, customers wearing jackets and ties can be spotted eating foie gras and lamb. The few younger guests are accompanied by older patrons. In between courses, the wait staff rearrange place settings so that each course begins with an orderly table.

A more casual dining area is located in the back. The atmosphere and aesthetic are relaxed. Instead of the unfinished hardwood of the main dining room, the bar features exposed brick floors and modern paintings hung on lightly painted walls. Unlike in the front room, the tables have no tablecloths.

Across the street from the gates of Vanderbilt Hall, the restaurant has come to occupy a central place in the Yale dining scene. The University owns the building where the cafe is located and sometimes holds events there, from dinners for the Afro-American Cultural Center to Haller’s fireside chats.

Every May, Vuillermet said, the restaurant becomes particularly busy for commencement weekend. He said he starts taking reservations Jan. 1, and by the end of the day, all the tables are filled.

While the restaurant may be popular with parents, some students interviewed said they find the restaurant’s traditionalism a turnoff. Jasper Frank ’10, a recent patron, said he found the atmosphere oppressive.

“The other diners, the atmosphere and the waiters were almost all a little too well-behaved,” Frank said.

Still, the Union League Cafe has many faithful customers from the Yale community. Some Yale professors have been coming to the restaurant for 12 years. Vuillermet describes how one usual customer, Timothy Dwight Master Robert Thompson, “has practically his own table” and usually orders the spinach salad as he sits at this table by the fireplace and reads.

Maitre d’ Edward Gries said he loves the “familial atmosphere” among the Union League Cafe’s staff. This feeling was evident last Wednesday when a staff member cut himself on a broken glass and Vuillermet left the busy kitchen to accompany the injured man to the hospital.

Gammariello first came to New Haven more than 20 years ago to be a cook at Robert Henry, a restaurant housed in the building that is now home to the Union League Cafe. Robert Henry, where he worked with longtime friend Vuillermet, was more formal, requiring patrons to wear a suit and tie.

While Gammariello briefly left New Haven to return to his native France, Vuillermet stayed behind and married the daughter of the owner of Robert Henry. Soon after, he purchased the restaurant and in 1993 founded the Union League Cafe, named in reference to the building’s past function as the home to the Union League Club, a private gentleman’s club from the late 19th century. Vuillermet said he made a number of changes, including dropping prices “quite a bit” and making the food “a little more simple.”

Vuillermet offered Gammariello a job as manager of his new restaurant. Gammariello accepted and the two friends were reunited.

While Gammariello admits now that “not every day is wonderful,” he says he enjoys sharing his passion for food and wine with his customers. He envisions the Union League Cafe as a “food spa” where customers can come to relax.

Three years ago, the Union League Cafe expanded to include an upstairs banquet room available for private functions, which Vuillermet said has brought new customers to the restaurant. While the owners considered an outdoor expansion to the site of late New Haven restaurant Roomba, Vuillermet and Gammariello have no ambitions for expansion any time soon. Gammariello said he has high hopes for a new sous-chef — an American “who is working with Jean-Pierre and bringing a new approach to the food.”

But ultimately, Gammariello said he does not feel the need for a stylistic makeover in the context of New Haven’s increasingly innovative restaurant scene.

“We change every microsecond,” he said. “We change with the world, not with trendiness but with a certain culture … a certain culture of service.”

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