Austrian-born restaurateur Peter Grünauer opened Grünauer restaurant, grunauerkc.com, in the Freight House six years ago.
Now Grünauer has opened what he playfully describes as an “outpost” of the Kansas City location on New York’s Upper East Side.
Both restaurants are co-owned by Grünauer and his son, Nicholas. Nicholas and his sister, Elisabeth Grünauer, run the Kansas City restaurant while Peter presides over Grünauer Bistro, grunauernyc.com, in New York. The family also owns Gasthaus Grünauer, gasthaus-gruenauer.com, in Vienna.
Many Kansas Citians may not know that Peter Grünauer has a decades-long track record of running Viennese restaurants and cafes in New York, including Vienna 79, which nabbed a rare four-star review from the New York Times in 1981.
Perhaps it was that pedigree that earned Grünauer Bistro a cover story in the Times food section two days before opening night.
We caught up with Grünauer on a recent visit to his Kansas City restaurant and spoke with him again by phone on Sunday morning of opening weekend in New York.
Q: What was opening night like?
A: Absolutely amazing. We had planned soft opening Wednesday and Thursday before the grand opening Friday night, but after the write-up in the Times, beginning Wednesday night we were turning away 100 people every night — no room! We are fully booked for the coming weeks. It’s a great feeling.
Q: How does the menu compare with Grünauer in Kansas City?
A: It is almost identical, except obviously there is a different price structure in New York because operating costs for a restaurant are so much higher here.
Q: It’s early, but what are your best-selling dishes so far?
A: We served 125 people every night, and guess what sold the best?
A: The Kalbs (veal) Wiener Schnitzel with potato salad and cucumber salad!
I always said my goal, having grown up in Vienna, was to make the best Wiener (Viennese) Schnitzel in America. Nobody can touch it (laughs), not even Jean-Georges (chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant).
Q: Like Jean-Georges, your Vienna 79 got a 4-star New York Times review in 1981. Are you aiming for that level of dining experience?
A: No. That is almost unattainable anymore. I was very, very lucky, because I was the first Austrian or German restaurant in New York to ever get that, and I was only 29 years old. We were classic, authentic, high-end cuisine.
I cook better now than 35 years ago, but I don’t want the pressure of four stars. I put the word “bistro” in the name because I want people to be relaxed and have fun and have great food at a manageable price. I’m aiming at 2 stars at best. That would make me proud.
Q: How is running a restaurant in New York different than running a restaurant in Kansas City?
A: In New York, of course, you have a lot of pressure. You’ve got 28,000 restaurants in New York. The pressure of competition is much more difficult than in Kansas City.
Not to belittle Kansas City — it is very difficult there as well with a lot of competition, with Lidia’s next door and Jack Stack next door. The fantastic people you find in the Midwest and in Kansas City, you never find in New York.
In New York, the clientele is very picky. It is very, very, very tough to operate in New York; you have to fight for your market share. But after 45 years, I know the market.
Q: Why do you think people like your food?
A: Our cuisine — German-Austrian, central European — was almost forgotten.
Historically the Upper East side was Germantown. There used to be 75 historic restaurants with Czech, Hungarian, Viennese cuisine and now they are all gone. I’m the only one. But it’s coming back big time.
Every night I go out into the dining room and I talk with the guests and at least 10 tables will be speaking German. Some are second- or third-generation German-Americans, but they speak the language, and some studied or worked in Germany and they want to taste that food again.
I get the same thing in Kansas City. You would not believe how many people in Kansas City speak German.
Q: You said you wanted to use Grünauer Bistro to raise awareness of Grünauer and of Kansas City. How are you doing that?
A: I am a huge fan of Kansas City, and I already have things from Kansas City in the bistro.
Boulevard Beer is the only American beer I serve. When I tell customers it is the best beer in America they always say, from Kansas City? In Missouri?
I also serve Rieger’s Kansas City Whiskey, and I offer complimentary Christopher Elbow chocolates on each table, and I have six beautiful vases by Archival Pottery, just around the corner from the Freight House. I’m very proud of all of them.