It's noon at the Union Square Cafe in New York City and the dapper, easygoing owner is on his daily rounds and in the zone. "I stand and watch guests' eyes," says superhost Danny Meyer, 43, from his perch against the bar, over a comfortable hum of diners' chatter. "If I see eyes looking elsewhere—someone needs something, they're bored—that's my opening to greet a table." Some roving eyes are merely riveted on waiters carting to-diet-for classics like grilled marinated filet mignon of tuna with gingered vegetables and wasabi mashed potatoes. Meyer knows from hunger: Indeed, his business model sounds derived not from Chocolat but from Traffic: "We want people to leave raving," he says. "If we can get you once and you loved it, we can get you a second time and you'll love it. We're trying to get people addicted."

Word of mouth from the truffled trenches of Manhattan's high-end food fight is that Meyer has legions hooked. The 2001 Zagat Survey of the city's restaurants ranks Union Square and Meyer's rustic, dark-beamed Gramercy Tavern first and second, respectively, on its "most popular" list, with Union Square tops for five years running. Tabla, a mecca of Indian fusion, and Eleven Madison Park, a soaring art deco bistro next door, rate 24th and 26th. All told, Meyer's four restaurants have earned a stunning nine James Beard Foundation awards, including Union Square's win for outstanding restaurant in '97.

"Danny," says Gourmet magazine's editor-in-chief Ruth Reichl, "understands what an American restaurant should be more than almost anyone I can think of." To NBC Nightly News host Tom Brokaw, dining chez Meyer means "great food, impeccable service and never being hurried." Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten says pros from all over visit Meyer shrines to learn his tricks, and Alfred Portale, whose Gotham Bar & Grill is No. 3 in Zagat, admits, "I'm in awe of how beloved Danny is. I sometimes think of him as a religion."

Core tenets include a vast range of wines by the glass; a trained, courteous staff (as New York Times critic William Grimes notes, "There's no edge, no attitude. Danny's found there's a huge audience out there sick of being treated badly"); tables for walk-ins; and ace chefs to interpret his maverick vision of classy comfort food. "Danny," says Tabla chef Floyd Cardoz, "has an incredible palate." His mantra of "enlightened hospitality" has taken the starch out of haute cuisine and made it fun. "I love luxury dining," he says, "but who said it has to be in a stuffy place with tuxedo-clad waiters?" Though prices are substantial (Zagat says dinner at USC costs an average of $58, without drinks or tip), "Danny's fair," says superchef Daniel Boulud. Manhattan rivals, Tim Zagat says, "cost $10 or $15 more per person."

While offering value, Meyer never scrimps on effort. He writes his own newsletter to 50,000 guests; gives staff generous dining vouchers to let them rate food and service; studies reservation lists faxed to his home the night before so he knows where regulars will be and what diners' preferences are. If he spies a new area code, "I'll make sure they get special attention," he says. "I see the guest base as a constituency. You want to win every state out there."

Daniel Harris Meyer was born March 14,1958, in St. Louis, the second of three children. His parents, Morton and Roxanne, were Francophiles—Mort having served in Army intelligence in France in the early '50s—who loved to entertain in their suburban home as. Meyer père built his travel agency and tour businesses. Danny's father also manned the family grill. "If the flames got too high he'd douse them with wine, which flavored the meat," he says. "He was adventurous. I thought you were supposed to cook that way."

After his 1980 graduation from Trinity College in Connecticut, Meyer was a six-figure sales ace in New York City for a maker of anti-shoplifting tags. In late 1983, still "fascinated by food," he left sales to assistant-manage Pesca, a Manhattan fish place. "I had to get it out of my system," he says of his foray into restaurants. "I went in hoping it would put out the fire."

He felt a different kind of heat his first day, locking eyes with waitress-singer Audrey Heffernan as she squeezed by hauling dishes of butter. By the time he left in 1984 to bone up on recipes in Europe, they were cooking—Danny married her in '88—and he was chasing his dream. His brother Tom, 39, says Danny would stroll for hours in Rome "reading menus, guides, his gut" before settling in to just the right meal. "He was calibrating his vision." Meyer opened Union Square Cafe in 1985 for a lean $700,000—half of that from skeptical relatives. Not among them was his philanthropist grandfather Irving Harris, 90. "I told him he was crazy," Harris recalls. "Everyone goes broke in that business." After a strong two-star Times review, USC was on its way to the top. "The restaurant started getting good," notes Meyer, "when I figured out it was about hospitality." (He figured right: With 120,000 meals a year, Union Square grosses upward of $6 million annually.)

Meyer admits he didn't have the nerve to open Gramercy Tavern until 1994, since he had watched his father, who died of cancer in 1990, grow his own business only to go belly-up twice. "I equated expansion with failing," he says. No more: Meyer breaks ground on his newest temple of taste, Blue Smoke, a gourmet BBQ-jazz joint, in July. But he resists big-money offers to clone his places, in Las Vegas and elsewhere. "I see my restaurants as jewels," he says, "not brands." And he buffs them if tarnished. After a woman complained about her foursome's "nightmare" waiter two years ago at Eleven Madison Park, he sent her pastries, flowers and a $250 gift certificate. When Tabla's Cardoz was unable to fix an off-menu dish for a guest, Meyer was steamed. "I've never seen him so upset," says Cardoz. "His message was, 'Find a way to say yes.' " And when Reichl's Gourmet carried a story by a writer who managed to bribe his way (with a $50 bill) into, among others, Union Square when it was "booked," Meyer confessed his embarrassment in a published apology. Says Reichl: "Danny is a classy guy."

And a generous one for hunger-relief caùses, from City Harvest (which collects restaurant leftovers) to Share Our Strength (which fights international poverty and hunger). When the Bombay-born Cardoz asked Meyer to aid his homeland's earthquake survivors, a dinner auction last month at Tabla raised $70,000. Meyer is also spearheading an $11 million restoration of Manhattan's dowdy Madison Square Park, the front yard for two of his restaurants. "A rising tide," he says, "lifts all boats."

His ship has already come in. The Meyers and their four children—aged 20 months to 7 years—live in a century-old duplex Manhattan penthouse with dazzling city views. But their life hasn't been without pain: In July 1995 boy-girl twins born at 22 ½ weeks died within hours. The couple were devastated. "There's no way," says Audrey, 43, "to describe the grief and sadness of leaving the hospital empty-handed after giving birth." Meyer fought depression with therapy and jogging; he and Audrey saw a child-loss specialist and pulled together. "I never felt more in love with my wife," he says. Or more humbled. "As entrepreneur and boss, I had the crazy fantasy that I could control everything. The only choice was to grow from it." A year to the day after the first set was due, twins Gretchen and Charles were born at 6 lbs. plus. "Beautiful, fabulous whoppers," says Audrey. "It was a miracle."

These days, doting father Meyer stays so close to home he won't open a place he can't walk to in five minutes. He kicks back with tennis, skiing, an ongoing online Scrabble match with his brother, a professor of education at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and three workouts a week with a trainer. In summer the Meyers rent a Hamptons getaway. Wherever they entertain, Audrey handles the soups and desserts while Danny masters the main dishes. "He squeezes everything he can from his day," she says. "He goes deeply into the things he loves."

They keep romance on the front burner with Saturday movie-and-dinner dates, bickering not over what to see but where to eat. She's thinking dress-up, grownup, classy; he's into hiking boots, beer, pubs. "I almost never eat in my restaurants," Meyer says with a shrug. "It's not a night off for me. I look around, watch the guests and assume that there are 800 details we could be doing better. I get indigestion from the nervousness."