Volume 78 / Number 9 - July 30 - August 5, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photo by Gabriel Zucker

Butcher-block paper covers the windows of the Minetta Tavern as a historically sensitive renovation goes on inside.

Hoping that Joe Gould’s haunt won’t become history

By Gabriel Zucker

Rising rents felled another fabled Village landmark in May, when the Minetta Tavern was bought by Keith McNally, the prolific restaurateur of Pastis, Balthazar and Morandi fame. Minetta Tavern, at the corner of MacDougal St. and Minetta Lane, will become McNally’s fourth restaurant when it reopens in November.

Neither the building’s landlord nor Taka Becovic, the restaurant’s former owner of 13 years, responded to The Villager’s phone calls. But rumors circulated that the rent had risen above $50,000 for the small, 71-year-old restaurant. Regulars said that they had not seen any considerable drop in business prior to the place’s closing, and speculated that, if not for the steep rent increase, Becovic would have stayed in business.

At the Minetta Tavern’s well-attended “last supper,” the bartender announced that Becovic was planning to open a new restaurant with the same staff, and had customers sign an e-mail list to stay informed.

McNally first began thinking about buying the Minetta Tavern last December. Word of his purchase spread when he applied for a liquor license transfer in March. In a move that pleased some preservationists, McNally announced at the start that he intends to preserve as much as he can of the historic eatery.

“I didn’t buy the Minetta Tavern in order to change it,” McNally wrote in an e-mail, though he noted that he would have to renovate the kitchen. “I bought it because it was — and still is — a very beautiful place.”

Minetta Tavern is renowned for its distinctive interior. Murals of Village sights and scenes cover the walls, and the wooden bar is original from 1937. McNally bought not only the restaurant but everything inside of it, down to the paper cutouts that line the bar.

“All the murals will be preserved, as will the bar and almost everything else,” McNally wrote.

In the same vein, when asked whether the restaurant had a name yet, McNally said, “Yes, it has a really good name — The Minetta Tavern.”

Construction seems to have commenced on the restaurant’s interior in recent weeks. But McNally says he is not ridding the restaurant of its lore, but rather reinstating it.

“There are…parts of the Tavern that have been ‘modernized’ over the past 25 years in a manner which I found sufficiently disturbing to make me decide to replace them with something much closer to their original state,” he explained.

Still, the MacDougal St. haunt’s six-month hiatus has some patrons wondering what’s really happening inside.

“I don’t understand why it’s taking him as long as it is to open the place back up, unless he’s going to rip it all up,” said Bob Martinez, who was a regular at Minetta Tavern the last four years. “Even if he’s going to redo the kitchen, that should only take two months. I can only think he’s not going to keep his word,” Martinez concluded.

Regardless of the interior, other local residents felt that a McNally-owned Minetta Tavern would simply be not the same.

“The places that are traditional to the area are losing their leases and going out of business,” said Doris Diether, a longtime Village resident and veteran member of Community Board 2. She pointed to the loss of Meat Market institution Florent restaurant last month as another example.

The Minetta Tavern was historically a famed spot on the beatnik and celebrity circuit. Literary luminaries Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway frequented the restaurant. Joe Gould allegedly wrote parts of his infamous “Oral History of the World” at the tavern, and a portrait of him can be found on the wall. The restaurant was featured in the movies “Sleepers” and “Mickey Blue Eyes.” Rumor has it that Reader’s Digest was born in the basement.

“It was a historic restaurant and an important part of our neighborhood lore,” wrote Bradford Sussman, a 15-year resident of the block, in an e-mail. “Additionally, it served as a place of employment for generations of artists in need of day jobs while developing their crafts.”

“You just knew that there was something different about the place,” said Martinez.

More recently, Matthew Broderick and Mathew McConaughey raved about the restaurant to newspapers.

Despite cries that McNally may be renovating away the historic tavern’s authenticity, many foodies have pointed out in recent months that the restaurant had lost its touch and was offering overpriced and unsubstantial Italian fare. While the bar was often crowded, a sparsely populated dining room was not uncommon for Becovic’s Minetta Tavern, especially on weeknights.

Not surprisingly, the food at the new Minetta Tavern will be largely French, designed by Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr — chefs at Pastis and Balthazar and McNally’s “equal partners” at Minetta Tavern. Still, said Nasr, “We don’t intend to replicate what we are doing at Balthazar and Pastis.” Nasr said the atmosphere at the new restaurant would inspire a different kind of food.

“Minetta has a real timelessness about it,” wrote Nasr in an e-mail. “It is every bit a tavern and therefore masculine and bold. We want to complement that with our menus and some things in this more intimate dining room that the sheer scale of Balthazar and Pastis prohibits.

“We will focus as much as possible on what is locally grown, including the meat, fish and cheese,” he continued. “Preparations will be simple, bold and straightforward, the trademarks of solid bistro cooking.”

While the food may improve under McNally, Minetta Tavern’s fans point out that they were never focused on it.

“The food at Minetta could vary,” admitted Martinez, who claimed that while he always enjoyed his meals, some friends had been less pleased — especially when the kitchen was busy.

“It certainly wasn’t fine dining,” added Dan Lapin, a food blogger who used to frequent the restaurant. “The people were very friendly. It was a real neighborhood restaurant — there was no shtick about it.”

Lapin recalled how more than 20 years ago when, as a self-described “poor student,” he was working to pay for college, and visiting the Minetta Tavern at night.

“I was working selling Christmas trees in Chelsea, and I would head down there almost every day after work,” he said. On one of his last nights there, right around Christmas, he gave the bartender an especially generous tip — and his money was returned.

“I’ll never forget the bartender — he literally yelled at me,” laughed Lapin. “He told me I was working to go to school, and he told me to take the money back.”

Lapin’s sister Ruth, who lived across the street from the restaurant in the early 1980s, was also a regular.

“For four years, I ate there twice a week,” she said. “It was like what you imagined a classic Italian restaurant to be. I drank my first martini there with my cousin. We actually ended up drinking seven martinis each.”

Even as she lamented the Minetta Tavern’s closing, however, Lapin questioned how much really had been lost with Becovic’s departure.

“I think the neighborhood’s so lost it doesn’t even matter anymore,” she said, resigned. She now leaves in Brooklyn. “I loved that restaurant, it was sweet, it was great. But there’s not all that much charm left on MacDougal St. anymore.”

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