Volume 78 - Number 38 / February 25 - March 3, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Villager photo by Patrick Hedlund

The interior of the renovated Minetta Tavern at MacDougal St. and Minetta Lane.

French food, historic mood at McNally’s new Minetta

By Patrick Hedlund

The Village’s historic Minetta Tavern will reopen Tues., March 10, following a renovation by renowned restaurateur Keith McNally, who bought the space last year to inject new life into the 72-year-old haunt.

McNally, of Pastis and Balthazar fame, earned points with local preservationists when he announced plans early last year to retain as much of the MacDougal St. restaurant’s original character as possible.

McNally, who’s brought a Midas touch to all of his Downtown ventures, reportedly bought the corner property for $750,000, before pouring in more funds for extensive interior and exterior renovations. However, a recent look inside the former watering hole of such literary luminaries as E. E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway revealed the restaurateur’s commitment to restoring the original space’s authenticity, with only slight refinements.

“I think I’ve preserved most of the original aspects of Minetta Tavern that were worth preserving: The bar, the murals, the tin ceiling, the caricatures, the boxing photographs,” McNally wrote in an e-mail this week, as his staff was busy prepping for the opening. “But if it’s only but a shrine to the past, it won’t work. While preserving the look one also has to breathe new life into the place. And I don’t just mean raising the prices!”

The menu — featuring French-inspired selections, including Côte de Boeuf with bone marrow and Berkshire pigs’ feet — will represent a leap forward in both quality and cost from Minetta’s formerly unremarkable Italian bill of fare.

“Minetta is as much, if not more, based on food than the other restaurants,” he added. “The chefs from Balthazar — Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr — are my equal partners in this restaurant, so although the place looks O.K., the emphasis is far more on the food than anything else. Minetta Tavern was their idea anyway, not mine.”

Servers from McNally’s other award-winning restaurants will be brought in for the opening. Interest so far has been “overwhelming,” said general manager Arnold Rossman, even though Minetta hasn’t begun taking reservations.

“There’s an enormous amount of care put into how we do our job,” said Rossman, a McNally acolyte for the past six years, noting that the scene at Minetta will be a slight step up from Balthazar, the always-bustling brasserie in Soho. “It’s a tavern and restaurant at the same time, but the quality of food is of the highest.”

That doesn’t mean locals won’t be able to slip in for a pint or two at the bar the way they have in past years — just that they will likely have to jockey for a bar stool with the crowds McNally tends to draw.

“Of course I want Minetta Tavern to be a decent place for locals,” McNally said about the tavern’s former core of regulars, who came more for the familiar faces than the food. “But I say this knowing that every restaurateur under the sun says this, when half the time it’s nothing but P.R. If there’s room at the bar or the dining room, any and everyone will be welcome.”

Taka Becovic, the restaurant’s previous owner of 13 years, ended her run at Minetta last year after the property’s rent rose above $50,000.

“I think it’s really exciting,” said Andrew Berman, director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, noting McNally’s contributions to local causes, like fighting overdevelopment. “In general, Keith has a done a great job with his restaurants in both respecting and integrating history into them,” he added. “I think it’s wonderful that he’s breathing new life into that old historic space and doing it in a way that shows reverence for its history.”

When asked about the neighborhood’s ongoing commercialization — with longtime institutions like the more-than-50-year-old Le Figaro Café up the block giving way to a Mexican fast-food chain last summer — McNally responded he wouldn’t expect Minetta to bring about a different, less generic, type of change.

“I can’t say whether Minetta Tavern will affect the neighborhood for the better,” he said of the newly refurbished restaurant, which is surrounded by head shops, falafel joints and New York University student hangouts. “Probably not. And it’d be way too presumptuous of me to think otherwise.”

One of his most popular establishments, Pastis in the Meatpacking District, helped lead the current revitalization of that formerly unkempt area when he opened there a decade ago. But if that neighborhood’s transformation is any indication of what could become of his new corner of the Village, McNally wants no part of it.

“If Pastis was something of a catalyst for the changes in the Meatpacking District, as you suggest, then I should be ashamed of myself,” he said. “I can’t bear most of the changes there. The area has become ugly and excruciatingly one-dimensional. It’s diversity that makes neighborhoods work and makes them vital.”

Minetta manager Rossman explained that it’s McNally’s “humanitarian” approach to restaurants that ultimately ensures their staying power.

“It’s so humane and accessible and warm and friendly,” he said of the philosophy at Minetta. “We’re not looking for a certain clientele or avoiding a certain clientele. It kind of takes care of itself.”

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