Brighter Lights, Bigger City: Odeon’s Second Act


The writer Dirk Wittenborn, who often accompanied his good friend John Belushi there, said, “No place was open that late.” (And it no longer is, closing down no later than midnight these days, reflecting the new lock step of affluent Manhattanites to the Google calendar.) Many longtime customers recall Mr. Belushi taking over the kitchen one night, although getting the particulars is about as likely as explaining the Cuban missile crisis.

There were other actors as well, like Harvey Keitel, who went there with a date early on, using the occasion to try out a long-coveted belted leather trench coat like the ones he used to see in movies about World War II but was nervous to wear himself.

“I thought ‘Now’s the perfect time, because no one’s around on the street,’” Mr. Keitel said. “So I put on the trench coat, I go down to the Odeon, and there’s a guy sitting there in a booth on the opposite side of the bar, and he looks at me and he says, ‘Harv.’ Real slow. I peer down and it’s Jack Nicholson. And the next thing out of his mouth is ‘You’re wearing a leather trench coat?’ That was the first and last time I ever wore it.”

Another evening that didn’t end so well was a party celebrating the gallerist Mary Boone’s 30th birthday, with the sort of crowd that she described in New York glitterati shorthand as “everybody.”

This meant a pile of big artists, among them David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Sometime during the course of the evening, Mr. Schnabel and Mr. Basquiat went downstairs to the bathrooms and decided to do a little art project of their own, soaking all the toilet paper in the toilet bowls, after which they threw them up on the walls.

“Like snowballs,” Ms. Boone said, describing perhaps the duo’s only creative efforts from that time not to be sold later on by her or Mr. Gagosian, another super-gallerist regular at the Odeon, for millions of dollars.

“Keith just threw us out,” Ms. Boone said. “We didn’t get to have birthday cake.”

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The artist and critic Edit DeAk, center, and Andy Warhol, right, discuss Polaroids that had just been taken at the table, with New York City Ballet dancer Ulrik Trojaborg, left, in 1986.

Credit
Paige Powell

Over the next few years, the Odeon’s supremacy (“a downtown Elaine’s,” is how the publisher Morgan Entrekin put it) only seemed to increase. Keith Haring began coming in, as did Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and Calvin Klein.

But by the publication of Mr. McInerney’s first novel, “Bright Lights, Big City” in 1984, which had a picture of the Odeon on the cover and scenes set there, the relationship between Brian and Keith was beginning to fray.

“Keith was the driving pulse of the place,” Brian McNally said. “I was, by definition, less responsible.” (Keith said at first that he would prefer to answer questions about the Odeon over email. When asked for a little more than that, he said he’d like not to be interviewed at all.)

Brian left the operation and went on to start a number of restaurants, including 150 Wooster Street, the Canal Bar and, most successfully, Indochine. During the aughts, he moved to Saigon, Vietnam, where he still spends part of the year.

Keith and Lynn began colonizing the rest of the city, heading first to the Upper West Side with their second successful update on the French bistro Café Luxembourg (Odeon for the Central Park set). After that came Nell’s, a dinner spot and nightclub on West 14th Street that Ms. Wagenknecht ran until 2006. In 1989, the couple opened Lucky Strike on Grand Street.

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Jim Jarmusch, the filmmaker, left, and the fashion designer Stephen Sprouse.

Credit
Paige Powell

Following the couple’s divorce in the early ’90s, Ms. Wagenknecht bought Keith out of Café Luxembourg and the Odeon, both of which she operates today; Keith kept Lucky Strike. “She deserved it,” Brian said. “Why not?”

After a brief detour in film direction, Keith began building his empire. Many of his restaurants have been remixes of the original concept: Balthazar (which one might think of Hard Rock Odeon) in SoHo, Pastis (“Sex and the City” Odeon) in the meatpacking district, Schiller’s Liquor Bar (hipster Odeon) on the Lower East Side and Minetta Tavern (hedge-fund Odeon) in Greenwich Village. There is also Pulino’s on the Bowery, an upscale pizzeria recently refashioned as, you guessed it, yet another French bistro (Bowery Odeon).

Meanwhile, the original was changing in profound ways.

AIDS killed many of the restaurant’s loyalists, as well as its employees. “I can’t tell you how many waiters died,” Brian McNally said. Others overdosed (see Mr. Belushi 1982) or moved away, particularly as the city and the economy changed.

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Dinner in 1989 with Heather Watts, left, principal dancer with the New York City Ballet; Tim Hunt, center, Andy Warhol’s estate curator; and the author Tama Janowitz. 1989.

Credit
Paige Powell

Out went the artists. In rolled the bankers and their blond wives, their bodies honed at nearby Flywheel, followed by Bugaboo strollers. “TriBeCa became what it is today, and I left,” Mr. Bleckner said.

And though the McNallys and Ms. Wagenknecht remained and even capitalized on the transformation of the city, they are smart and introspective enough to feel somewhat conflicted about it.

Looking out a packed dining room, Ms. Wagenknecht offered that even now, when creative people have returned to the fold, she can barely identify anyone eating there. The expression on her face was actually a little sad, like a person who appears to have gotten over the death of a loved one decades ago and then finds the person’s picture buried at the bottom of a desk drawer. Later this year, Keith is opening a new restaurant near ground zero in the coming Beekman Hotel and Ms. Wagenknecht is aware it will take some of her new customers away.

But with Elaine’s gone and the idea of a convivial lunch in New York increasingly old-fashioned, the regulars at the revivified Odeon seem merely grateful it’s still here.

They chalk up its success over the years — including as a local refuge after 9/11 and through two financial crises — to its excellent service (no one at Odeon seems to wait more than 15 to 20 minutes for anything, and that’s on a bad day) and a broadly appealing menu that now includes a kale salad (“In the ’80s it was kiwi,” Ms. Wagenknecht said of the ingredient du hour) along with ye olde reliable oysters and soft, perfect omelets.

Speaking of the food at Elaine’s, Mr. Entrekin said, “If you did a steak or a veal chop, you were O.K.,” adding, “The food at Odeon is better.”

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The current scene at the Odeon.

Credit
Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times

Ms. Regan is particularly partial to the frisée with chopped egg. “The crowd waxes and wanes, but the truth is, it makes no difference,” she said. “It’s like the boyfriend you’re still friends with. The one you like even after you broke up with him.”

She praised the service, yes, but also the lighting.

“That amber lighting, which becomes more important to you as you get older,” Ms. Regan said. “It’s home.”

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