Step into Tribeca’s Odeon and there’s something instantly familiar about it. The mirrors hung on walls (the better to scope out who else is dining), the globe-shaped light fixtures, the white tablecloths and long banquettes. It all spells French bistro, and it’s a look that’s been replicated dozens of times in New York since the Odeon opened over 30 years ago, in many instances by founding owner Keith McNally himself (just think of Pastis, Balthazar, or Café Luxembourg).
When McNally, his brother Brian, and ex-wife Lynn Wagenknecht (the restaurant’s current owner) bought a former automat and reopened it as a brasserie in 1980, “it was one of the first places that really did French-American,” says Steve Abramowitz, the Odeon’s operations manager. Back then, Tribeca “was essentially factories, artists, lofts,” he recalls. “There wasn’t a downtown residential population.”
While today the Odeon is so popular with Tribeca families that it was forced to implement a no-strollers policy recently, in the eighties it became an instant hot spot with a different sort of crowd: the art dealers, artists, and writers who worked and carved out homes in the area. Notables including Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Serra frequented the place, smoking, drinking, and dining on classics like frisee salad, steak frites, and profiteroles –- all still served today — until late into the night.
Of course, that sort of thing still goes on at the Odeon, despite a shift in the clientele. “You’ve seen this demographic change, where Baby Boomers came in with their children, and then the children grew up,” says Abramowitz. Today the customer base is “a real mix” of locals, tourists, and Wall Street types. “There are still diehard neighborhood regulars who come here every week,” says Abramowitz. “It’s definitely a standard.”
While the owners and chefs have changed over the years (founding chef Patrick Clark went on to cook at Tavern on the Green), many things have stayed the same at the Odeon, down to the original ticket machine used to place orders when the spot was the automat Towers Cafeteria.
Going forward, Abramowtiz says his team is very curious to see how the nearby 9/11 memorial will affect the restaurant’s client base. Regardless, while it might seem like steak tartare and baby beet salad are on every menu these days, there’s comfort in knowing, as Abramowitz tells me, that “we did it first.”
Jenny Miller is an editor at New York Magazine’s food blog, Grub Street New York.