Coming Home To The Odeon
I came home to The Odeon the other day and slowly sipped a Sazerac.
In 1920s Paris, “home” for Hemingway and Picasso was the Dome or Deux Magots. For my Jewish grandfather in 1900s Vienna, “home” was his beloved Café Central where he trooped each evening to meet and greet and be humiliated at the chess table by the likes of Klimt, Freud, and Lev Davidovitch Bronstein, an intense Russian émigré later known as “Trotsky.”
For me, recently arrived in early ’80s Manhattan, a refugee from the dull decaying ditchwater of London, “home” was The Odeon.
“No one will come,” I remember thinking. “A terrible mistake. Too far down.” My friends Keith and Brian McNally and their partner Lynn Wagenknecht were showing me around the construction site that had been Tower Café, a ’30s-style cab driver’s greasy spoon at 145 West Broadway, in a dark, deserted no man’s land not yet called Tribeca. This was to be their place? They had borrowed $140,000 from family and friends to make their dream come true and had chosen to locate it in what appeared to me to be a godforsaken slum of gaunt industrial warehouses. They were planning on calling it Odeon after a chain of London movie houses as well as a Parisian landmark, they told me proudly. “It will surely fail,” I told myself sadly.
Downtown New York in those days was a graffiti-scarred, crime-ridden, garbage-strewn underpopulated wreck of a place, ragged around the edges. The entire city had barely recovered from its near-death experience fiscally speaking a few years before. As the orgiastic age of Studio 54 waned, this was now the time of The Ramones, Blondie, and The Talking Heads, of the Mudd Club, CBGB’s and Area. After dark, the city below Canal was largely an unlit wasteland peopled by hardscrabble artists, muggers, crack dealers and nightcrawlers.
It was then—in that edgy, interesting New York moment – that my London scribbler friend Christopher Hitchens called from JFK. “I’ve just landed. Victor Navasky has invited me to come here and write for The Nation for a bit but I have nowhere to stay. May I crash on your sofa for the night?” He stayed six months. Those were halcyon days of laughter, wine and many a “ruined” table in the apartment on Bank Street where my wife, Gully Wells, and I, held court. They linger in the mind as magical. Hitch was the perfect guest, ever buying, then consuming, his own booze. (“Nothing but Johnny Walker Black with Perrier—no ice—will do. Everything else is piss.”) For his “house gift” to us, he merely proffered brilliance and wit. What else would you want? He’s the only man I’ve known who smoked while showering, thoughtfully cleaning up his ash afterward.
It was at that time we all met Keith. He had fetched up in New York from London a few years earlier than we had and found a job shucking oysters at a restaurant and bar called One Fifth just north of Washington Square, improbably owned by a noted hospital oncologist, George Schwartz. Pretty soon, on sheer merit, Keith rose to become general manager, employing his brother Brian behind the bar and his girlfriend Lynn Wagenknecht as a waiter.
Keith, a former child actor born in London’s dockland, was the moody visionary one, intense, driven, self-deprecating, but with a cutting witty tongue; Brian oozed charm and charisma, but without his brother’s drive; Lynn, who soon became Keith’s wife, was gutsy, hardworking and down-to-earth in her mid-western American way. They all brought necessary gifts to the table.
One Fifth was pleasant enough, if unexciting, eccentrically festooned by Schwartz’s artist wife with bric-a-brac and fixtures from a long defunct ocean liner. In our early days, Hitch, my wife and I, and Alexander Cockburn of the Village Voice wiled away gossip soaked expat Sunday afternoons there, often joined by the McNally brothers and Lynn at our table when other patrons drifted off.
In 1979, Keith and Lynn went to Paris for a vacation. It was her first time, his second. When I talked with her recently, Lynn told me how amazed and impressed they were by the places they were taken to by their one Parisian friend. “In New York, there was nothing much between coffee shops and fine dining, yet here were bohemian places like La Coupole, Balzar, Café de Flore, and my favorite, Chez George, full of an amazing mix of people eating very good food at all hours and having fun,” she remembered. What New York lacked, she and Keith felt, were real brasseries where an interesting cast of characters could gather, talk, eat, meet, drink, and read newspapers in a relaxed, easy atmosphere like in Paris. They returned fired up with a plan to create just such a place downtown in New York’s own bit of Bohemia.
The Odeon finally opened its doors in the fall of 1980, though inauspiciously. Their very first customer, a little old lady who had waited patiently outside for the big moment, was unable to sample any of the food she ordered since the kitchen was in chaos. After being plied with free wine for a while to placate her, she fled into the night. Gradually the discombobulation of those first few days subsided and it soon became obvious that Keith, Lynn and Brian had managed to transmogrify the dreary Tower Café into a dazzling movie set, part Paris, part shiny Sunset Strip, filled with “glittering curvilinear surfaces,” to quote Jay McInerney from his iconic novel of the time, Bright Lights, Big City, that featured on its cover a painting of the orange neon sign that glowed in a welcoming way above Odeon’s door. “The place makes you feel reasonable at any hour with its good light and clean ‘luncheonette-via-Cartier’ deco décor,” he had his yuppified coked-up nameless anti-hero observe as he cruised the nighttime city headed for his inescapable existential bruising.
On the back wall was a bakelite frieze of the New York skyline. They had, in a stroke of collective genius, created something quite new, a casual yet stylish saloon that seemed somehow timeless, a café society clubhouse with memorable food, a theater for acting out the psychodrama of the zeitgeist. “Odeon defined downtown New York in the ’80s,” pronounced TV uber-producer Lorne Michaels. He was a mainstay, bringing members of his Saturday Night Live crew in nightly. Thus it became John Belushi’s home. And Dan Ackroyd’s. And Martin Scorsese’s and Robert De Niro’s and others from the New York school of film. In that wonderful room where everyone looked irresistible and forever young, they hopped frantically from table to table, bought French smokes from the cigarette lady, argued, swapped stories and lovers, and repaired downstairs at intervals to snort. At Odeon in the roaring ’80s, the footloose glitterati danced in a blizzard of blow.
Of course, the big time downtown artists turned up, too. Unlike many a stuffy Upper East Side suit who considered Odeon something less than a restaurant, the creative crowd “got it.” A silent Warhol with an entourage—his then muse, Paige Powell, and poet Taylor Mead, the first underground movie star, who ordered for him and did his talking. Jean-Michel Basquiat, mostly alone. And Richard Serra, heroic sculptor in monumental steel and often leglessly drunk, throwing punches at random bar patrons, getting himself banished, reinstated, and banished again. In the early days, Odeon was surprisingly violent. The jilted George Schwartz, whose long-established restaurant One Fifth had now been thoroughly eclipsed by what he considered three ungrateful and disloyal employees, showed up one night, spitting jealous insults, spoiling for a fight, and nearly got one. Keith and brother Brian, tough east end London boys both, and unafraid of fisticuffs, apparently lost patience with their one-time boss as he became physically abusive and had him bodily removed.
One regular called Odeon “sophistication plus French fries.” Hitch and my wife and I went for the scene, of course, as did most of our friends, but I also went for the sautéed calves liver with golden raisins cooked by Patrick Clark. A hugely talented African American chef trained in France under Michel Guerard, pioneer of nouvelle cuisine, inventor of cuisine minceur, Clark was the fourth member of the team that exploded Odeon onto the map. His food was complex, ambitious and delicious. John Belushi was as addicted to the calves liver as I was, and devoured plate loads in his time, but it was the crème Brule that he craved. The great comic was once discovered alone in the basement kitchen giddily guzzling Clark’s creamy concoction, stuffing it into his mouth with his fingers as though his life depended on it. So when the New York Times awarded The Odeon two stars for food and ambiance only two months after it opened, the place that Keith, Brian, Lynn and Patrick had built, had become the place to be.
A third of a century has passed and New York is now a richer, duller town. Much has changed. Belushi, Warhol, Basquiat and Patrick Clark are no longer around and Tribeca has been transformed from grunge and gloom into the city’s richest zone. The brokers, bankers and bonus boys who luxuriate in well-appointed lofts nearby are the new elite. They long ago bid up the real estate and forced the artists out—to Brooklyn and Berlin.
Nowadays, Lynn presides at Odeon alone. She and Keith split some time back and Brian went to Vietnam. But the essence of the McNally-Wagenknecht DNA that was hatched here on West Broadway in the shadow of the World Trade Center remains. This genetic design material later evolved through time and space to other McNally-Wagenknecht outposts in Manhattan such as Luxembourg, Balthazar, Pastis and Café Cluny, but the chromosomal inspiration can be seen at The Odeon today: the distressed white tiles, the racks of papers and magazines—many foreign—the big angled mirrors, the flattering frosted lights, the red leather banquets and rattan chairs and, on the menu, steak frites bearnaise, onion soup and moules mariniere—signs of the enduring downtown revolution that started in this room.
As I drained my glass at the long wooden Brunswick bar that once cost ten percent of the original budget, I spotted Fergie, the British Duchess of York breeze through the door and ease her capacious royal self into a booth for lunch with friends. Odeon, I realized, has become a classic—something few places achieve. Yes, the coke-fueled frenzy has abated, the parade has moved on, and the food is simpler though just as comforting but the true royalty, the local royalty of this town, still sneak in late at night—or for lunch—to “come home” and remember.
Words Peter Foges
*This article was originally published in 2013 on GrandLife.com.