Are Restaurants the New Nightlife? An Existential Evening at Minetta Tavern

I think it was sometime on the cab ride home from Minetta Tavern that the question hit me, like a velvet rope’s brass clasp to the face: are restaurants the new nightlife? Are clubs — once a standard for much of what simultaneously cultivated, codified, and confirmed what could be considered “culture” in New York — incapable of doing that anymore? And are restaurants doing it in their place?

I felt like I’d just come out of a club, for one thing: my wallet was, stupidly, far lighter than when I’d started out the evening, for one thing. I was plastered, well-fed, and had stumbled out a door and into a car because, after you blow that much cash, who takes the subway? My ears were ringing, it was late, and I’d spent as much time trying to get seated at a table as I did being seated at the table. I was openly ashamed, secretly satisfied, and beyond that, vaguely guilty about being secretly satisfied.

Nightclubs are in a sorry state: the ones that aren’t closing can’t control their doors and have had a primary source of income — bottle service — declared dead twenty times over. Even our own Steve Lewis has admitted it: “The sky is absolutely falling,” the nightlife legend wrote in a headline for a post advertising an event aligning club owners with politicians. Nightlife owners now have to face constituencies of elected officials who aren’t protecting the owners’ industry from being pushed out of New York. Again: club owners asking politicians for help. To say things for New York’s nightlife aren’t looking good would be a vast understatement.

Not far from west Chelsea, in Greenwich Village, Keith McNally’s newest restaurant, Minetta Tavern, is identical to so many like it. Preceding its March opening, it was the subject of an absurd amount of local and national press. For the microcosm that’s the New York restaurant scene, it had the kind of mania surrounding it that, say, a new Harry Potter flick would. And for fans, it’s pure feverpitch. The metaphor’s more than apt: McNally’s restaurants have proven themselves critic and recession-proof, and it helps that they’re all quality places, giving them the kind of unflappable cred from those in the service industry that certainly can’t be bought (or doesn’t require publicity). They’re also consistently attracting big stars (making it somewhat incidental that McNally was once a filmmaker, way back when). But unlike films, McNally’s restaurants can be, at times, difficult to get into, a little pricey, and the very least, always a scene, vacuum-sealed with celebrities obvious and obscure, many of whom McNally counts as friends.

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How bad could it be? It was a Monday night at 9. Sans reservation, I’d never waited longer than half an hour at Balthazar, Pastis, Schiller’s, or Morandi, and I’d never seen anyone else wait longer, either, but I’m sure it happens. But for a twice-fired employee of his, I get treated fairly well in his restaurants; I can’t speak of a bad experience ever working for him. Maybe McNally, who once got “let go” as a busboy in New York, is empathetic to my cause. Or maybe he doesn’t remember, or doesn’t care. Probably the former. But like the prodigal son I am, I keep going back for more eggs, steak frites, and the like. It’s something I should probably bring up with a professional.

It looked pretty quiet, from the outside. I go to open the door, and it almost slams me in the face: Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg fly out as if ejected by a kinetic force onto Macdougal Street, the IAC chairman looking for his towncar — lost, towed, AWOL, or something — and the fashion designer looking completely confused. They turn south and head down the block after I stand there staring at Diller trying (unsuccessfully) to hail a yellow cab.

We walk in and I try the I’ve-Worked-For-Keith thing again — no shame, because, you know, I’m hungry — this time, with a human face, someone from the company I’ve seen before. She looks at me like one would a helpless cute animal with a broken wing or something. And then gently snaps my neck back into reality, out of the misery of false hope: nothing until 10:30, at least. Can we eat at the bar? I ask.

Sure, she tells me, if you can find a spot. You should see the back room. Kind of insane tonight.

Kind of insane didn’t begin to describe it. It felt inches away from the chattiest production of Lord of the Flies I’d ever seen; people staring over the backs of other people, looking to see who they are, and if they could somehow be lodged out of the way for a seat at the bar. Maybe a slow bloodletting or something. We looked for a seat, which was triple-stocked. I clumsily backed into someone who, mid-sentence, glanced over, barely registered the event (if at all) and kept going full-speed. It was Harvey Keitel. Models and other assorted tall people flanked the bar. I was reminded of Skee-Lo. I was scared. Would I be able to penetrate the barrier, or come even close to the same place where Chelsea Clinton and Sacha Baron Cohen dined two days before? I was going to be persistent.

Hey, I told the hostess. It’s a little crowded in here. We’re gonna step next door for some drinks. She smiled at me empathetically, and as if she’d never see me again, told me to come back at 10:30 and there should be something for me then, and that she was really sorry.

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My date was getting hungry. We went next door for drinks. At a bar called The Grisly Pear, a few doors down from Minetta, we sat down on some stools and ordered. The place was empty; hollow, almost. A complete counterpoint to what we’d just experienced. It was the directors-cut scene from Apocalypse Now, where the boat of soldiers stop at the French heroin plantation for dinner in the middle of their mission going up the river. “You want menus?” the bartender asked. We explained that we were having dinner next door, we were fine. “You see anyone?” he asked. I told him about Harvey Keitel. “Yeah, Tim Roth used to be a regular here,” he says of Keitel’s Reservoir Dogs co-star.

Two drinks later, and we tried again. This time, we landed at the bar. It had been an hour now: it was ten. We ordered two rounds at the bar, four different cocktails, all of which: solid. The bartenders, almost sympathetic, did their best to keep things lively; they were engaging, part of the show, the most relaxed out of anyone in the restaurant, there when needed and otherwise amongst themselves unless engaged. In other words, perfect in the great tradition of bartenders. I was worried it was a setup. The Rolling Stones blasted throughout the restaurant, and now we could feel the looks over our shoulders. Finally, we’re called in: our table’s ready.

We being moving past the front to the back room — on the bema, inside the holy ark — and make it through. I checked the time; it was 10:30, exactly. And we were four drinks under, about to be five. The backroom is slathered in celebrities or people who’ve done a great job of impersonating the aura of celebrity, or being prepared for the projection of it (the written note reads: slick pimp/french models next door/giants lineman/hal sparks?! no way/joe francis lookalike). Of course, the most interesting of all: the man himself, Keith McNally, sitting in the corner four-top with two women and a friend. He was playing king of his court that night, as much as he possibly could. A look of recognition registered in his face, but I wasn’t about to say anything; I was hungry and terrified that Roberta — McNally’s longtime lieutenant who’s running things there right now — would smother me in Minetta’s Pat La Frieda meat if I got near him (a fate, I decided, that could be worth the risk). I continued the five feet past his table to mine, which was pulled out of the banquette so my date could be vacuum/table-sealed back in.

What followed was, essentially, the meal we came in for: Balthazar Bakery bread — flaky, chewy, melt-in-your-mouth soft — with a pad of room temperature, spreadable butter and sea salt laid out at the table. It soaked up the booze nicely. We went with three appetizers and an entree, the lobster salad and the tartare trio first, the bone marrow appetizer and a steak frites second. The salad was light, rich, and brilliant: it felt like a series regular from Los Angeles that’d snuck away to find legitimate acting credentials working in New York theater: this lobster had found its artistic renaissance at Minetta. Or it was just a good goddamn salad. Either way, there were huge, orange pieces of lobster reminding you of all the times you actually had to work it out of a claw. The tartare trio — lamb, veal, steak — was fascinating to look at, boring to ear: under-seasoned and unimpressive, considering my high hopes from the peppery, creamy, rich, slightly spicy steak tartare at Balthazar that were thoroughly dashed.

If you’re hungry, the oft-discussed bone marrow appetizer has far more flavor than actual marrow in it. The steak was better than good, and it’s no secret that McNally’s restaurants toss a pile of the best french fries in New York on your plate with your steak. We had a scoop of lemon sorbet for dessert. And that was it. Or so it’d seem.

At one point, the couple next to us got up and left, which meant us having to take our table out of the banquette. It somehow turned into an ordeal, as McNally passed by me, and we both said hello. I’m not sure what was said, exactly — he told me I’d done well to order the bone marrow. I think, while I intended to tell him how much I enjoyed the salad, I actually deciding complimenting him on a salad in a place devoted to steak would be trite, and that saying something about the steak would be cliché, and saying something nice about the tartare would be a lie, so I think I spat out something like “I enjoyed the ice cubes. And the drinks. The drinks are fantastic.” He asked me if I had any trouble getting in, though, I think I absolutely lied and told him “no.” This is what the harsh soft-light of Minetta will do to you … I felt weak-kneed, and full. This is what Keith McNally does to those who begrudge him curses on his reservations systems: gives them a good enough meal to lose or forget the grounds on which some kind of complaint had originated from.

And after drinks, dinner, and a word with the man himself, we were gone as quickly as we left.

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So: an extensive wait, a sidelining, celebrity encounters, an expensive menu, almost happily paid for. A packed room, loud music, flowing booze. A carefully curated scene of people. And this isn’t the only one: New York Times food critic Frank Bruni just filed his review on Graydon Carter’s Monkey Bar yesterday; he could barely get in to eat there. His Waverly Inn — for which reservations are mostly made through his personal assistant — is constantly swarmed with paparazzi and a careful layout of who goes where in the restaurant (i.e. “Siberia” is for the no-names, while the center of the room goes to celebrities). Sure sounds like a club. So: is this the future of nightlife?

No. They’re ostensibly a part of it, but at the end of the night, restaurants (while they do play favorites) will get you in eventually, as proven. If you have cash, and you’re hungry, they’re proud of their product — they’ll want their famous friends to bite, literally — but past that, they’ll want the hoi polloi to taste it as well and you can still throw Graydon’s mac and cheese in a doggie bag. A restaurant offers a tangible product for which they can be judged. Other than drinks — and most of the time, not serious drinks, or serious food — club offerings are slim to none in this regard. Restaurants are first and foremost a place to eat, and sometimes, people-watch. And if you can’t get a Waverly reservation, there’s almost always a better place out there more than willing to open their doors for you. The product restaurants offer is for everyone. But nightclubs?

The product they offer is entry, mostly. The promise that you’ve been curated by a doorman to be a part of his cast that night. Truth be told, nightclubs are lacking exclusivity and a product worth writing home about, because the candidates for entrance — the social makeup of the club — can buy their way in via high covers and bottle service . The crowds seen in the Meatpacking District and west Chelsea represent less the ancestry of Studio 54 than they do the people who would’ve despised it. Owners are even so ashamed of their sorry state, they’ve come up with lame euphemisms to replace the truth: “bottle service” is “table service” and “nightclubs” are “lounges.” The product sucks, and they can’t compete because of it. The aforementioned Steve Lewis once said something about doormen, that it’s a lost art. I wouldn’t go that far, as it appears some people in New York are revitalizing it. They’re just being far more subtle.

That isn’t to say there aren’t exciting things going on in nightlife right now. Collective Hardware is one of them, a place taking people from all different stripes, and throwing them in a room together. Then again, they still don’t feed you. But at least there’s not a cover. Or bottle service. Or a velvet rope.

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