About a month ago, as we were planning a dining trip to New York, I wanted to revisit a favorite of mine: MINETTA TAVERN in the West Village, near Washington Square Park.
Despite our calling almost two months in advance, they were fully booked on the Friday and Saturday nights that we had available. DRAT! (We are on the waiting list).
The challenge of booking a table got me thinking about how an 80-yaer-old restaurant not only survives, but thrives in 2023 to the extent that it’s nearly impossible to obtain a reservation?
What’s the deal?
I did a little research. Minetta Tavern opened shortly after the end of prohibition in 1937 and became a Beat Generation celebrity hangout and watering hole in the early 1950’s for writers and poets including Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings.
I’m told that booze always fuels creativity.
It operated as a red-sauce Italian restaurant up until 2008 when the aging owner sold the place to British-born restaurateur KEITH McNALLY, creator of BALTHAZAR, CAFÉ LUXEMBOURG, PASTIS, PRAVDA, AND SCHILLER’S LIQUOR BAR, among other places.
Now, Keith McNally is a New York restaurateur of unequaled talent and stature (in my informed opinion). Some years back, I wrote about some of his restaurants in a blog post entitled “Paris via the Lexington Avenue Line.” I couldn’t agree more with Sam Stone of Bon Appetit who said that McNally’s restaurants evoke “casual glamour, effortless cool and unpretentious luxury…McNally knows how to create a vibe.”
But McNally’s talents go beyond that. They’re more nuanced. After purchasing the Minetta Tavern, he closed the restaurant for six months to refurbish it. He had the WISDOM to understand the inner qualities and the brand equity that Minetta Tavern had built up over the decades. And when he bought the classic 1930’s property, he left its essential elements largely alone, except for the Italian fare, which he replaced with a carefully curated menu of lusty French bistro/brasserie dishes, headed by a “GRILLADE” section featuring dry aged beef. Frank Bruni, then food critic for the New York Times, called Minetta Tavern “the best steakhouse in New York City.” And that’s saying something.
McNally’s crackerjack genius for theater led him to respect original details like the black and white floor tile, the scuffed red leather booths, and priceless art and photos adorning the walls. He also augmented the ambiance with touches like French-inspired waitress uniforms (Did the inspiration for the little black dresses and starched white aprons come from Parisian bistro servers…or saucy house maids?).
The result was more than restaurant with the trappings of a relevant, classic Old World saloon. It radiated a feeling of reassurance of times past and delivered spiritual pleasures that go far beyond food. Everything old became new. Praise god, this relic was born again.
Today the bar buzzes with aspiring models and ingénues, up-and-comers and establishment types…men with (carefully knotted) sweaters over their shoulders…women draped in the latest fashions. You’ll also see a few tourists craning their necks in the faint expectation of spotting a celebrity – if not Al Pacino, maybe a Kim Cattrall.
As TimeOut New York wrote, “McNally is the city’s tastemaker.”
But Minetta Tavern’s appeal goes beyond its clientele and the chic speakeasy vibe of the boozy bar. The chitchat and laughter in the packed, 75-seat, time-capsule dining room are fueled by more than alcohol. The kitchen is the real engine here.
So let’s go. Here’s what to expect:
Even though Minetta Tavern sports a coveted MICHELIN STAR, there is no fuss or pretension here. The menu is concise and it’s in English. The food is decisive, distinctive and loaded with big flavors. And servers don’t talk down to you.
We always share dozen of the pristine, glistening local oysters. The French Onion Soup is a pure French rendition uncompromised by cheap cheese or commercially supplied broth. It’s the real thing, crowned with genuine melty gruyere…$22.
One evening as an appetizer, we ordered a foie Gras Terrine with Black Cherry Chutney. WOW.
Steak Tartare, Grilled Octopus, and awesome stuffed Berkshire Pigs Trotters are things you probably don’t prepare at home. So be brave. TAKE A CHANCE.
If Roasted Beef Bones oozing with salt-socked marrow are on the menu, be sure to order this sleeves-up starter, which is served with baguette toast soldiers and shallot confit…$33
Salads are limited, but you can always count on the Butter Lettuce, Radish, Gala Apple Slices, and Marcona Almonds with Cider Vinaigrette Dressing…$22.
Perhaps as a nod to its Italian predecessor, Minetta Tavern serves a Florentine Pasta Za Za – linguine, pancetta, sage and parmesan topped off with a fried Egg. During the winter months, keep an eye out for the Pappardelle with Braised Oxtail, Rosemary and Pecorino Romano cheese.
Vol au Vent, another French brasserie icon, is a puff pastry basket filled with Escargot and Sweetbreads in a Parsley and Garlic Butter. (Oh come on, don’t say, “Icky!”).
Lobster most always makes an appearance in the form of a buttery Lobster Roll – all claws and knuckles (no stringy stuff, just lumps), as well as the exquisite Lobster Thermidor. Can’t remember the cost, but Yelp gave it 4 stars. So do I.
Side dishes, including green beans and sautéed spinach, are predictable – perfectly prepared, all out of central casting.
What isn’t predictable is the menu’s POMMES (potatoes) section.
First, there are the Crispy Fries – so crispy that I have to believe they’re done the French way: double fried.
Then there are the Potatoes Anna, thinly sliced russet potatoes arranged in a circular pattern amid layers and layers and layers of butter. They’re browned until a crispy crust forms on the stove top, then oven-baked so that the butter-laced interior becomes meltingly tender and tasty.
Slightly less familiar, at least two Americans, are the Pommes Aligot, In this preparation, potatoes are vigorously whipped into obedience ‘til silky smooth and elastic. Guess what? The dish also features loads of butter, as well as heavy cream and garlic. From what I could detect, a mix of Alpine cheeses – perhaps gruyere, Comte and Swiss (or maybe Wisconsin cheese curds) – enters the mix as well. Whatever, they were DELICIOUS.
I recall three excellent dessert options: a Bittersweet Chocolate Soufflé, Baba Au Rhum, and – best of all – Minetta Tavern’s fantastic Coconut Cake.
Now, while all the dishes I’ve mentioned boast French Brasserie DNA, perhaps the thing that Minetta Tavern is most noted for is the primal, carnivore hunks of cow.
Let’s start with the Filet Mignon with Sauce au Poivre (peppercorns), butter, heavy cream and Cognac…$58. What’s not to like?
Or the Sliced New York Strip – dry-aged and on the bone. It’s crunchy, charred, crusty and irresistible…$75.
Dinner for two or three? Or will you be eating on your own? Either way, consider the monstrous, thick-cut juicy Ribeye – dubbed “Dry-Aged Cote de Boeuf.” It’s served with roasted marrow bones and gem lettuce salad. This baby will cost you $189.
I would, guess, however, that on any weeknight Minetta Tavern’s biggest draw might be its burgers. Yes, BURGERS. There are two of ‘em.
The Minetta Burger, priced at $31, is a 9 oz. patty topped with cheddar cheese, and caramelized onions, accompanied by fries. It’s outstanding, of course, but is overshadowed by…
The Black Label Burger. Probably the buzziest burger in all of New York City, it bursts with the flavor of legendary butcher Pat La Frieda’s selection of dry-aged prime beef cuts, including NY Strip, Skirt Steak, Brisket and Ribeye. Its notes of fat and funk blend with silky caramelized onions on a buttered sesame-seed, toasted brioche bun. It was $38 at price time. INSANELY GOOD!
Shared Appetite blogger Chris Cockren said it best: “The Black Label Burger is meat…caramelized onions…bun.” That’s it!
McNally’s frequent postings on Instagram are unfiltered, witty, highly entertaining and occasionally raw (you may remember his spat with James Corden several months ago). But as he recently posted in response to a reporter’s question about dishing on celebrities…
“I have an unwavering policy of never mentioning them by name. Especially when it’s Woody Allen, Ben Affleck or Madonna being here a couple weeks ago. Or Jude Law and a waitress from PASTIS on Thursday.”