Clamorous fake-speakeasy joints have been all the rage since Graydon Carter and his friends opened their semi-private West Village dining club, the Waverly Inn, on the corner of Waverly and Bank two years ago. Pricey, lavishly sourced gourmet hamburgers have been proliferating on menus around town for much longer than that. But as in any other fashion-obsessed industry, trends in the restaurant world don’t officially become part of the mainstream Zeitgeist until certain tastemakers come along and put their stamp on them. Enter Keith McNally, the man who made distant neighborhoods like Tribeca (the Odeon), Soho (Balthazar), and the meatpacking district (Pastis) safe for the dining masses, and unleashed upon the city a plague of a million ersatz brasseries, which continues to this day. Like all ambitious businessmen, McNally misfires now and then, but he has a genius for gathering disparate notions and designs from the collective ether, distilling them down to their essences, then reconstituting them for his loyal public, in a professional, popular, often palatable way.
Like the Waverly Inn, McNally’s new restaurant, the Minetta Tavern, is being billed as a revival, not a first-run production. The original joint opened in the thirties, in a corner space on Macdougal Street, and flourished, over the years, as a bar, a red-sauce Italian joint, and a hangout for generations of scraggly Village pub crawlers from the Beat Poets to old Joe Gould. Now McNally has taken the place upscale and stationed a giant bouncer by the front door, but he’s wisely left most of the old saloon-era interior intact. There’s a refinished oak bar in the front of the room, but the original wood paneling behind it is decorated with stylish little silhouette cutouts from the thirties. There are new black-and-white checkered tiles on the floor, as well, and the banquettes have been covered in McNally’s trademark crimson leather. But a faded, smoke-stained fresco of the old Village still adorns the back room, and the walls of the joint are still plastered with original framed pictures of figures from the city’s vanished past, like Eva Marie Saint and the boxer Jimmy Braddock.
The real overhaul at the new Minetta Tavern is in the back of the house, where McNally has given his two first-class chefs from Balthazar, Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, partner status, and put them in charge of the kitchen. The neo-speakeasy model, as practiced at places like the Waverly and the progenitor of the genre, Freemans, on the Lower East Side, has tended to focus more on ambience, and the peddling of retro cocktails, than on first-rate food. Thankfully, McNally and his two chefs have changed all that. As at the restaurants it seeks to imitate, the vibe at Minetta is buzzy, exclusive, and properly chaotic. But the menu is a compact, carefully edited compendium of practiced brasserie favorites (stuffed pig’s trotter, steak tartare, lobster salad) and hefty, old-fashioned tavern fare (marrow bones speckled with sea salt, two kinds of hamburgers, a $90 côte de boeuf for two), and, to the amazement of the hipsters at my table, almost everything on it tastes good.
The first salvo of grub to hit our table included a generous slab of oxtail terrine, with a little butter-smooth wheel of foie gras at its center, and the delicious, sizzling-hot marrow bones, which are cut lengthwise and are the size of small canoes. The most expensive appetizers on the menu are the least satisfying: the $24 lobster salad, and the $16 tartare, which is actually a trio of tartares that would have worked better if they’d excluded the lamb and veal in favor of a larger portion of time-tested minced steak. For $12, however, you can get a nourishing little plate of stuffed calamari seared a la plancha, with olives and piquillo peppers, and a slim, beautifully cooked “petite omelette,” which appears to have been designed with Kate Moss’s palate in mind. For something a little more substantial, I suggest the “Pasta Za Za,” a peppery, carbonara-style concoction that features chunks of artisanal pancetta and a single fried egg, and the excellent pied de porc panée, a whole Berkshire-pork trotter gently braised, deboned, and seized in a delicately crunchy crust.
My finicky, generally burger-avoiding wife had nothing but praise for Minetta’s much-hyped, $26 Black Label hamburger, which is made with dry-aged Pat La Frieda beef, the elegant funkiness of which is offset with a pile of sweet sautéed onions. The well-charred Minetta Burger costs ten dollars less, and is probably the burger I’d choose if I were a Minetta regular and wanted to save a little cash for beer money. Among the lighter dishes, I liked the trout meunière, sprinkled with crabmeat and chunks of toasted brioche, and the cod, which is steamed en papillote with a mass of fresh leeks. The roast chicken (poulet fermier rôti) costs as much as the Black Label burger and is almost big enough for two, as is the salty, generously cut lamb saddle, served with a boat of thick paloise sauce. But the real delicacies at Minetta reside on the “grillades” section of the menu—in particular the steaks, like the grandiose côte de boeuf and the New York strip, which is perfectly grilled on the bone and comes with a token sprig of watercress on the side.
Noise and overcrowding are two staples of Speakeasy Chic, and there’s plenty of both at Minetta. On the evenings I dropped in (reservations are taken a week in advance, and require long waits on the telephone), there were fashionable sharpies in the milling crowd and tables of gracefully aging go-go girls, and temperatures in the closet-size men’s room hovered close to 100 degrees. This cozy sense of claustrophobia is relieved somewhat by the wait staff, who are mostly seasoned McNally professionals, and by the drinks, which include a classic retro Champagne cocktail made with raw cane sugar, and a potent concoction called Ginger in the Rye, which contains Michter’s rye, absinthe, bitters, ginger beer, and hints of lime. The desserts are generally mundane by comparison (and, at $9, almost half the price). The exceptions are the spongy, custard-layered tarte Tropezienne and the professionally made soufflé, which the Francophiles in the kitchen flavor, in elegant, non-speakeasy style, with dark chocolate or Grand Marnier.