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Tribeca Mecca

Through trends and tragedy and three decades, restaurateur Lynn Wagenknecht has set a cozy scene in Lower Manhattan.

Ethan Hill

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By Rachel Syme

A great scene, in the cosmopolitan sense, involves some alchemy: There's no predicting why a certain group of young people, living in a certain city at a certain time, come to represent the ambitions and enthusiasms of their generation. Yet one essential factor is a convivial gathering place. The expatriate writers of the 1920s had Shakespeare and Company in Paris. The Beats of San Francisco gravitated toward City Lights. The folk musicians of the 1960s flocked to Café Wha? in Greenwich Village. And in the early 1980s, an age of neon excess in art and commerce in Lower Manhattan, there was The Odeon.

The Odeon, which opened in 1980 and will turn 33 this autumn, seemed to buzz with energy as soon as its founders plugged in its iconic red neon sign. The Tribeca district eatery became the de facto cafeteria for bright young things from the downtown art world (Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Serra) to Hollywood power (Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorcese) to pop stars (Cher, Madonna) to the cast of Saturday Night Live. (In Vanity Fair, it was reported that John Belushi was such a regular that the restaurant would reopen late at night so the comedian could help himself at the walk-in fridge.) Jay McInerney memorialized the era's hedonistic, heady days in his novel Bright Lights, Big City, which featured The Odeon's sign on its original cover.

The Odeon was the first project of three restaurateurs, young and inexperienced at the time, who worked as waiters at the fine-dining restaurant 1 Fifth. They decided that New York desperately needed a new kind of clubhouse—one that catered to artists and writers by creating a casual, Parisian brasserie feel. One founder was Lynn Wagenknecht, '75, who retains full ownership of the restaurant today. With her then-husband Keith McNally (now the owner of a wide New York restaurant empire) and his brother Brian, Wagenknecht scouted the airy space on West Broadway that was once a 1930s cafeteria.

"What we really fell in love with was the space," Wagenknecht tells me, drinking Pellegrino in one of The Odeon's iconic red leather banquettes. "I still have the original contract from the 1930s for when it was built. We kept almost everything—the globe lamps, the paneling. The only big thing we added was the bar, which we bought from a man who is still in business today up in Harlem. He had pulled it out of a bar in Long Island City, and we discovered that its paneling was identical to that which was already in the restaurant! Apparently a company that once made pool tables also outfitted every diner in town."

Because of the vintage touches, Wagenknecht says, The Odeon seemed at once modern and familiar when it opened. The globe lamps gave off an attractive eggy glow that reflected off the shiny chrome of mismatched diner chairs. The neon sign, which Wagenknecht hung herself, shone on West Broadway like a beacon, calling all denizens of downtown loft spaces out of their cavernous squats.

"When we moved in, the neighborhood was still pretty empty," Wagenknecht says. "You could look down and see the World Trade Center, or up and see the Empire State Building, and that was it."

The Odeon quickly filled up with local artists and writers who wanted a comforting bite—and then quickly attracted uptown types who hoped to hobnob with the young glitterati. William Grimes, a former New York Times food critic, remembers its vibe. "The staff did not sneer, which is the default mode in most hip Manhattan restaurants. They actually seemed pleased to see you. They were polite, even gracious. This was sort of shocking. And the food was always much better than it needed to be. You could have gotten away with serving microwaved Tater Tots, but the kitchen always put out better than decent food. This made it an anomaly. That and its longevity, which seems to be a hallmark of [Wagenknecht's] restaurants—very fashionable but amazingly sturdy."

This success notwithstanding, Wagenknecht says her role in running the restaurant was never glamorous. "We knew there was a scene happening, but we were so busy running the place from morning until night that it was hard to stop and realize it. I was the handyman. We were closed on Saturdays for lunch, and I would come and do the repairs myself. Perhaps that's why I feel so close to The Odeon, because there was such a physical element to my involvement. I feel like I built this place with my hands."

Wagenknecht now has built three restaurants. After her divorce from McNally in 1994, she purchased his shares in The Odeon and in Café Luxembourg, a venture they'd opened together in 1983. (It was the site of a famous restaurant scene—albeit not the most famous restaurant scene—in When Harry Met Sally.) In 2006, she opened the cozy West Village spot Café Cluny, a coveted reservation for celebrities and media power-lunchers like editor Graydon Carter. Ever mindful of the evolution of menus, Wagenknecht hired much-noticed chef Phillip Kirschen-Clark for Café Cluny earlier this year.

It seems that every restaurant Wagenknecht touches becomes a bit magical, yet, when she looks back at her career as we talk, she says it all feels like a series of happy accidents. "I grew up in the Midwest, and I wanted to be a painter. I had never seen a palm tree before I got to Stanford. I studied visual arts and I had no idea what I wanted to do! In college, I lived in Grove House, and thought then that we had delicious food from the cafeteria. I wouldn't have believed it if someone told me I'd be running three restaurants today.

"When I first moved to New York," she continues, "I lived in an apartment in Little Italy for $267 a month, and it had no front door. My landlord was voted the worst in the city. . . . Now, it's impossible to rent an apartment near The Odeon unless you have a small fortune."

These days, Wagenknecht says, she is content to run her three restaurants and spend time with her three children, who are all out of college. "My daughter Sophie works with her dad a bit in the business, running the events, but I don't think I could ever work so closely with my children," she says. "But my daughter Isabelle [who lives in Los Angeles] told me that one day I should open an Odeon in L.A. And maybe someday we will."

While Wagenknecht sees her path from painting among the palms to playing hostess to some of the city's hottest customers as a circuitous one, she says that she is grateful for her unplanned successes. "Not one of us, when we opened The Odeon, thought that this would be our life. We just opened the place we wanted, somewhere you could get a great steak frites or a French onion soup, and see your family and your friends. This is a place where businessmen and starving artists could come and be together and, 30 years later, that's still what it is. When we reopened after 9/11, seeing our regulars again was like reuniting with family.

"Opening a restaurant is like putting on a play; you're all in it together. You sweat, you fight, but you're all in it for the same goal. At the end of the night, everyone goes home exhausted and dirty, but excited to get up and do it again the next day."

Rachel Syme, '05, a journalist in Brooklyn, is working on a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

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