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The Odeon at 40: An Oral History of the New York City Institution

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 10/14/2020 Timothy Latterner
a store front at night © Courtesy The Odeon/Kenneth Chen.

Whether you live in New York City or are just passing through, space is always of the essence. Even the most luxurious hotel rooms are smaller than you’ll find elsewhere. The result of living with limited square footage is that one’s “home” often extends beyond any apartment, enveloping daily haunts—that go-to restaurant, the coffee shop around the block, the bar you always find yourself ending the night at. For many New Yorkers over the last 40 years, The Odeon has been all of those places.

Founded 40 years ago today by Lynn Wagenknecht, Keith McNally, and Keith’s brother Brian McNally, the trio brought a much-needed café to the corner of West Broadway and Thomas Street in Tribeca, a neighborhood then filled with artists and writers—the people that we look back on four decades later as the tastemakers of a turning point in the city’s history. From the wood paneling and the classic, brasserie-styled red banquettes, to the bar that spans the northern wall of the restaurant, every design detail of The Odeon transports guests to an earlier New York. For McNally and Wagenknecht, much of this was chance. 

a group of people sitting at a table in a restaurant: Key design features of The Odean, like the red banquette seating and long bar, were left over from the previous tenant, family-run Towers Cafeteria. © Courtesy The Odeon Key design features of The Odean, like the red banquette seating and long bar, were left over from the previous tenant, family-run Towers Cafeteria.

“We weren’t nearly that organized,” remembers Wagenknecht. “For better or worse, it was such a different time. We were winging it from day one.” The three of them had been working at the same restaurant, One Fifth, a cool downtown spot that had opened in the mid-seventies, before leaving to work at other restaurants briefly. Wagenknecht and Keith McNally were dating at the time. “We decided we would open a little coffee place around Wall Street maybe [but] we didn’t have any interest in the restaurant business,” says Wagenknect. “[Keith] was an actor and was interested in writing, and I had a masters in fine arts and wanted to work on my projects.”

While they would go on to create other places New Yorkers now consider local favorites—Café Cluny and Cafe Luxembourg for Wagenknecht, Minetta Tavern and Pastis for Keith McNally—The Odeon was a labor of love and necessity. The trio’s upstart attitude and resourcefulness drove decision making, turning it into the place to be.

“I was so preoccupied cobbling The Odeon together that I never gave a thought to the bigger picture,” says Keith McNally. “Plus, I didn't know what the bigger picture was. The three of us only wanted to build a place that we wanted to go. I don't think the word 'design' ever came up. The place benefited from the three of us being broke as it forced us to incorporate much of what was in the place already,” he says, pointing to the wood paneling and iconic ornate bar, leftover from the former Towers Cafeteria.

“The first novel it appeared in was Bright Lights, Big City,” says author Jay McInerney, who put The Odeon’s neon sign on the book’s front cover. “We have a long-running joke about who owes money to who for that. I was a patron of The Odeon almost from the moment I arrived in New York. I’d usually just sit at the bar before going out to The Mudd Club or Area or some place like that and observe the crowds in the dining room—it was always great people-watching there.”

a group of people in a kitchen: New Year's Eve, 1982, at The Odeon © Condé Nast Traveler New Year's Eve, 1982, at The Odeon a group of people posing for a photo: From left: Erwan Illien, Keith McNally, Geraldine Bartlett, and Po Ming at The Odeon © Condé Nast Traveler From left: Erwan Illien, Keith McNally, Geraldine Bartlett, and Po Ming at The Odeon

Forty years later, The Odeon’s regulars are some of New York’s most fashion forward and erudite residents. A generally young crowd of downtown artists and fashion insiders from Soho will frequent the restaurant for upscale work lunches and after-hours Manhattans at the bar. But the core base of The Odeon are still those who have been there since the raucous beginnings.

“I think you have to start by just making yourself appealing to the neighborhood,” says Wagenknecht. “They’re the ones who help you survive through thick and thin, like after 9/11 when we reopened a few weeks after. I think it's important that people that live around it think of it as their bar for a drink or to escape their daily woes.” Without understanding some of the restaurant’s history, it’d be easy to see the place as a beautiful, French Brasserie–inspired café serving up posh cocktails and sandwiches to well-heeled customers. But the early days of The Odeon make the wildest nights at House of Yes or ACME feel tame by comparison.

“The Odeon opened before cell phones and the Internet,” says McNally. “1980 was a time when news of a new restaurant spread slowly, and by word of mouth only. The restaurant's remote location also helped keep it bubble wrapped from the masses. The Odeon was regularly filled with actors, downtown artists, and the cast of Saturday Night Live—and packed until 3 a.m. John Belushi often came in just before closing, and would sit with the waitresses while they counted their money.”

diagram: A 1981 napkin drawing of The Odeon by Tom Schiller © Courtesy The Odeon A 1981 napkin drawing of The Odeon by Tom Schiller

“The ’80s were wild times,” says Wagenknecht. “It was kind of a free, anything-goes atmosphere downtown. I was mostly back of the house, doing more maintenance and accounts and all of that. We were there creating an atmosphere where people felt relaxed enough to have a good time, but we weren’t in the middle of it. We were working.”

Beyond the stars like Belushi, artists like Warhol and Basquiat, journalists like Graydon Carter, and all the other acolytes of the eatery, McInerney has largely helped bridge the restaurant into the mainstream of the city’s pop culture history.

“When I finished Bright Lights, a scene was included with obligatory drug use in [The Odeon’s] bathroom,” says McInerney. “When the cover artist came up with an image of [the restaurant] for the book, the Random House lawyers had me go down there to talk to whoever owned it. We sent Keith a galley in advance and I don’t think he was very impressed. After a brief conversation, he basically just waved his arms and said, ‘whatever.’ It was a dismissive approval. He said in some interview he never expected to hear about the book again and was shocked when he was walking up Fifth Avenue and the former Scribner’s Bookstore had a wall of Bright Lights, Big City in the window along with a poster and picture of me.”

Looking at the New York restaurant scene today, locals are always chasing what’s new. The Odeon stands apart from this by staying timeless. Today, the pandemic has limited the team to filling the sidewalk on West Broadway and wrapping around Thomas Street—tables are always near full capacity—as Wagenknecht and the team are ramping up to return to indoor dining. But The Odeon feels as it always has: like a place that has been there forever, out of date in a longing, nostalgic type of way. It’s that escapist other world that guests are transported to, a time away from the present, that makes it more than a restaurant, and connects visitors to a feeling of identity and belonging in Tribeca.

a store front at night: The Odeon is still run by one of the founders, Lynn Wagenknect, 40 years later. © Courtesy The Odeon The Odeon is still run by one of the founders, Lynn Wagenknect, 40 years later.

“The Odeon was always such a signifier,” says McInerney. “It was the start of the creation of Tribeca.”

The British playwright Alan Bennett, an early investor and close friend of McNally and Wagenknecht, once wrote in his play Forty Years On (whose production even starred a young McNally) that, “Standards are always out of date. That is what makes them standards.” 

In an ironic twist, the same can be said of The Odeon 40 years after its opening downtown—a place that feels transportive to another time while always putting forth a timeless sense of community and home for its regulars. “The only motivating factor to me is to make a place that looks great and feels comfortable," says Wagenknecht. "It’s fun to see Cafe Luxembourg in When Harry Met Sally or The Odeon in Bright Lights, Big City, but we were trying to make a place that we want to go to. By and large, I think we accomplished that.”

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