top 100: minetta tavern

minetta tavern

From the outside you wouldn’t notice much of anything about the 75-year old Minetta Tavern has changed. The Greenwich Village hangout of writers, poets, and pugilists looks much the same as ever: frozen in time on a shoddy corner of MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane, it’s louvered storefront windows creating the perfect redoubt for all sorts of layabouts and hangers-on. Inside, however, restaurateur Keith McNally along with chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson have meticulously updated the interiors and the menu, transforming the formerly down-at-heel hideaway into the hottest French steakhouse in town. It’s six o’clock on a Saturday night and behind the velvet curtains – ropes being so last century – the joint, as they say, is jumpin’. This is Keith McNally after all, the man behind such landmark restaurants as Odeon, Nell’s, Pravda, Balthazar, and Pastis. So acute is his gravitational pull he can snatch chefs away from Daniel. His premonition of the zeitgeist so unerring that you find yourself in his establishments suddenly desirous of foods you didn’t know you wanted until Keith came along and showed the way. Clubby, convivial, Minetta Tavern lets you in on a secret: French food, in all its unpretentious, butter-laden, robustly flavored glory, is back. This is no wannabe brasserie, it’s a steakhouse-cum-tavern, which means the service is efficient and the bread comes cold. You want roasted marrow bones? Prepare for a platter that would have satisfied Fred Flintstone: three enormous what-look-like-femurs, split, roasted then broiled, with baguette soldiers and shallot confit. How about a simple roast beet hors d’oeuvre?  Brace yourself for a Pleistocene portion fettered with leeks, French walnuts and enough Vermont chevre that Barney and Betty Rubble would have no trouble sharing. Thankfully entrees are a bit more demure: a special of skate wing with cumin and roasted vegetables is warm, savory and as rich as meuniere; that classic of bourgeois cookery, blanquette de veau, is fork tender and served without a smirk on a bed of rice; a grilled whole dorade is simple with fennel and charred lemon without being Spartan. And if ever you’ve toyed with the idea of pre-ordering a souffle, this would be the place to do it. The luscious liaison of humble eggs and Grand Marnier arrives at the table as plump and inviting as a pinata, turning grown men and women into spoon-wielding children. Two smart sides must be singled out for Proustian praise, too: the choux farci, which will change they way you think about a humble cabbage roll, and the heretofore unknown pommes aligot, a variant of mashed potato infused enough cheese and butter to qualify it as the food equivalent of flubber. You don’t so much scoop it out of a cocotte as ladle it out in silky, elastic ribbons. It’s a solid that behaves like a liquid – and surely the only mashed potato I’ve ever encountered that warranted being eaten with both a knife and a spoon. Once upon a time I couldn’t have imagined wanting pommes aligot. Now I can’t bear to think of a life without it. Typical.

roasted marrow bones

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theatrically inclined

Much to my chagrin, the one-off movie theater across the street from my apartment recently closed. It showed crap movies, so no wonder; yet I still can’t help but mourn the passing of yet another single-screen cinema in this city. What the block-long expanse will become remains uncertain: the theater seats were sold off in the lobby to anyone who happened to notice the hand-scrawled For Sale sign, and the adjoining three shops have all been stripped bare. A sign at the corner announcing yet another TD Bank – just what the neighborhood needs – promises that the project will constitute some sort of major redevelopment. Not to sound too sanguine but I guess theaters come and theaters go; becoming everything from hot-spot bars to banks to parking lots. With that in mind, here are a few more recent converts that have bowed to changing times – and ever-changing needs.

THEN: The Jane Street Theater • NOW: The Jane hotel ballroom • Location: NYC

History:  The Jane Street Theater was an off-Broadway theatre in Greenwich Village with a small stage and a seating capacity of 280.  Notable shows presented at the Jane Street Theater included Hedwig and the Angry Inch (rumored to be coming to Broadway) and Jonathan Larsen’s tick, tick … BOOM! After the theatre was purchased by hoteliers Sean MacPherson and Eric Goode, they converted it into an event space called The Jane ballroom, located in the adjacent hotel, The Jane.

THEN: Michigan Theater  • NOW: Parking lot • Location: Detroit, Michigan

History: The Michigan Theater was built in August 1926. With a seating capacity of 4,050, the concert hall/movie house was one of the largest in Michigan. In the 1960s, it televised Red Wings hockey games for those who could not attend, and in the 1970s it was reborn as a nightclub and concert venue. In 1976, the main hall and lobby were gutted and converted into a multi-story parking structure – with much of the original architecture left intact! Ironically enough, the Michigan Theater is built on the site of the small garage where Henry Ford built his first automobile.

THEN: Mayan Theatre • NOW: The Mayan nightclub • Location: Los Angeles

History: Designed by Mexican artist Francisco Cornejo as a spectacular Mayan revival theater, the aptly-named Mayan Theater was built in 1927. Created solely as a venue for stage musicals, the debut event was a production of the Gershwins’ Oh Kay! In the 1980s, the theater fell on hard times and was bought by a developer who turned it into a nightclub. The building was renovated and – surprise, again – all the original architecture was maintained. Now, in addition to nightclub duty, The Mayan hosts the annual World Salsa Competition and on Sundays is home to evangelical church services.

THEN: The Villa Theatre • NOW: Adib’s Rug Gallery • Location: Salt Lake City, Utah

History: The Villa Theatre opened in 1949 showing Prince of Foxes on a screen 26 feet wide by 20 feet high, one of the largest screens in the West. In 1958, the Villa drew nationwide attention for its record-breaking 10-month and 4-day run of South Pacific. Moviegoers came to the theater from all parts of Utah, as well as southern Idaho and eastern Nevada.  After a string of renovations and ownership changes, the Villa Theatre was sold to Dr. Hamid Adib who preserved the theater’s original facade and restored the building. It’s currently enjoying new life as a gallery for Persian and Oriental rugs.

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