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Minetta Tavern: Keith McNally’s Old New York Slam Dunk

Do you want to experience New York? the true essence of the city in one single restaurant? Minetta Tavern is your place. In 2009, when mega-restauranteur Keith McNally announced his plans to refurbish and reopen the venerable Minetta Tavern, there were worries that it would be turned into another one of McNally’s atmospheric culinary theme parks (in the mold of Balthazar, Pastis, Pravda, and so forth). Quite the opposite happened, and McNally brought instead a restaurant oozing classic New York charm with an exclusive cache on par with Manhattan’s ritziest.

Located on the seedy edge of the West Village where fratty NYU bars draw crowds of older men and younger girls, Minetta Tavern is dark. Only a chintzy illuminated red sign and a well-dressed doorman show the possibility of life within. Through two doors and a thick crimson velvet curtain, you’re hit with the noise of a true New York hotspot: peals of laughter, the clinking of martini glasses, the shake-shake of a bartender’s cocktail mixer, the chatter of businessmen and happy couples; no distracting house music to be heard – anywhere.
The quirky space is crowded, packed to the gills with those desperately seeking tables. Upfront is the bar, manned by master bartenders in white aprons. The oak bar is refinished, partnered with cherry red stools and the intact wood paneling, still adorned with the miniature carved silhouettes from the originals 1930s’ Minetta. Black-and-white tiled floors, polished crimson leather banquettes, antique brass lamps, white tablecloths, and caricature sketches of famous New Yorkers round out the saloon-era vibe. The back room, a misshapen pentagon still covered in the worn fresco of Greenwich Village in eras past, throbs with life and noise. A series of small tables line one wall while tables for 4 and 5 stand askew in the center of the floor. The best seats in house, curved leather boothes in a private back corner, are seemingly reserved for VIP parties (Jerry Seinfeld on this particular night).
As NYMag points out, Minetta Tavern plays on the ‘neo-Speakeasy’ vibe like Hotel Griffou, Waverly Inn, The Lion, East Side Social Club, yet while the others focus on ‘the scene’ and artisan cocktails worth the $15 and let the quality of their food slide, Minetta Tavern offers the whole package: delicious and hearty American brasserie cuisine, knock-your-socks-off cocktails, and a buzzy exclusive scene to compete with the best of ’em. The kitchen, run by former Balthazar chefs Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, churns out top-notch brasserie dishes like oxtail and foie gras terrine, a tasting of three tartares, roasted marrow bones, crisp pig’s trotter, trout meuniere, and grilled dorade. Perhaps though, what they’re most famous for are the burgers.
The Minetta Burger, a classic cheeseburger with a load of caramelized onions, is thick, juicy, immensely flavorful, and served with a halo of perfectly-salted shoestring fries. The Black Label Burger, a unique blend of prime dry-aged beef made especially for Minetta by Pat LaFrieda’s outfit, is funky, extraordinary, and completely unusual for a burger. Both are a must-try, no matter how enticing the $104 cote de boeuf for two and pasta za za with pancetta, sage, parmesan, and fried egg look. Other recommended dishes include the diver sea scallops, a special prepared beautifully with a sweet caramelization and corn bacon ragout, and the ‘tartare goutez’, a trio if lamb, veal, and beef tartare.
Minetta Tavern is a special place. A year after re-opening, it remains difficult to get-into, a place where the celebrities hang. Yet, despite such exclusivity, it’s not in the least bit pretentious or snooty. Anyone willing to pay big bucks for a great meal will feel at home here from the hipsters to the yuppies to the suits, ladies who lunch, out-of-towners, and fashionistas. McNally hits the sweet spot with his nostalgic saloon: hoppin’ scene, memorable food, swoon-worthy cocktails, effective and efficient service, and enviable cache.
Perfect For: impressing clients, anniversary dates, celebrity sightings, late-night dining, the hamburglar, seeing and being seen, special occasions

Minetta Tavern on Urbanspoon

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