On October 14th, 1980, The Odeon turned on its neon lights, opened its doors to the world, and almost instantly became a place that defined downtown culture and nightlife in then-gritty Tribeca. In the 36 years since its opening, it has earned its status as quintessentially New York. Vandalism, violent crime and homelessness were at all time highs in early ’80s Tribeca, and the city itself was effectively bankrupt. The shadow of urban decay was apparent throughout the city.
But, as is often the case, the tough times fueled an artistic and cultural renaissance. New art forms like punk, hip hop, and graffiti coincided with a burgeoning new aesthetic in the worlds of entertainment and fine arts. The saccharine 70s were over and the nightlife scene in downtown Manhattan began to take off in earnest and British restaurateurs Keith Mcnally (who went on to open several bistros throughout the city, including Balthazar and Cafe Luxembourg) opened The Odeon. According to legend, they invited the original cast of Saturday Night Live to have their after parties there and it quickly became a place where the city’s artists, rockers, filmmakers, critics, intellectuals, comedians, industry insiders, socialites, trouble makers, and night crawlers could all feel equally at home. The novelist Jay Mcinnerney was also a frequent patron who immortalized the restaurant in his critically acclaimed novel, Bright Lights, Big City.
In the intervening years since those heady days when art luminaries Andy Warhol and Jean Michel-Basquiat were just as likely to be spotted at The Odeon as Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese, or Cher, the restaurant wasn’t quite able to maintain the pivotal role in the city’s cultural sphere it once enjoyed. Shifting demographics and the impact of AIDS and drugs on the creative community, as well as the tragedy of September 11, 2001, and the stock market crash and recession, all played a role in the decrease of the bistro’s cultural cache. But amazingly enough, through it all The Odeon has managed to do those things that separate the great restaurants from the merely good ones: maintaining a warm, inviting and convivial atmosphere; remaining stubbornly committed to providing excellent service without a hint of snobbery (despite the fact that the consistently high quality of the food might warrant it); and ALWAYS serving a delicious meal, no matter how late at night you stumble in.
Locals, gallerists, the financial workforce, and New Yorkers in the know who just wanted a good meal in a comfortable atmosphere never ceased frequenting The Odeon for breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner, because while it may not have been the cultural hub it once was, it was still among the best spots for casual dining in the neighborhood.
Now, with the recent arrival of multimedia mega-publisher Conde Nast to 1 World Financial Center, and a noticeable economic uptick and increase in activity in the area, The Odeon’s star is once again on the rise. While the new breed of clientele is decidedly tamer than their raucous predecessors, the sight of high-powered fashion and publishing execs chowing down at the Odeon alongside tech and media types is a sign of good things for the restaurant and the neighborhood in general.
The fare is universally simple and classic, and all well executed. The bar can turn out any classic you can call.
But it is, of course, the burger that keeps me coming back.
The Odeon’s burger hasn’t changed much in 36 years, and it shouldn’t have to. It features high quality beef grilled to perfection on a sesame challah bun– with crisp lettuce, tomato, onion, and Odeon sauce (similar to chipotle mayo) served on the side. Your choice is melted Cheddar, Gruyere, or Roquefort cheese. Even bacon. Once you pick up an Odeon burg, it is difficult to put back down.
New York is a city in constant flux, and there is perhaps no industry more aware of that than the restaurant industry. Today’s trendy new joint is often tomorrow’s vacant storefront. In a market as unforgiving as this one, it’s an achievement in and of itself to have survived in one location for nearly 40 years.
The Odeon is back. But then again, it never left. It isn’t the same devil-may-care Odeon that existed in the 80s, nor is it the quiet neighborhood joint of the early aughts. One can feel the ghosts of those bygone eras in the neon light that screams CAFETERIA disingenuously, and in the faces of the waiters who’ve been working there for years.