Opening week at Minetta Tavern: Madonna. Gwyneth. Me.

OK, I didn’t really sit with Madge and Gwyn. But I was there on Monday (a few nights before they showed up), checking out Keith McNally’s revamped Minetta, which is suddenly everyone’s favorite restaurant in NYC. Some years ago, Minetta Tavern was my parents’ favorite Saturday date-night restaurant, their place to escape and savor a simple Italian meal and some much-needed quiet time.

When my sisters and I were old enough, they took us along. We loved every moment, from the crusty bread and basil oil to the big bowls of spaghetti and clams. The dark, sleepy dining room was usually empty but full of character—a mural of the Washington Square neighborhood was the backdrop for rows of framed caricatures crowding the walls. It felt so cool, though in retrospect the food was pretty standard Italian-American.

The new restaurant is not the one I knew. But that’s okay. A brassy jazz soundtrack, a fabulous bistro menu and, most importantly, a sleek makeover have helped make this reincarnation a success. The energy just a week in is intoxicating.

The tired feeling is gone, razed with a couple of walls, to reveal a more open floor plan and better light, thanks to new street-to-ceiling windows in the front (thankfully, sketches and mural are intact). It’s even possible to watch the kitchen action through a long slit cut into a tiled back wall—something you might not have wanted to do when I was growing up.

Even better, chef-partners Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson (who, as alums of Balthazar and Pastis, are used to running popular restaurants) are already turning out some great dishes, including tender Berkshire pig's trotter mixed with mushroom duxelles and pork forcemeat that’s deep-fried and crispy. It’s a classic French dish that fits seamlessly with the bubbling café vibe. Juicy lamb saddle with belly meat intact is excellent, and so is a bright, billowy Grand Marnier soufflé flecked with orange sections.

After dinner, I lingered at my table, taking in the action as couples dressed in their downtown best packed in, eager for a seat. Nostalgia for the old Minetta, as much as I loved it, didn’t stop me from reveling in the excitement and conviviality of the new place. I’m happy to say that the change doesn’t make me so sad. I might make it my own Saturday night date spot, that is if I can keep scoring what is now the toughest reservation in town.