Remembering the Old Pastis as the Iconic Bistro Reopens in New York
The year was 1999. The Senate acquitted President Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice, South Park the movie hit theaters, and actress Pamela Anderson announced her divorce from musician-husband Tommy Lee. Meanwhile, in Manhattan’s gritty Meatpacking District—an area home to hundreds of packing plants and slaughterhouses during the twentieth-century that, around the 1960s, began to turn over to a neighborhood notorious for its nightclubs and illicit activities—budding restaurateur Keith McNally had a vision.
“I accidentally stumbled across the deserted piazza-like intersection of 9th Avenue and Little West 12th Street,” says McNally, adding that he thought the expanse—though it was in a then-unpopular stretch of the city—and the development which occupied it, could “be a good spot to build an all-day café.” McNally spent a year and a half, plus three million dollars, converting a 6,300-square-foot warehouse-like building into a French brasserie named Pastis.
“In the late 1990s, I became obsessed by old, white institutional six-inch by three-inch tiles,” he adds, explaining that these tiles, which he first saw at a butcher shop in England as a child, became his main aesthetic inspiration for Pastis and the bistro’s early 20th century aesthetic.
“These tiles were on my mind for 50 years before I got to use them," he says. Tiles, along with a two-year residency in France, and the beloved memory of actress Anna Karina dancing the Madison in a “fantastic” Parisian bistro in director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film Bande à part, solidified McNally’s desire to open his own interpretation of a French bistro—one with white, institutional six-inch by three-inch tiles peppered inside the restaurant and out.
Pastis helped spark radical change in the Meatpacking District, attracting the influencers of the early 2000s—models, writers, photographers, and actors—to a cool and fringe-y neighborhood for good French fare served in an atmospheric bistro space whose seats were never easy to book. Pastis lured in diners from New York, Los Angeles, and beyond, and the restaurant became a regular hang for notables like Martha Stewart, Sarah Jessica Parker, and so many more celebrities we would crash the website listing them all here.
Despite the restaurant’s success, McNally closed Pastis in 2014 after his landlord tripled the rent. But he promised Pastis would return. And last spring came news that celebrated Philly-based restaurateur Stephen Starr would join McNally as an equal partner in the restaurant’s revival, with his team handing Pastis 2.0’s day-to-day operations, in addition to menu development.
“Imagine a place that was hard to get into for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” says Starr, considering Pastis’ past. It “set the Meatpacking District on fire, and inspired others restaurateurs, including myself, to try to go out and create similar magic.”
And when Pastis returns to the Meatpacking District this week, claiming 52 Gansevoort Street, McNally promises that his muse—those simple white tiles—will return, albeit in a space with 8,500 square feet of wiggle room. McNally will head up Pastis’ creative direction and aesthetics, but at the moment those details are still under wraps. However, Starr Restaurants’ website reveals that the restaurant’s “curved zinc bar outfitted with signature subway tiles, vintage mirrors with handwritten daily specials, and a mosaic-tiled floor” will all return.
In anticipation of Pastis 2.0, notables from the restaurant industry and beyond recall memories from the iconic bistro’s past.
Sam Talbot, chef of the Hamptons’ forthcoming Morty’s Oyser Stand, author of The Sweet Life
On drinking 13 French 75s: “One time I was there on a date, and the girl I was courting said to me ‘let’s go drink for drink,’ and I said – ‘but I’m twice your size.’ She said, ‘prove it,’ so we drank 13 French 75s that day. I didn’t move for three days, and haven’t had one since then! Larry, who was the general manager at the time, told me it was a record. Man the memories.”
On effortlessness: “Pastis was always right except when it was not. It was the right place, at the right time, with right people making incredibly wrong choices about where their evening would carry them. It was like brushing your teeth in the a.m. It was effortless. Second nature. It was the helm of downtown New York. Wasn’t it?”
Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Outliers
On its neighborhood impact: “There wasn't anything else in the neighborhood! This was the beginning of the transformation of the Meatpacking District. Also, hard as it is to believe today, the idea of a real, live French bistro—perfectly replicating the French model—seemed really novel in 1999.”
On being a regular: “I used to sit there in the afternoons and write, probably a couple times a week. This is an inside joke, but some of my friends and I wanted to start a ‘bistro journal’ called ‘Policy Banquette: Theory, Praxis, Pomme Frites.’ We even designed a mock cover. It would be a journal devoted to the kinds of people who spent too much time at Pastis, like me.”
Jason Hall, executive chef of New York’s Legasea Seafood Brasserie
On the old Meatpacking District: “Back then, the Meatpacking District was an undeveloped neighborhood, and Pastis was the anchor that started the shift in that area. As far as the destination goes, you could really get away with anything you wanted in Meatpacking – which was part of Pastis’ appeal.”
On drinks: “The drink of choice back then was an ice-cold Kronenbourg 1664—they seemed to give away more Calvados than they sold.”
Christopher Gross, Food & Wine Best New Chef and executive chef of Arizona’s The Wrigley Mansion
On unisex bathrooms: “I loved the bathroom, and watching confused first-timers visiting the restaurant. When you walked into the bathroom, there was a large communal room with one massive sink basin and several doors to stalls. I think it was one of the first unisex bathrooms in New York, so it was kind of surprising and maybe unnerving for people who hadn’t been before.”
Kenneth McCoy, chief creative officer of New York’s Public House Collective (Ward III, The Rum House)
On building a neighborhood: “I worked in the Meatpacking District when I was 19 — this was 1991. There was only one place to go and that was Florent, when McNally opened up in 1998 or 1999, I believe there wasn’t much else other than Florent. What he did to the Meatpacking District is what he did in TriBeCa with The Odeon in the '80s—he created a destination spot, hence creating a neighborhood where people wanted to go.”
On seeing and being seen: “Pastis was a scene from what I can remember, but those days are a bit hazy now. I remember going and seeing celebrities of course. That’s what McNally does—he creates places that you want to be seen in, and the next thing you know, you can’t afford to live there anymore!”