by Eric Twardzik
The appeal of the French bistro is eternal. From the pages of A Moveable Feast to that semester abroad, we relish those homey dining rooms where the steak comes rare (or raw, in the case of the tartare) and the roast chicken is never a compromise. New York is blessed with an institution that upholds those same culinary traditions alongside a history that could only have occurred in a very specific time and place.
Even if you haven’t been to The Odeon, you’ve seen its sign. Since first opening in 1980, the Tribeca restaurant has beamed its name through a 29-inch blazing red neon sign that’s appeared on the cover of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and cameoed in SNL’s opening credits of yore. More recently, it surfaced as a tattoo on Lena Dunham’s hip (for whatever that’s worth).
Its identity was blurred between bistro and diner. Here you could dine on food prepared by a chef trained by nouvelle-cuisine founder Michel Guérard, and witness John Belushi partying with his fellow cast members deep into the night. The interior matched that schizoid energy: an imposing Art Deco bar with red leather swivel seats sat next to white tablecloths, modern furniture, and bow tie-clad servers.
Odeon regular Andy Warhol once rhapsodized on the democratizing tendencies of Coca-Cola: “…the president drinks coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke too.” The Odeon in its heyday was something like that, but in restaurant terms. You could stumble in for steak frites and witness Tom Wolfe folding a napkin over his white suit trousers, or Jean-Michael Basquiat tasting the Côtes du Rhône he’d just ordered.
Thankfully, this landmark did not become another CVS or Chase bank. It shines resolutely on Broadway, with rather minimal changes to the decor (aside from deceased or vanished regulars). It also hasn’t traded-in its American bistro charm for some flash-in-the-pan culinary trend. You can still celebrate success with steak tartare and a French 75, or mourn your decisions of the night before over a gruyère-oozing croque monsieur and a merciful Bloody Mary.
One day, hopefully far from now, that light will go off. But until that day comes we’ll continue to cherish its glow, sazerac in hand.