It was a flashback for the curated crowd invited to friends and family preview dinners Tuesday and Wednesday at the resurrected Pastis, hosted by Keith McNally and Stephen Starr, partners in the new venture that opens Friday in the Meatpacking District.
The vibe and transformative gold lighting looked instantly familiar, and of course there was McNally’s signature subway tile, mosaic floors, brushed aluminum doors, specials written on distressed mirrors, and bountiful floral arrangements. The invited group, too, included lots of familiar (and in old-Pastis style, very recognizable) names on Wednesday night: Lorne Michaels, Julianna Margulies, Jay McInerney, Salman Rushdie, Nicole Miller.
But the restaurant, located at 52 Gansevoort St., is now more spacious. Three rooms flow into each other, and there are new touches like a bathroom designed to look like a wine cellar, complete with bottles, salvaged wood, and terra cotta floors.
“It’s bigger, it might be nicer and you can’t smell the meat packing anymore,’’ said scribe and oenophile Jay McInerney, tucked into a front booth swallowing oysters and sampling vintages with wife Anne Hearst.
There was a lot of movement as friends jumped up from tables to greet one another and mingle. Charred steaks and legendary fries were visible on most tables, but the menu — see a version of it here — offers an array of bistro fare, including onion soup, herring with warm potatoes, crab and avocado with frisee, Croque Monsieur, and veal sweetbreads with fava beans and lemon butter.
“I was skeptical about magic of the Pastis dining room being recreated, but Keith may have done the impossible and made it better,’’ said restaurateur John McDonald, as he got up from his seat next to Equinox CEO Harvey Spevak and slipped into a chair beside Project Runway producer Desiree Gruber. “The scale and shape are different in a positive twist, but the detail and nostalgia of the old is present.’’
Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels, who used to hold his after-show parties at McNally’s Odeon, said he enjoys going to these these sneak peeks. “Keith and I have been friends since the first season of SNL and I’m always happy to come to these dinners,” he says. “He is an artist and there’s attention to detail everywhere.’’
Fashion designer Nicole Miller was tucking into her duck confit, Wednesday’s plat du jour when she jumped up to hug restaurateur Steve Hanson. “I love that you always run into friends here,’’ said Miller, who has just released her own rosé. “We needed this place back.’’
Hanson was awed by McNally’s ability to create something so timeless. “It feels like it’s been here 100 years and it’s only the second night,’’ he said. “The service is also impeccable; that’s the difference between coming to a place run by Keith McNally and Stephen Starr and going to an opening of someone less experienced.’’
Waitstaff who had been doing dry-runs for weeks were spinning around as if they had been choreographed. Actor Julianna Margulies was particularly empathetic to them, because she had been a McNally server herself, working for Keith’s brother Brian at 150 Wooster Street.
“Keith came and got me there one day because Condé Nast Traveler was doing a shoot at Lucky Strike (one of Keith’s restaurants). I said ‘but I don’t work here’ and we laughed about it and became friends,” she said. “I started dating my husband at Pastis over rose and oysters. For me, it represents the way New York used to be. The day it closed I thought , ‘This is the end of New York as we know it.’ ’’
Apart from signaling the return of an iconic place, the reopening of Pastis is a return to work for Keith McNally, who has been off the scene for nearly three years, after suffering a stroke. He held court at a table by the entrance.
The whole scene on Wednesday night felt “quite moving,” said novelist Salman Rushdie.
“It feels like Pastis reborn and it’s good to see Keith back again,’’ he said. “The staff is walking around with huge beams; they all feel emotional about it. At this moment, when we are losing little pieces of New York — like a bodega near me that had refused to shut down during the hurricane but now can’t pay the new rent — it’s lovely to have one piece back.’’
Pastis opens tonight for dinner at 4 p.m. and will go until 11 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and until midnight the rest of the week. Breakfast, lunch, and brunch will come later.