In the 1920s, a bar called the Black Rabbit occupied a corner location at MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village that was once the site of Minetta Creek, which meandered toward the Hudson River. By 1937, it had become Minetta Tavern, established by Eddie Silieri — who adopted the name of Eddie Minetta — and his two-room bar was to become the city’s foremost literary hang well into the 1960s. The Reader’s Digest was founded in the basement, and the bar was frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill, Dylan Thomas, E.E. Cummings, and Joe Gould, also known as Professor Sea Gull, who claimed to have written a history of the world and slept on park benches; he was the subject of a movie.
Minetta Tavern (113 MacDougal Street, near Minetta Lane) was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy when Keith McNally revived it in 2008, realizing the value of this cultural landmark and its visual appeal, plastered as it was with memorabilia and pencil caricatures of literary figures, many long forgotten. But while the original place served Italian food of a rather plain sort (I remember going there when I was an editor at Dover Publications in the ’90s), the interior looked pretty much as it does now, jumbled and quaint.
The vibe: Few places in town so perfectly capture the atmosphere of New York City mid-century. When I entered with a pal at 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, the place was already mobbed, both in the barroom and in the rear inner sanctum. (Sit in the barroom for crowd watching; turnover at the bar means lots of characters to observe.) The customers seem to be out of Central Casting — a jazzy scarf here, a beret there — and it’s easy to imagine literary celebrities are still in the room. There are as many women as men, even at the bar: This place doesn’t suffer from testosterone poisoning the way many such places do. Minetta Tavern feels like a party you’ve just stumbled into, though one with noise-damping decor so that conversation is still possible.
What to drink: While this is the perfect setting for a three-olive gin martini, the by-the-glass wine list is sometimes mercifully priced, with a good pour of rose for $19. To go with the menu’s preponderance of red meat, a Cote du Rhone Gigondas with a bit of age on it for $26. Or maybe you want to impress your friends with a 1998 bottle of Krug Champagne ($2450). For shots, this is a bar to drink Scotch, with a collection of 60 bottles, including vertical tastings of Macallan, Glenfiddich, and several others.
The food: When McNally took over in 2008 he launched a menu that might be described as upscale tavern, something like Corner Bar and its ilk is doing today. There are plenty of beguiling small plates, including the lightly pickled sardines ($21), each swatch resting on a puck of potato, and the autumn salad ($26), one of the few things that could be said to be seasonal, and a rare appearance of vegetables on a menu that majors in meat with a minor in seafood.
While my pal had a nice entree of Dover sole ($46), it was boring compared to my hamburger. Now, Minetta Tavern is famous for serving two burgers, one at $31 and the other, the Black Label burger, for $38: You won’t be surprised when I suggest you go for the expensive one. When it arrives it looks spherical like a glimmering meatball, until you realize it wears a thick toupee of onions caramelized into a supremely delicious sludge. This burger is an unfussy as you’ll find these days, and thankfully it’s not smashed.
For dessert, there’s no choice: Get the Grand Marnier souffle ($26), sufficient for two, finished with a dribble of the orange-flavored liqueur.
Some advice: One look at Resy may induce despair at getting into Minetta Tavern, but there’s a reservations hack: Minetta Tavern doesn’t like Resy any more that you do, and a living reservationist sits by the phone starting at 10 a.m., who can usually hook you up with a 6:30 p.m. the next day. And make sure your order that Grand Marnier souffle the minute you sit down, because it takes awhile to make, even if you don’t feel like thinking about dessert before you take your first sip of Scotch. Note that Minetta Tavern is open until midnight or 1 a.m. every night, and it may be possible to simply walk in and find a seat, especially at the bar, after 10 p.m. or so.