The Odeon is an iconic restaurant in TriBeCa. It was born in 1980 and even though I'm not great at math, I know this means The Odeon has been around for 35 years and it's still going strong -a rarity in New York City. It was on the cover of Bright Lights, Big City, the first (and I think the best) novel by Jay McInerney and was a favorite hangout of artists back when artists could afford to live in Manhattan. It is one of the few eating establishments whose name you can say to an NYC taxi driver and he or she will know exactly where to go. The Odeon has witnessed its neighborhood change and seen its share of comedy, drama and tragedy. In the late 90's I was fortunate enough to work there.
My family used to go to Thanksgiving at an intrepid friend's house in TriBeCa when I was a teenager. After dinner my sister and I would help him walk his Puli. In the 80's, the neighborhood looked as if fifteen people actually lived in the vast, industrial lofts. Except for West Broadway and Hudson, the streets were narrow and cobblestoned. It was quiet, eerie, desolate and romantic. Even though the hunting dog probably knew his route by heart and could guide us home if necessary, it was easy to become disoriented and lost. The only signpost that stood out as a beacon was the giant, red neon sign, "Odeon," and its subtitle on Duane Street, "Cafeteria," which is overly modest. Through its large windows partially obscured by horizontal wooden blinds, the restaurant was warm and inviting particularly compared to the Hopper-like loneliness outside.
Many restaurants have copied its Parisian bistro interior but none have done it as successfuly. The original owner, Keith McNally, was a visionary. Like the best designers, he knew a great set served its purpose, enhancing theatricality without stealing focus from the play. The bar was long and covered an entire side of the restaurant. It was always three patrons deep. Supposedly the cocktail "the Cosmopolitan" was invented there. I don't know if this is actually true, but it's a good rumor. The wood-panelled walls contrasted with the concrete floor; warmth coupled with severity, the old paired with the new. There was a pillar near two-tops one through five stocked with newspapers and magazines for patrons to read while they waited for their date or to keep them company as they ate alone. The pendant globe lights were low-lit and dreamlike, reflected in the mirrors all along the back wall. A person had the option to stare at themselves or not. The black and white tiled bathroom downstairs had seen its share of backstage drama but wouldn't tell a soul. The restaurant shimmered with sophistication and its hipness was aspirational. One day I would be worldly enough to go there for dinner, hopefully in the company of a handsome, mysterious man who perhaps was writing his Great Novel or was on a stopover while he traveled to Rome. Or Sting, a teenage obsession that utterly embarrasses me now.
I was hired as a hostess and showed up for training in what I thought was a nice outfit, but one look at the dining room and I realized I was in over my head. Even though they were in regulation black/white uniforms and bib aprons, the waitstaff's individual style shone through. Their languid boredom as the manager made announcements and Chef listed off the specials added to their allure. As some draped arms over each other or whispered conspiratorially, they looked almost post-coital. They were chic, sexy and exclusive. When I was introduced they regarded me with disinterest, like lions who were already sated from feasting on a gazelle's carcass.
After a short time working there I noticed the atmosphere changed dramatically over the course of a day. Lunch was pretty standard. The customers who came in tended to be people from the neighborhood who lived or worked there and business people or jury duty attendees on their hour break. The turnover was brisk and no-nonsense.
Early dinner were mostly families. At this time, TriBeCa wasn't a playground for the entitled. Those who chose to live there were usually creative, adventurous people. Architects, artists, writers and performers. You'd have to be an usual type of banker or stock broker to consider buying an apartment in that neighborhood. Raising your child in New York City can produce selfish, myopic kids or preternaturally wise, sophisticated and interested ones. Most of the children who ate early-bird style at the Odeon were the latter. I credit their parents. Inevitably, if these parents were calm and sensible, so were their kids. I actually learned a lot watching these parents deal with their children in a thoughtful manner and I try to keep their example in my mind as I parent my own.
If it wasn't too busy, I liked to hold the babies for the parents so they could have a chance to eat unburdened. And I loved talking to the older kids, sometimes on the green bench outside. I was particularly close with one 6 year old, Isa. She had bright eyes and cocked her head at me like a sparrow when we talked. One time I asked Isa if she'd just gotten her ears pierced and she replied, "Zandy, I got them pieced a month ago! Where have you been?" Last summer as I was running along the Hudson River, a tall, young woman called out to me. Same face, same expression but on an adult. Isa was graduating college. She had exactly the same sweet, inquisitive spirit. I was thrilled she remembered me and unnerved by the rapid pace of time.
The night progressed like a piece of theatre. Sometimes a farce, sometimes melodrama and always compelling. I never got used to the eclecticism of the Odeon's clientele. As long as you could afford to pay the bill you were welcome there. Paint-splattered shorts and jeans were as accepted as tuxedos and evening gowns. People in fashion, photographers, publishers, writers, actors, models, financiers, singers, painters and everyone else in between came through those heavy glass doors.
The Odeon was a prime example of why people are drawn to New York City. The banquets were packed together and often tables would talk and laugh with each other having probably just met at the bar waiting endlessly for their table. No one minded being crammed into impossibly tight spaces. It enhanced the intimacy and energy of the restaurant. It was all motion, heat and light. And it was undeniably sexy. There were more than a few times I was sent to unlock a couple from a particularly warm, calisthenic embrace.
Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time working in a restaurant knows the unspoken hierarchy. Chef is at the top. You do not piss off Chef. He or she has the power to make your life easy or turn it into a living hell. Luckily I got off on the right foot with the Odeon's. He saw a dutiful girl who wasn't looking to cause trouble and he always treated me well. He let me eat what he cooked for the rest of the kitchen- delicious, real Chinese food bearing no resemblance to General Tso's - told me to drink hot tea instead of iced when I had allergies and almost never raised his voice at me. Others Chef judged weren't so lucky. Customers become cranky when their food slows to halt out of the kitchen, as many waiters soon found out.
Under Chef came the general managers. The owner of the restaurant is technically at the top of the heap, but general managers who run the day-to-day operations were of equal or more importance. GM's seemed to get no credit when business was running smoothly and most of the grief when it wasn't. They also had to spend a large portion the day in a windowless room in the basement.
Our general manager was a man named Edward. He was a big man in stature and in personality. He was gruff, smart and sometimes caustic. A man of few words and pretty much all of them ironic. David Letterman was a semi-regular at the Odeon and that's who Edward most closely resembled. Big guys from the Mid-West who had to temper their sarcasm with slyness in order to fit in at home, eventually leaving for larger, freer cities where their edges were appreciated and were actually an asset. I was the complete opposite. If I came into his office, Edward would usually cut me off mid-sentence and I would wander back out discombobulated finishing it to myself. It became my goal to say something mildly intelligent or funny to try to win his approval. He seemed like a hard sell.
In the dining room, the bartenders were the leaders. They had separate rules from the waitstaff and were more like lone wolves. If they didn't like a customer or if he got too drunk and belligerent - I say "he" because in my experience this rarely happened with women - the bartender had license to cut them off and throw them out. This was always fun to watch. Like Page Six coming to life since many of the worst offenders were semi-well known. Bartenders could be surly, laconic and even rude and customers couldn't really do anything about it. Some of the customers even liked the abuse because, well, people are complicated. The men and the women who bartended at the Odeon were savvy and cynical. And they were generally gorgeous and sexy. Bartenders were the ones who got the most action and were mostly likely to break your heart.
Waiters were the next rung down, but not by much. They were all stunning in completely different ways. They were musicians, writers, actors, designers and a few were clearly models. Some didn't do much of anything, but who cared? They were great to look at. There was a different type of waiter for every type of customer who entered the Odeon. Some regulars came in expressly for them. It created a collegial, egalitarian atmosphere I've rarely seen in other restaurants. The waiters matched their customers in style, wit and substance. Many waited for their favorites and gravitated to the bar to have a drink or some other substance with them after their shifts were done.
The bar-backs and the bussers were, to a man, the most wonderful, kind and hardworking people at the Odeon. They received almost no recognition except a percentage of the waiters' tips. They were routinely ignored by customers and spoken to sharply by managers and staff alike. I marveled at their perseverance and even-tempered disposition. I couldn't do what they did and even if I could, I wouldn't be able to do it with such good grace.
One of the people at Odeon who stood out in particular was our m'aître d', a dashing Moroccan named Kahlid (a pseudonym). After I knew him a bit, I believed about 45% of what he told me but didn't mind because he was inimitable. For example, he said one of the most beautiful waitresses, also Moroccan, was his sister when actually she was one of the many women he was sleeping with. The complexity and chutzpah of all his lies was almost admirable. He was married to a poor, defeated-looking woman clearly for his green card, and they had a daughter whom he absently adored.
Kahlid was tall, handsome, impeccably dressed and masterful at his job. He'd generate tables out of thin air. He would have the busboys carry them up from the basement and create availability in minutes. He called every regular customer who was a women, "my princess," and every man "my brother" mostly because he couldn't remember their names, but they loved thinking they were singular. Everyone wanted attention and special treatment. He made everyone think he was theirs, but of course he belonged to no one. Kahlid was using them when they thought they were using him. It was one of the first times I saw "important" people act subserviently. I realized that people's attitude toward wanting food and drink was primordial and deeply personal, almost sexual. If they didn't get what they wanted, they reverted to a neediness bordering on rage. When they did, they were ecstatic and grateful. All they wanted was his momentary devotion. He told his customers with a Cheshire Cat smile that he'd have their table ready in ten minutes and they would happily wait at the packed bar for an hour.
Kahlid had a democratically mercenary view of the world. He never really listened to anything anyone said to him and he judged no one. The only thing he was interested in was the way a person could be of benefit to him. He was constantly scheming in one way or another. He could sell you some beautiful rugs, he could hook you up with a trip to Morocco, he knew someone who made suits or had access to premier seats to concerts or sporting events. Kahlid had his fingers in everything and relished the dirt. He hit on any mildly attractive woman who worked with him but wasn't offended if they didn't succumb to his charms. The first day I started working for him he tried with me too, but it was half-hearted as if he felt he had to go through the motions or I might think I was overlooked and abandoned. It was very nice of him to consider my feelings.
After I had been at the Odeon a a few months I became competent enough for him to consider leaving the floor for short periods of time, then longer. I was pretty much intimidated by everything but learned to pretend I wasn't. It was some of the best acting I've ever done. If you deal with snotty people calmly, reasonably with a hint of condescension as if they were unruly children, they generally snap back into shape.
I also got better at my job. I learned how to make sure everyone and everything at the Odeon flowed smoothly like a dance. You sit a waiter with the correct number of tables so he or she won't be slammed, so the orders will be properly timed with the kitchen, so the bussers will clear the tables to make sure the courses come out quickly but not so quickly that the customers feel rushed, so the check will be placed on the table at the appropriate moment, so that the customers without being aware are shuttled out of the dining room maybe migrating to the bar for an après dinner drink. Then you repeat this performance until the kitchen closes at midnight. Eventually regulars recognized me and even started to ask for me.
My competence was richly rewarded. Kahlid would sometimes leave for an hour or so. One night he said he was going across the street to Bar Odeon to teach them how to make Caesar salad dressing. Fifteen minutes after he had left the restaurant exploded. Kahlid's regulars were up in arms demanding his presence. I did the best I could and actually managed to placate and seat customers in the appropriate amount of time. I was fairly proud of myself. When the restaurant had calmed down I called over to Bar Odeon to find Kahlid. The waiter who answered the phone was confused: "Kahlid hasn't been here all night and Chef just sends over the same Ceasar salad dressing you have so why would he need to help us with ours?"
Kahlid blew in about ten minutes later, sniffing violently and said "What is this? What have you been doing to my restaurant?? You did it all wrong!"
I was and still am naïve about drugs. At the time I wondered how customers and waitstaff - we often sneaked sips during our shift - could drink so much for so long and stay seemingly sober, even energized. I only learned years later it had to do with coke and other substances I knew less about at the time. Coke had been offered to me several times when I was in high school during the heyday of 80's club life in New York City. I was terrified I would like it too much. It also seemed to exacerbate the worst individual qualities of the people doing it, and so I said no. Actually, I said I had done too much already so as not to look uncool and the people offering were so high they accepted my lie as truth. At any rate, the Odeon bathroom saw a lot of activity. Management must have been marginally aware of what was going on, but the restaurant was hopping night after night so they looked the other way.
Because he continued to leave me holding the reins at the Odeon while he went about his errands, I knew Kahlid actually respected my abilities. Eventually we became wary friends with each other. I was promoted to m'aître d' myself. Despite his shadiness, I had a soft spot for Kahlid. I knew his bravado barely covered his extreme insecurity. I saw the ambition that had allowed him to start as a busboy at the Odeon and work his way up the ladder to the top of the heap. He was an alley cat landing on his feet for the ninth time; a survivor. I admired him but I didn't want to get too close to him either. In his own particular way, he was an excellent teacher. Most of what I know about operating ably in a busy restaurant I learned from him.
Eventually, the Odeon's magic started to wear off. The owner became more corporate. She made seemingly arbitrary decisions - no more tables seating six or more people, staff had to wear small earrings and roll down their sleeves and button the cuff so no tattoos were showing - ideas that in no way increased business but made her feel more in control. Kahlid left or was fired, it remained unclear. Many of the bigger personalities at the restaurant met the same fate.
The neighborhood also changed. More and more hedge-funders and celebrity-types bought property and turned the spare industrial lofts into opulent, showy pleasure domes. As befalls so many formerly funky neighborhoods, artists became victim to their own success; they were pioneers and had made the place livable and vibrant and safe. Because of their efforts, property values increased and then wealthier people arrived to poach what the original inhabitants had created. Many of them relocated to Brooklyn or Queens where rents were cheaper and where the bohemian spirit was more welcomed. Catering to this new, more entitled crowd amidst its own crisis of confidence contributed to the Odeon's edges softening, the atmosphere becoming more sedate and generic. Nighttime was still bustling but the Odeon lost a little of its sheen of danger and excitement. More cameras were installed, more rules were made. The staff felt stiff and nervous that they were going to be next on the chopping block.
Edward, who had unnerved me at the start of my Odeon tenure, ended up being the staff's biggest advocate and protector, certainly he was for me. Later, I found out I had been dangerously close to being fired, I'm not exactly sure for what. Maybe I was too vocal in staff meetings, maybe the owner felt I was too closely aligned with Kahlid or maybe something about my presence just rubbed her the wrong way. At any rate, Edward went to bat for me and I was spared. As probation for my unknown sins I was sent to Bar Odeon. At first I missed my Odeon friends (and the bartender I had a crush on). Even though it was right across West Broadway, I was mortified to be sent to what I considered as restaurant-Siberia
I soon realized that the owner had absolutely no interest in Bar Odeon and completely ignored it, which gave us the freedom to make it into exactly the place we wanted it to be. I tried to make the atmosphere less like a diner and more like a boîte. I dressed nicely and I asked the waiters to spiff up too. I brought in my mixed CD's (this was pre-iPod) and became the most inexperienced but eager-to-learn sommelier, choosing nice, fairly inexpensive wines to compliment Bar Odeon's solid bistro food.
Regulars from the Odeon started cheating with us. Even though our place was modest by comparison, the restaurant took on a bit of the ebullience and sophistication the Odeon had perfected before it had decided to become serious. It was a subversive pleasure to watch Bar Odeon start to succeed in spite of the owner's neglect and see customers and staff happy and busy.
Edward bought Bar Odeon from the Odeon's owner and renamed it Edward's. He is such a modest, unpretentious guy he felt uncomfortable with his name on the awning. But we convinced him it was the only choice. It's solid, straightforward and welcoming, just like him. It's a tribute to Edward that most of the original staff decided to take a chance and work for him instead of the Odeon. He had shown loyalty to us and we gladly returned the favor.
Right before Edward bought his place, 9/11 happened. We were six blocks away from the World Trade Center. It was like a terrible, incomprehensible dream. We weaseled our way past the police barricades and back into the area four days after the disaster and helped clean out both restaurants and restore them to semi-working order. Then we opened and tried to go about business as usual, which was impossible because there was little to no business to be had. Only people from the neighborhood and emergency workers. No businessmen and certainly no revelers. None of us knew how to act or what to say to each other. What had happened was too enormous to comprehend. At the time it felt like the end of the world and in some ways it was. Nothing would be the same ever again. We did our best. We tried to be upbeat and casual in service to normality. We gave out free drinks and food to firefighters and policemen covered in what we later learned was poisonous dust and debris. We drank a lot. But it was hard to pretend to forget whenever you heard a siren or smelled the awful scent that pervaded the area; burnt plastic, metal and other things better not to imagine. We never got used to it, but we learned to adjust and feel grateful we were spared and had a place to go and something to do. We had taken those buildings for granted. I realized once they were gone that they had been a marker of where Manhattan ended and the river and ocean began, like the Odeon sign had been for me when I had been lost as a girl in TriBeCa.
I worked at Edwards for many years after that. It became my home away from home. It was my social life and the way I supported myself when I didn't have an acting job, which was a lot of the time. And whenever I did, Edward made sure I had my spot waiting for me when my acting gig was over. I established relationships and friendships with customers and staff that have lasted through the present day. I even worked there while I was pregnant with my first child because I liked the camaraderie so much. Everyone was especially nice to me then and many of my regulars insisted I sit down and relax with them while they ate and drank. I miss being there sometimes.
But working at the Odeon was a singular experience. Edward's felt like home. The Odeon never did. It felt like Oz. Maybe its allure was a sleight of hand, but I was full of wonder when I was hired there. I couldn't believe my good fortune to be actually living the fantasy that had played on a loop inside my teenage mind.