Sex, Steak-Frites, and Every Celebrity on the Planet: The Golden Years of Pastis

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The restaurant opened in December, 1999. Photo: Kevin Cheng/Flickr

There are parts of New York City that have changed so much due to zoning, redevelopment, or disaster that they are unrecognizable from what they were even ten years ago. Then there are parts of New York City that are unrecognizable due to Keith McNally. The corner of Ninth Avenue and Little West 12th Street, the home of McNally’s grand spectacle Pastis, is both. The gonzo brasserie opened in the winter of 1999, in the then-still-gritty Meatpacking District. Immediately, celebrities flocked to the wobbly bistro tables, then came tourist hordes, boutiques, hotels, and bottle service. Now Pastis is on the losing side of history. Today, McNally will close the restaurant for what his team says is a 15-month renovation, but rumors suggest it could be something more terminal. (McNally insists that it's not over, though, which might be why he didn't want to comment for this story.) Either way, if and when it does reopen, it won't be the same Pastis that changed a neighborhood and played host to too many nights out for Lindsay Lohan. So, as the restaurant bids adieu, Grub Street asked staffers and regulars from the glory days to reminisce.

1. What Pastis Meant for the Meatpacking District

Chris Session, maître d': Although it was a McNally restaurant, it was a whole new neighborhood where he hadn’t done anything before. It was a little bit uncertain. Coming in at 6 a.m. for the breakfast shift, we would see the carcasses in the true meatpacking businesses, and tranny prostitutes. We didn’t know what to expect. When we did our first 1,000 covers of brunch, I finally relaxed.

Adam Platt, New York restaurant critic: The McNally dining formula is always the same, but the real genius about Pastis is where it was. It immediately attracted people like moths to this giant festive restaurant, and the other big-box restaurants followed. Pastis really established not only the size of the restaurants in the neighborhood, but also the tone — which was clubby — and the clientele, the beautiful, beautiful people. 

Lyn-Genet Recitas, general manager: Before we opened, the trannies were furious with us. They thought we'd ruin their business and change the neighborhood (which of course Pastis eventually did.) They wanted to have a council with Keith. He agreed, so they had a meeting. It was like the Indians meeting with the Pilgrims. Keith said, "Ladies, I totally understand." He charmed them ... We never had a problem with them after that.

Marc Sarrazin, president of DeBragga & Spitler: By the time Pastis opened, I had been working in the Meatpacking District for 22 years. There used to be over 50 meat companies there. It was a teeming metropolis. There were a lot of breakers, who would bring in whole hindquarters and forequarters, and then guys like us, who dry-aged and portion-controlled. We fed off each other. By ‘99, there were maybe 20 or so companies left. Now there are five. When Pastis opened, the neighborhood was already gentrifying, but Keith brought attention to the neighborhood in a way that it never had. Landlords began to realize they had something good. They began to raise rents. A lot of the meat companies moved to Hunts Point in the Bronx; many shut down. We moved to Jersey two years ago.

Matt Dalton, manager: Back when we opened, the Meatpacking District was just us, Florent, meat, and trannies. It was their neighborhood as much as it was ours. We were both working. You’d take a smoke break at 11 p.m. and wouldn’t see anyone. Setting up the café in the morning, you watched the porters spray the blood out of the bricks. Then Spice Market opened [in 2004] and slowly you didn’t see meat anymore ... Instead you’d see women trying to cross the street in stilettos. We used to put money down on who would make it across without wiping out.

Andrew Berman, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation: Pastis made the neighborhood more of a destination for a strata of people for whom the Meatpacking District was not somewhere they would have gone. But, that evolution was already happening. Keith did it in a way that was gentle and that fit into the neighborhood at the time. He didn’t have sharp elbows and he really stood up for what he thought was right, even if was a blow to his pocketbook. Back in 2007, when the Hotel Gansevoort erected two hideous illegal billboards, Keith refused to take any calls from the hotel and wouldn’t accept reservations from them. He was very neighborhood-focused.

Hal Rubenstein, former New York restaurant critic: Florent was already there, but Florent was this fabulous oasis all by itself, a neat little clubhouse anyone could attend. Florent is the godfather of the Meatpacking District, but Keith and Pastis — because of the track record — that was a signal for everyone else to get onboard the train. When Florent opened in the early 1980s, it was called the Meatpacking District for a reason. It was all butcher shops. You'd get out of a cab to go into Florent and you'd step in beef tallow. That was part of the funkiness of going to Florent. But Keith isn't funky. Keith is cool.

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Just another brunch with Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana.Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux

2. The Scene — and the McNally Touch

Sascha Lyon, chef de cuisine: When [Balthazar and Pastis chefs] Riad [Nasr] and Lee [Hanson] and Keith told me they were going to make me the chef at Pastis, Keith sent me to Paris for ten days. He was so specific, he had every breakfast, lunch, and dinner lined up for me. This is how he is. He had exactly the amount of money I needed, down to the dime that I would be spending at each place. And every place I went to, I saw his inspiration. I understood it.

Meghan Love, server: Keith had this philosophy that he was very vocal about. It was a cool place; it was the coolest place on earth. But he never wanted anybody feeling intimidated. If there were a couple in their 70s or 80s, they would get a table before anyone else. They were given a complimentary glass of Champagne and made to feel they belonged there. As cool as Keith was and as cool as that restaurant was, he didn’t want to be cool.

Lyn-Genet Recitas: The great thing about Keith that people don’t know is that one of his favorite things to do was to see a young couple come in that didn’t seem to have a lot of money, or a single woman dining alone, and give them the best seat in the house. He loved to make everyday people feel super special.

Adam Rapoport, editor in chief, Bon Appétit: I did a piece for Time Out, where I was the editor, on Keith as he was opening Pastis, so I spent a lot of time with him. He is obsessively detail-oriented and those little details gave the place its undeniable atmosphere. He didn’t just want white subway tile from Home Depot. It had to be vintage from the 1930s. It had to have black grout, not white. Otherwise, he said, it would look like a hospital. Before Keith, no one was using subway tiles. No one was using those bistro towels as napkins or the little durable juice glasses for wine. There are so many things like that are common now that we forget who started them and where.

Anna Shin, manager: Pastis cultivated an aura that you could do things that you weren’t normally allowed to do at a dinner table. I once had a six-top shoot bow-and-arrows over to the bread station. Granted, they were toys, but they were still dangerous. They hit another customer, so I went up to them and said, “I’m glad you’re having fun but your arrow actually hit one of the guests. I’m going to need to confiscate them until you leave.” They were really upset. There was a lot of people drama.

Michelle Biscieglia, server: There was a couple that came in kind of regularly who would bring in a stuffed animal. You had to wait on it as well. You’d have to bring the stuffed animal a drink ... That’s the craziest thing I remember. They were nice enough.

Natalie Holst, hostess: One Sunday brunch, we actually had to call Bellevue and have this woman taken out in a straitjacket. It was the Fourth of July and poor Chris Session was outside at the door. This woman came up and tried to charge past him. He stopped her, but she kept running back and charging like a bull. She’s screaming that she wants to go inside. A thousand people are watching. She’s screaming, "Call the cops! Call the cops!" They grabbed her and took her away. 

Ivan Papic, bartender: Sunday brunch was a specific animal. The crowd in New York didn't seem to understand you can't serve alcohol before noon on Sunday. They'd go nuts at 10 a.m., when they wanted to drink. Then at noon, there would be a huge crush for Bloody Marys and Bellini. I remember I once cut myself pretty deeply but there was no time to go get stitches, so I just kept working. There were literal Bloody Marys that day.

Elizabeth Thompson, server: By the time I started working there, it was already very tourist-heavy because Pastis had been on an episode of Sex and the City. You would always see people photographed outside for Us Weekly. There were suits doing business lunches. There were also a lot of arty well-dressed dudes who had skateboards and beautiful model girlfriends. They’re the worst. 

3. The Regulars

Michael Hainey, deputy editor, GQ: Pastis was a joy because it always retained the rare quality that all Mr. McNally's places maintain — no matter how famous the places get, they remain neighborhood joints that look out for their regulars. For a good stretch of time, on nights when I'd been working late, Pastis was my kitchen. But that's not even the right word. It was an oasis. A beacon to which, at the end of a long day, I navigated. It was a welcoming and wonderful harbor to steer to. Because it was home. Not home-away-from-home. More like my home-on-the-way-to-home.

Thom Browne, designer: I used to go to Pastis every day for breakfast. I sat in the front room in a corner banquette and ordered white toast and a double espresso with milk. At the time it was a true neighborhood place. 

Lyn-Genet Recitas: Some of the sweeter celebrities, like John Johnson, the newscaster, really felt like family. Certainly a lot of the artists and younger kids. The room was always packed, especially in the beginning, with 80 percent regulars. You knew everybody so it felt like an extension of your living room.

Joel Lachman, owner, Lachman Imports: Nearly every Sunday since they opened, I had a standing 1 o’clock brunch reservation with my friend, [painter] Robert Lambert. I remember one day a few years ago when I came in, they said, “Congratulations, this is your 300th brunch.” Another time, I was skiing in Colorado and they called, worried that I wasn’t there. What I loved about Pastis is that it was always Keith’s mix of people. It wasn’t just trendy, or tourists, or hedge-funders, or celebrities. You’d be sitting next to Peter O’Toole on one side and a group of tourists on the other. Even as the neighborhood changed, that mix was there. There’s a lot of things that change in New York, but Pastis wasn’t one of them.

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A relatively quiet moment.Photo: Camera Press/Redux

4. What It Was Like to Work There

Matt Dalton: Newbies always started at breakfast, which was less crowded. But it was hardcore. You got there at the crack of dawn ... The system was militant. You had to arrive with a $40 bank, broken down to the nickel; three black pens; black socks; and your jeans had to be dark denim. You had to show them to a captain to approve. They had to be flattering on you. I wore the same pair of jeans for the first year and a half. All waitstaff had to buy a white short-sleeve button down from the restaurant for $15. It needed to be ironed and pressed, and if it had any sort of stain on it, you had to buy another one, no questions asked. You needed a tri-fold apron and a wait book. You were required to write down evertything the table told you. If you were a new server, during breakfast and lunch, you were constantly being tested. And if you hadn’t written everything down, you’d be busted. In the long run, it was one of the most — if not the most — valuable work experiences I’ve ever had. But I cried all the time after work.

Laci Blackford, busser: The thing about Keith McNally restaurants, they almost prefer [hiring people who don't know anything] so they can teach you. They hire based on character. When I was hired, I had never worked a day in a restaurant. I got a 100-page manual on how to bus tables ... It goes all the way down to how the salt and pepper shakers need to be facing toward the door. Now I can still tell a McNally employee within one second. It's just next-level.

Sascha Lyon: I said, what if we just start brunch at 9 a.m.? We'll run breakfast at 7, then I'll get the kitchen ready and we'll just run brunch from 9 to 5. And then that was it. We immediately catapulted into 800, 900, 1000 covers, 1200 covers. It was just insane, with 180 seats, to be able to push 800 dinners and 1,300 or 1,400 covers for brunch.

Natalie Holst: On an average day I would take down maybe conservatively 2,000 names and talk to 2,000 or more people. Pastis was a machine. It's a well-oiled machine and well-ordered chaos. It's perfect. I've worked in places that tried to do volume like that and have the same model and it just doesn't work. [McNally] is really good at hiring people. Because he was a movie director, we were more like a cast than a group of employees. Now they're practically my family. I met my business partner there, and my fiancé. 

Hal Rubenstein: Having worked for him for five years, I could tell you if someone was a Keith McNally waiter within 15 minutes. You either belonged after the first night or you didn't. And it didn't matter if you were good or could carry a tray — it had nothing to do with that. It had to do with a certain manner, a certain confidence with which his staff carried themselves across the floor.

Yassine Bentalab, manager: We had a saying at Pastis: "If you order a hamburger and a Coke, you'll probably get the hamburger first." That's how well-oiled the machine was. It was unbelievable.

Meghan Love: On a Saturday night, it was a raging beast. But it was, of course, very well-organized chaos. You couldn't have that much chaos for so long if it wasn't well organized. There was a specific hierarchy in terms of staff and each person knew exactly what their role was.

Evan Hoyt, server: There was always a group of us who, after close, would sneak up onto the High Line when it was still just an overgrown train track and drink Champagne out of Pastis paper coffee cups. 

5. The Food

William Grimes, former New York Times restaurant critic: The one thing about Keith McNally restaurants is, the food was always better than it had to be. People were going to eat at Odeon or Pastis regardless. There was one dish, the braised beef with glazed carrots, that has lingered in memory ever since I first had it, in a good way. It was just wonderful that it should be served at a place like that. It had depth and intensity. The rest of the menu was not of that caliber, but I would say the food was respectable-plus.

Sascha Lyon: To be a chef and work for Keith, you knew exactly what you had to do, and the parameters were so solid that there was never any question of what we should cook, or what dishes we should put on the menu ... I've been fortunate to have always been in very intense kitchens, and we brought our technique and product selection — essentially the same [products I had] used at Daniel was what we were using at Balthazar and Pastis. One of the testaments to the quality of Pastis is that you're eating a high-integrity product ... the quality was above and beyond any other brasserie or bistro at that price point.

Hal Rubenstein: What's so brilliant about the menu is that it has the illusion of being exotic, and yet it's full of familiar things. There will be shepherd's pie, but it's duck shepherd's pie — everything's there with a twist, but there's nothing unfamiliar. It's bistro food in a way people can recognize. Keith deliberately created one- and two-star restaurants — that's what he wanted. Because the dining experience, while good, should never supplant the rhythm and the energy of the New Yorkers in the room ... If you come in to a one- or two-star restaurant, you're there to have a good time. But with three and four stars, the clientele comes in with their arms folded, going, Show me

6. Sex and Drugs

Elizabeth Thompson: There were certainly servers there who were high, or you would hear so-and-so’s nose started bleeding during the shift. Drug abuse is pretty typical among waitstaff. It was a thing there.

Dushan Zaric, bartender: I worked the bar on the Sunday brunch shift from 2000 to fall 2002. I loved it ... The women were easy, hot, and they loved to party. Plus they loved bartenders. But I don't want young bartenders to get the wrong idea. The job is to serve people and if some women decide to give us a blow job along the way, that's great, but it's not the point.

Serge Milenkovic, waiter: Everyone was high. One time I got arrested mid-shift  for smoking a joint on my break at around 1:30 a.m. The cops let me drop off my paperwork — closed-out checks and stuff — and the restaurant cash I was carrying. Eventually they let me go without booking me. I even got my pot back. That was the magic of Pastis.

Sascha Lyon: People got so wasted there. Once I remember, around 2 in the morning, seeing a relatively regular guest laying on his back with a girl on top of him, where the sidewalk meets the street, right where you come out of Pastis. They were just going at it. We stepped over them, just laughing. He was just a mess. And we had to call the police on a couple. When you walk in, the back corner of the bar was to the left. There was a couple there and they wouldn't stop having sex. She was on top of him, on the banquette, with everyone around — totally packed. And they just wouldn't stop, so they called the police to have them taken out. That was an everyday occurrence.

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"...there was a special staff meeting about what to do if Lindsay Lohan orders alcohol."Photo: Marcel Thomas/FilmMagic

7. The Celebrities

Chris Session: There were celebrities, even in the early days. They were happy to go there, and we were happy to have them. Some of the early adopting celebrities were Mick Jagger, who would show up often, and J.Lo and Sean "Puffy" Combs, back when they were dating. 

Lyn-Genet Recitas: There were three tables in the back room, which were our VIP section. It wasn't always easy keeping them open for VIPs, but it always seemed to work out. From day one celebrities would come in. Carolina Herrera and Diane von Furstenberg, who were graciousness personified; Matthew McConaughey, who was such a bitch; Christina Aguilera, who refused to talk to her waiter and instead whispered to her bouncer who told her waiter. Calvin Klein was in there a lot. He was partying pretty hard and looking to make a lot of friends.

Larry Poston, manager: Pastis catered to not just Hollywood stars but New York celebrities: the media people, the fashion people, the art people. Matthew Barney was a regular and of course people like Anna Wintour. Those are the real New York celebrities. This was my stupidity, but I didn't recognize Anna Wintour. She didn't have a reservation, so I didn't seat her right away. But a manager took me aside and said, "Do you know who that is? That's Anna Wintour. If Keith found out you made her wait, you'd be dead." So, we sat her.  

Evan Hoyt: Robert Downey Jr. tripped me once. He was sitting on the patio at brunch. I had offered his table cocktails and he very smartly and sarcastically told me, “I don’t think I’ll be drinking. Thanks!” I come out later with a tray full of drinks for other people on the patio and really conveniently his foot goes out in front of me. I lost my entire tray of drinks. He was very apologetic, but somehow I knew he tripped me on purpose.

Natalie Holst: One time Jake Gyllenhaal came into the restaurant and kept asking me to move tables every 20 minutes. Turned out he was just trying to strike up a conversation. He said, “I was just waiting for you to get off work.” It was nice and sweet. I had a boyfriend at the time, but I still went out with him — I mean, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal. It was a little surreal.

Evan Hoyt: Dennis Hopper once came in ... They seated him without telling me he was there, and I let him wait a little too long before helping him out. He knew exactly what he wanted: He ordered the special for the entire table, including the child. He also ordered an additional burger for himself and substituted a salad for fries. The food comes out and I’m right behind the guy putting the food down. Dennis Hopper just looks at me and says, “Give me a plate.” He grabs all the fries with his bare hand, puts it back into my hands and says, “I ordered a salad.” He just destroyed me. I went home and Googled him. [The person] I thought was his daughter was actually his wife. 

Adam Rapoport: I went there a lot for lunch. The doors would open up and the light would spill in. It was energized. One time I was there and Jack Nicholson walked in. I remember him just walking down the aisle to his table with his sunglasses on. Four attractive young blondes cranked their heads around to see him. Without breaking his stride, he says, in his gravelly voice, “Ladies,” and keeps on walking. It was very Jack.

Elizabeth Thompson: On my first day, there was a special staff meeting about what to do if Lindsay Lohan orders alcohol. It felt so strange to have the Pastis upper management say, “Lindsay Lohan is not 21. If she tries to order alcohol, you go ahead and card her. If she gives you a hard time, you call for help.” Everybody was sort of scared.

Natalie Holst: Lindsay Lohan was a nightmare. She’s actually really sweet but she would set up shop and just sit there for years. I need the table, but you can't say anything. It was a thing. Then there would be the chaos of the paparazzi. She just caused a circus. She was always very sweet, but she just took up space.

Anna Shin: It was always important to place the celebrities well, somewhere they weren’t exposed and had an easy exit. The best place was along the wall in the back room. But the other key element was not making too much of a fuss. One time Jake Gyllenhaal came in when he was dating Kirsten Dunst. They were approached by a group of adoring girls. I walked by and subtly made eye contact with him. He nodded as if to say, It’s okay. I can handle it. 

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One can only guess how many papparazzi pictures were photobombed outside Pastis.Photo: Ian Wingfield/Getty Images

8. The Night Bill Clinton Showed Up

Meghan Love: I was handpicked to wait on Bill Clinton. I guess I was chosen because I was Southern and bubbly. My manager said, “There’s someone coming who is big, the biggest person you can imagine.” Michael Jackson? No, bigger. Oprah? No. They wouldn’t tell me but all of a sudden a security team arrived. They said, “Bill Clinton is going to be here in 45 minutes.” We gave him a wing of the restaurant. When he walked in, I had my back to the door. All of the sudden the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I thought, What the fuck just happened? Well, Bill Clinton had walked in the door. I had never experienced such pure magnetism from a human. I remember a Bangladeshi busser crying. He had been in the country for a couple of months but had a real affinity and love of this man. Clinton shook every single person’s hand in the restaurant. Every waiter, every patron. He ordered an omelette and a hamburger. He wanted them on the same plate, with French fries. But when he ordered, he got up and came over to me. He held me. He touched me while he ordered. It was very intimate.

Ivan Papic: I was there when both Bill came in and when Hillary came in later. I think it was for a fundraiser. We shut down the restaurant for her. I guess I have to say I was more impressed with Bill. With Hillary it was official. With Bill, he just wanted a burger.

9. ...And Then There Was That Time Prince Harry's Pals Got Drunk

Evan Hoyt: They all sat at the banquet table in the back. The Prince was the last one to arrive and by the time he got there, all of his friends got really really drunk. They were causing a commotion and there was talk of calling the cops on them. They were screaming and food was being thrown. When the prince got there, they sang some sort of weird English song, as if they were singing "Happy Birthday." It was the weirdest, most surreal thing. They were so incredibly loud and yet no one was saying anything about it. We all just ignored this table of weird English people as they acted insanely. 

10. Saying Good-bye

Matt Dalton: I could not have appreciated my experience at the restaurant any more. They were some of the best days of my life.

Hal Rubenstein: You could go there and order a croque monsieur and sit there for three and a half hours, or you could order 17 courses. You could feel comfortable eating at a table for two, or comfortable with a party of ten. You could feel comfortable in a T-shirt, or comfortable in a tuxedo. For some reason, you just felt like you always belonged when you got there, because it was a restaurant that so perfectly understood not how New Yorkers were, but how New Yorkers want to see themselves.

Sascha Lyon: We were the best. There was no other restaurant in New York that compared to Balthazar and Pastis, in magnitude, in quality, in style, in luxury and access. It was the pinnacle of New York. I don't know if there's been anything since then — people just attempted to emulate it and reach those heights.

Stephane Gerbier, general manager: I heard they’re building an ABC Carpet there. It’s so sad.

Chris Session: I never would have imagined Pastis being the machine it has become. The neighborhood has changed so much and it owes a lot of that to Pastis. It’s unfortunately a double-edged sword. Pastis made the neighborhood, and now the neighborhood no longer feels like it needs Pastis.