Byline: Robert Haskell
NEW YORK — If you pass by too quickly, you may mistake Village, with its glass storefront, red marquee and the bustle inside, for the latest contender in the city’s race toward brasserie sublime.
But Stephen Lyle, Village’s chef and owner, who ruled the stoves at Odeon for eight years, has a distinctly American sort of French restaurant in mind.
“Keith [McNally] and I are working in the same tradition,” Lyle says of the man behind Odeon. “Our restaurants come from the same place. But it’s a big vernacular that one can draw on with more restraint or more effusiveness. I’m not interested in the French brasserie escapist fantasy, if you know what I mean.”
Lyle prefers to seek out his muse in New York itself.
“I have no objection to being transported,” he explains. “That’s why people go out to eat. But I want to be transported to the place where I am.”
So Lyle started visiting some of the city’s classic watering holes like the Old Town Bar and the Cedar Tavern, where in the Fifties, Abstract Expressionist painters would stay out drinking late into the night, ending up in the occasional fist fight.
“I fell in love with wood,” Lyle says. He also had a vision of New York in the Thirties, the years just before High Deco, and set about chasing down old bars as reference points for the style.
“Until someone pointed out that there were no bars then,” Lyle laughs, “because of Prohibition. So in the end I got the idea for the bar from the look of an old barbershop up on Lexington Ave.
“But I think the soul of New York City intersects right here,” he says of Greenwich Village. “It was the stomping ground for Walt Whitman and Emma Goldman, and that was the part of history that was the most evocative for me.”
What Lyle found, on 9th Street, was a building loaded up with the ghosts of restaurants and cabarets past. Legend has it that it was in the same space that an eighteen-year-old Barbra Streisand had her breakthrough night. Many years earlier, so it goes, Rudolph Valentino was a busboy.
“People forget,” says Lyle, “that New York has had incredible restaurants since the 1850s, since Delmonico’s, and there’s always been an intersection of French and American food.”
That’s the food Lyle served at Odeon, and he doesn’t plan to change his style. “But I’m trying to do something a bit more sophisticated here,” he says, like introducing some of the Asian and Mexican ingredients he favors. Still, simplicity is paramount at Village.
“People want to eat out without having the chef’s cerebrations intruding upon the evening,” he says.
That was the key to the success of Odeon, where one can still turn up at midnight for a salad and a roast chicken. Indeed, if Village feels a bit like the chef’s old haunt, with the warmth of its dining room and the single-page menu with daily specials slipped into the plastic sleeve, Lyle doesn’t mind.
“What works works,” he says.