Remembering the Old Pastis as the Iconic Bistro Reopens in New York
Pastis has returned to the Meatpacking District after a five-year hiatus.
The year was 1999. The Senate acquitted President Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice, South Park the movie hit theaters, and actress Pamela Anderson announced her divorce from musician-husband Tommy Lee. Meanwhile, in Manhattan’s gritty Meatpacking District—an area home to hundreds of packing plants and slaughterhouses during the twentieth-century that, around the 1960s, began to turn over to a neighborhood notorious for its nightclubs and illicit activities—budding restaurateur Keith McNally had a vision.
“I accidentally stumbled across the deserted piazza-like intersection of 9th Avenue and Little West 12th Street,” says McNally, adding that he thought the expanse—though it was in a then-unpopular stretch of the city—and the development which occupied it, could “be a good to build an all-day café.” McNally spent a year and a half, plus three million dollars, converting a 6,300-square-foot warehouse-like building into a French brasserie named Pastis.
“In the late 1990s, I became obsessed by old, white institutional six-inch by three-inch tiles,” he adds, explaining that these tiles, which he first saw at a butcher shop in England as a child, became his main aesthetic inspiration for Pastis and the bistro’s early 20th century aesthetic.
“These tiles were on my mind for 50 years before I got to use them," he says. Tiles, along with a two-year residency in France, and the beloved memory of actress Anna Karina dancing the Madison in a “fantastic” Parisian bistro in director Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 film Bande à part, solidified McNally’s desire to open his own interpretation of a French bistro—one with white, institutional six-inch by three-inch tiles peppered inside the restaurant and out.
Pastis helped spark radical change in the Meatpacking District, attracting the influencers of the early 2000s—models, writers, photographers, and actors—to a cool and fringe-y neighborhood for good French fare served in an atmospheric bistro space whose seats were never easy to book. Pastis lured in diners from New York, Los Angeles, and beyond, and the restaurant became a regular hang for notables like Martha Stewart, Sarah Jessica Parker, and so many more celebrities we would crash the website listing them all here.
Despite the restaurant’s success, McNally closed Pastis in 2014 after his landlord tripled the rent. But he promised Pastis would return. And last spring came news that celebrated Philly-based restaurateur Stephen Starr would join McNally as an equal partner in the restaurant’s revival, with his team handing Pastis 2.0’s day-to-day operations, in addition to menu development.
“Imagine a place that was hard to get into for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” says Starr, considering Pastis’ past. It “set the Meatpacking District on fire, and inspired others restaurateurs, including myself, to try to go out and create similar magic.”