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With an assist from Stephen Starr, the New York hotspot Pastis is revived

Restaurateur Keith McNally was having trouble relaunching the restaurant he reluctantly shuttered in 2014. Along came Starr.

Keith McNally (left) and Stephen Starr are partners in the new incarnation of Pastis in New York City.
Keith McNally (left) and Stephen Starr are partners in the new incarnation of Pastis in New York City.Read moreCOURTESY STARR RESTAURANT ORGANIZATION

NEW YORK — Pastis, the celeb-filled, all-day brasserie that launched Lower Manhattan’s Meatpacking District as a restaurant destination nearly two decades ago, has returned in a new location a block away.

This time, founder Keith McNally, himself a giant of the New York dining scene (Balthazar, Minetta Tavern, Odeon, Cafe Luxembourg), is working with Stephen Starr, the Philadelphia-based restaurateur who owes part of his New York success to McNally. Pastis, which opened in 1999, paved the way for Starr’s first two New York restaurants, Buddakan and Morimoto, which in 2006 opened four blocks away in Chelsea Market.

“I remember Pastis was the only thing here,” Starr said. “The neighborhood was very dark and dangerous, but Pastis was this little beacon of light at this triangle [where Little West 12th Street meets Ninth Avenue]. It’s where we all went for breakfast and lunch while we were building the restaurants.”

It also was a lively scene, with boozy brunches and table-hopping glitterati. The New York Post, in the media lead-up to June 7′s opening, interviewed former employees. One told of the day that management was interviewing for staff. Jerry Seinfeld, who had come in to meet friends, pretended that he was applying for a busboy job. Similarly, one day Keith Richards decided to play bathroom attendant and started handing out towels.

But nothing lasts forever. What was described as a huge rent increase or simply “landlord issues” at Pastis’ original building forced its closure in early 2014, and McNally had been trying to redo it since. Starr said about a year and a half ago, as McNally recovered from a stroke and shortly after Starr won the James Beard Award for outstanding restaurateur, he got a call from McNally’s daughter, asking if he wanted to be part of the project.

The relaunch is bold move. In the five years it has been closed, the restaurant scene has become more competitive. Starr himself has mushroomed his empire in New York with El Vez, Le Coucou, The Clocktower, Upland, and La Mercerie. All told, Starr employs about 1,700 people in New York alone, and he has at least three more restaurants on the way.

Both men insist that they have not set out to create a replica of Pastis — that it’s simply reminiscent of the original, which evokes pre-World War II Paris with a curved zinc bar, vintage mirrors with handwritten specials, a mosaic-tiled floor, and lighting that casts a flattering yellow glow. There’s patio dining. McNally had the subway tiles from the original location put into storage for reuse at 52 Gansevoort St. “This one has its own unique twist,” Starr says.

Pastis also has that all-day Parisian style that Starr-watchers are familiar with from Parc in Philadelphia, Le Diplomate in Washington, D.C., and Le Coucou. (Starr is quick to credit McNally’s Balthazar as inspiration for Parc.)

Starr runs day-to-day operations and food. Michael Abt, the longtime executive chef at Starr’s Le Diplomate in Washington, D.C., is executive chef.

Much of the dinner menu is the same: French onion soup, three kinds of steak frites (hanger, filet, and entrecôte), escargots, salade niçoise, sweetbreads, whole fish.

At previews this week, the celeb quotient included Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels, author Salman Rushdie, and model Emily Ratajkowski.

What’s next for Starr: Electric Lemon at the Equinox Hotel at Hudson Yards, which he describes as a healthy American brasserie, opening in July; he said he also was doing a second restaurant at Hudson Yards. Starr also is behind what he calls “a grand European cafe” at Fotografiska, the forthcoming Manhattan location of the Swedish photography museum. He also has two projects in Philadelphia that he declined to identify.