Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Minetta's Gould


As a fan of the old Minetta Tavern, it was only a matter of time before I forced myself to go to the new Minetta. When I finally got there, I discovered a major piece of the place has gone missing. But it took a couple of painful tries just to go in.

One night, I stood around outside watching well-heeled, flinty patrons climb out of monstrous Escalades on the helping hands of chauffeurs, to be passed like precious eggs into the hands of the Minetta's doorman/bouncer, a large, shaven-headed man in a black suit, with hands, by the way, the size of catcher's mitts. Deterred, I walked away muttering.

I guess I'm one of what Thrillist called, "the joint's wizened, soon-to-be-muttering-outside-angrily ex-patrons."

But I went back, this time getting close enough to hear the big bouncer, with surprise tenderness, warn away a number of poor schlubs who knew nothing of McNally's renovation. He gently told them, "It's changed since you were here last. An hour and a half wait if you don't have a reservation. Come back tomorrow at 5:30 and you might get a seat at the bar."

I took his advice. I arrived at 5:28. The place was empty, with only three people at the bar. I took a stool. A pearl-chokered woman two stools over quickly grabbed the seat between us, glaring at me as if to say, "Mine!" Her friend arrived, took the stool, and they commenced a gruelingly detailed conversation about the properly made Pimm's Cup.

Literally, within 5 minutes, the place was mobbed. I quickly finished and left, but not before noting a glaring omission in the supposedly faithful preservation of the wall decor.

2008: The missing portrait

The portrait of Joe Gould is gone. I searched the walls, but could not find it anywhere.

Joe Gould was probably the most famous, or infamous, habitue in the history of the Minetta Tavern. We know him thanks to Joseph Mitchell, who wrote about the Village eccentric in Joe Gould's Secret, later a film starring Stanley Tucci. Gould, a marginally domiciled, psychiatrically challenged bohemian, ran with famous artists and writers, like EE Cummings and William Saroyan. He was drawn by Al Hirschfeld and painted (sporting three penises) by Alice Neel. He exemplified the Village spirit.

So why did McNally choose to remove Gould's portrait, once prominently and proudly displayed in the center of Minetta's front dining room?

2008: Gould's portrait is in the center of this photo

Maybe I'm mistaken. Maybe it was moved to another spot and I missed it. But a commenter on Greenwich Village Daily Photo noticed the erasure, too, and stated that he asked the restaurant's host about the missing painting, saying, "it's now collecting dust in the owner's 'private collection.'"

Same view, 2009, photo: Daily News

Back in March, Keith McNally told Zagat, "No one familiar with the Tavern from the past will know exactly what's changed." But the truth is, the place has changed quite a bit. It's a lot like the new High Line--the old, rag-tag contents were taken out, cleaned up, and rearranged in a careful design not at all organic but pleasing to the eye. Not every item made the cut.

It would take a real Minetta expert (and I am not one) to go picture by picture to know exactly what didn't make the cut, but the deletion of Joe Gould cannot be overlooked. It's a telling omission. Today, Gould would never get through the door.

See Also:
Last Night at Minetta's
Minetta May Day


Bryan said...

Great post. And I'm glad you had a snap of that portrait.

Wouldn't you love to have seen Mitchell review the new joint? Then again, he stopped writing long before he died.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks B. i wonder what Mitchell would have to say about a lot of the city today.

EV Grieve said...

Wow. I've been thinking of doing the same thing. Slip in early for a drink, see what was what. You've confirmed what I had feared.

But the missing Joe Gould? Hmmm.

Someone Said said...

I'm not sure Mitchell would be allowed in many of the places he wrote about either. That which made the city what it was is being removed, and for what?

Eliot said...

Are you certain that by "owner", the host meant McNally? Could the former owner have kept the piece?

Anonymous said...

Joe Gould's portrait - which is more poignant/upsetting: removal because it's too offensive to new well heeled patrons? or removal by restauranteur to horde for his private collection? Ugh. Either way, enormously symbolic act. And yes, the before and after photos clearly show it's not the same place. - BN

Rob B said...

Not only is Gould missing, but so are the photos of Bruno Sanmartino and Haystacks Calhoun. I hope everyone remembers those great Americans.

Anonymous said...

It's the people, the clientels that make, or unmake a restaurant very often. Judging by the excuses we have for NYC residents these days, they probably should have considered closing it down out of respect for what was. I for one have no interest in rubbing elbows with the current crowds.

Jeremiah Moss said...

good point about the "owner" question. i did see somewhere that the former owner, Taka Becovic, was asked awhile back whether he'd take the painting and said no, that McNally owned all of the Minetta's contents. still, a mystery worth pursuing...

Anonymous said...

From Sneakeater --

Ummm, has it occurred to you guys that Keith McNally probably is as aware of Joe Gould's legendary status as the rest of us, and took the picture for himself?

That might not have been particularly civic-minded, but I don't know why you're all assuming that current management is ignorant of NYC social history or thinks that a representation of Gould would somehow offend their customers. Quite to the contrary, I'm sure. Why WOULDN'T any business with any pretentions toward being cool want to associate itself with Joe Gould.

You know, you guys don't have sole ownership of the NYC social history. Even wealthy people -- even (gasp) NYC lawyers like me who eat in the new Minetta Tavern all the time -- know all this stuff.

Ken Mac said...

Wow, Jeremiah, you really went through my old GVDP posts to find that reference.
I wonder, is the pic with Gould and Joe Mitchell still there?
And a great analogy, comparing new Minetta to new High Line. But the High Line, as pleasant as it is, is worse. Ouch

esquared™ said...

Seriously, why keep the Minetta Tavern name if this new place is nothing like the old one.

(Also surprised you got in. I hear this is one of the toughest reservations to get)

ShatteredMonocle said...

Ummm, has it occurred to you guys that Keith McNally probably is as aware of Joe Gould's legendary status as the rest of us, and took the picture for himself?

That possibility was quite clearly mentioned in the original post. You're a NYC lawyer? Really?

Wilfrid said...

The interior has generally been restored with some care, and it's very much like the old Minetta Tavern apart from the food. As for the "current crowd," the previous crowd - in the bar at least - were hardly preternaturally charming. Lots of young drunks, thanks to the location.

I am embarrassed that I didn't notice Gould's picture was missing. Most of the drawings are right where they used to be. Someone should shoot them an e-mail and ask about it. It's inconceivable to me that it was removed because it might offend someone.

Jeremiah Moss said...

i keep wondering if maybe i missed it somewhere, if it was moved into the back, but i also couldn't find it in any photos of the new place.

and yes, thanks, i did wonder if McNally kept it because he liked it. i still want to know why it's missing. i also want to know who painted it!

Anonymous said...

From Sneakeater --

Tell ya what, Jeremiah. I'll ask them.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks Sneak--let us know what you find out.

ken mac, yes i did--think it came up on google. one of just a few references to this painting.

Anonymous said...

From Sneakeater --

No one on sight had any idea where the painting might have gone.

I think this is going to require an email to management by someone.

Anonymous said...

From Sneakeater --

Oops. "On-site". I'm an illiterate moron.

Anonymous said...

"You know, you guys don't have sole ownership of the NYC social history. Even wealthy people -- even (gasp) NYC lawyers like me who eat in the new Minetta Tavern all the time -- know all this stuff."

Neither do you.

Anonymous said...

Haystacks Calhoun and Bruno Sammartino--I am in.

Brad Maione said...

I miss the old place. Why is it that when a place is re-done, it pnly brings out the well-heeled and Escalade set?

Wadjet Eye said...

Hey, I was that commenter on the "Greenwich Village Daily Photo." And like that blog post, I was very late in finding this one.

The old Minetta has a very special place in my heart. I can't explain why, but the story of Joe Gould and Joseph Mitchell has always resonated with me somehow, and still does. I am a freelance game designer, and I would often go into the Minetta, sit under the Joe Gould portrait, and design my games in a composition notebook (the same way Gould wrote his "oral history" in composition notebooks).

I loved that place so much I made it a visitable location in my last game (complete with close-up of the Joe Gould portrait!). It's a shame that the place has changed so much, but Mitchell himself would say that New York is all about change.

Anonymous said...

It's funny, but I remember this same lamentation taking place about 40 years ago, when a waiter from Rocco's (we called him Johnny) bought the MInetta Tavern from it's previous owners. They cleaned the place up a bit, changed a the menu, and moved around a few pictures, and "Oh my god! What have they done?!" Then, IIRC, the same thing happened again a decade or so later when the Johnny guys sold it. That happened a couple times at Rocco's, too. If you want to lament the end of a Village institution, how about a good rant for the Dugout?

cath said...

Would you know if Leonard E Degrange painted that particular Joe Gould portrait?