A veteran restaurateur behind some of the city’s trendiest restaurants is betting that diners are still willing to reach into their wallets amid the economic downturn.
John McDonald, who launched his first hit, MercBar, in Soho in 1993, will open Smyth Tavern this week in Tribeca, his third new restaurant since the 2020 COVID shutdown along with Hancock Street and Bar Tulix.
Aside from MercBar, McDonald in 2004 opened Lure Fishbar, which now has locations in Miami and Chicago, and co-founded Lever House, Dos Caminos and Canteen. His other restaurants include Bowery Meat Company, Bistrot Leo, Butterfly and A60. MercBar closed in 2016.
Throughout his career, McDonald has navigated the city’s ups and downs, from the crime waves of the early 1990s and 9/11, to the 2008 recession and pandemic.
“I’ve seen some major economic downturns in the last two decades and I feel like there’s always an appetite for upscale places, especially when they’re not fussy or gorgeous, and with a great atmosphere,” McDonald tells Side Dish. “This only makes the challenge and the pressure even more intense.”
Smyth Tavern takes over the space once occupied by chef Andrew Carmellini’s Little Park at 85 West Broadway inside the Smyth Hotel across from the Chambers Street subway stop. It has 100 seats in the 4,000-square-foot space and a private dining room that seats 50.
The new space was transformed into a mahogany wood and red leather brasserie-style tavern after the Highgate-run hotel changed hands during the pandemic. Featured with photos from nearby galleries, including Peter Schlesinger photos from 1969-1970 and a large SEX photo from Vivian Westwood’s original store.
“The new owner wanted a change and to bring back the beautiful cocktail bar, which was known as the Evening Bar,” McDonald tells Side Dish.
The “simple” menu offers “variety and versatility,” according to McDonald’s, with staples such as grilled fish, steak and pasta. It also offers signature dishes such as deviled eggs with caviar, steak tartare, traditional tomato salad, and a signature starter called Mafaldine, a pasta with sea urchin, giant crab, and Thai chili.
“The menu caters to people who live or work in the neighborhood. It’s a great place to sit at the bar for a burger and a glass of wine, but it also works if you’re up for a business client and order a nice bottle of wine.”
McDonald closed his restaurants after the pandemic hit and took refuge in Soho, where he lives with his family, to rethink his restaurant empire.
Hard times “always force me to focus and be more creative in order to survive,” McDonald said.
As the city began to reemerge from pandemic shutdowns last year, he opened Hancock Street, with chef Ryan Schmidtberger, at 257 Sixth Ave., the space where the former McDonald’s restaurant, El Toro Blanco, had thrived for more than one of each.
He worked with his friend Serge Becker to design Hancock Street, an American tavern-style restaurant with white tablecloths and an “unfancy, non-primy atmosphere,” he says.
McDonald then launched Bar Tulix, a seafood-focused Mexican hotspot, in partnership with Michelin-starred chef Justin Bazdarich four months ago. He partnered with Meyer Davis to design the new bar at his former Burger & Barrel space at 25 W. Houston St.
“It was exciting to launch something new. It gave me my energy back,” McDonald said. “I was lucky because I was already making the changes to the existing restaurants and they were in good shape, but we still decided to go quite deep and not just make a subtle change to the decor, but make sure they didn’t look or feel the same as their existing restaurants. predecessors.”
Opening Smyth Tavern has been “by far the strangest and most challenging of those other cases,” he says, as it’s outside of his usual Soho hangouts.
Jennifer Fisher, a jewelry designer who lives in Tribeca, says she’s eager to reserve a table at McDonald’s latest venture.
“We need a sexy, hot, cool place to come after work for oysters and martinis. It’s a beautiful bar and restaurant space to go to at the end of the day,” she said, adding that she hopes it becomes “the new ‘Cheers.’”