A veteran restaurateur behind some of the city’s trendiest eateries is betting that diners are still willing to dig deep into their wallets amidst the economic belt-tightening.
John McDonald, who launched his first hit, Merckbar, in SoHo in 1993 is opening Smith Tavern in Tribeca this week – his third new restaurant along Hancock Street and Bar Tulix since the 2020 COVID lockdown.
In addition to Merckbar, in 2004 McDonald’s opened Lure Fishbar—which now has outposts 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 down in 2016.
Throughout his career, McDonald has weathered the city’s ups and downs—from the crime waves and 9/11 of the early 1990s to the 2008 recession and pandemic.
McDonald’s tells Side Dish, “I’ve seen some big economic ups and downs over the past two decades and I think there’s always been an appetite for upscale—especially when it’s not fussy or pricey—and high atmospheric places.” “It just makes the challenge and pressure more intense.”
Smith Tavern occupies the space laid out by Chef Andrew Carmellini’s Little Park at 85 West Broadway inside the Smith Hotel across from the Chambers Street subway stop. It seats 100 in 4,000 square feet of space and has a private dining room with seating for 50 people.
The new space has been converted into a mahogany-wood-and-red-leather, brasserie-style inn after the hotel, managed by Highgate, changed owners during the pandemic. It pops with photos from adjoining galleries, including photographs by Peter Schlesinger from 1969-1970 and a large sex photo from Vivienne Westwood’s original shop.
“The new owner wanted a makeover, and to bring back the beautiful cocktail bar that was known as the Evening Bar,” McDonald’s tells Side Dish.
According to McDonald’s, the “straight” menu offers “range and versatility,” with staples, such as grilled fish, steak and pasta. It also features upscale fare such as deviled eggs with caviar, steak tartare, heirloom tomato salad and a signature entrée dish called mafaldin – a pasta with sea urchins, jumbo lump crab and Thai chili.
“The menu caters to people who live or work in the neighborhood. This is a great place to sit at the bar for a burger and a glass of wine, but it also works if you’re ordering a bottle of wine with a business clientele, as well.
McDonald’s closed its restaurants after the pandemic hit and in Soho, where he lives with his family, to rethink his restaurant empire.
“Tough times always force me to focus and be more creative to survive,” McDonald said.
As the city began to reopen from the pandemic lockdown last year, it opened Hancock Street with chef Ryan Schmidtberger at 257 Sixth Avenue. — the place where the former McDonald’s restaurant, El Toro Blanco, prospered for more than a decade.
He worked with his friend Serge Baker to design Hancock Street, an American tavern-style eatery with white tablecloths and “not a fancy or pricey feel,” he says.
McDonald’s launched Bar Tulix, a seafood-focused Mexican hotspot, in partnership with Michelin-starred chef Justin Bazdarich four months ago. He designed the new bar in his former Burger & Barrel space at 25 W Houston St., in collaboration with Meyer Davis.
“It was exciting to launch something new. It got my energy back,” McDonald said. “I was lucky because I was already making changes to existing restaurants and they were in good shape, but we still took a lot of depth. Decided to go and not only made subtle changes to the decor, but really made sure they didn’t look or feel the same as their predecessors. ,
Opening Smith Tavern has been “by far the strangest and most challenging of those other examples,” he says, because it’s outside his usual SoHo haunt.
Jewelry designer Jennifer Fisher, who lives in Tribeca, says she can’t wait to book a table at McDonald’s latest venture.
“We need a sexy hot, cool spot for oysters and martinis to come over after work. It’s a beautiful bar spot and restaurant to go to at the end of the day,” she said, adding that she hopes it ” Will become the new ‘Cheers’.”