The veteran restaurateur behind some of the city’s trendiest eateries is betting that diners are still willing to dig deep into their wallets amid the economic belt-tightening.
John McDonald, who launched his first hit, MercBar, in Soho in 1993, is opening Smyth Tavern this week in Tribeca — his third new restaurant since the 2020 COVID lockdown along with Hancock Street and Bar Tulix.
Aside from MercBar, McDonald in 2004 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 shuttered in 2016.
Throughout his career, McDonald has surfed the city’s ups and downs — from early 1990s crime waves and 9/11, to the 2008 recession and the pandemic.
“I have seen a few major economic turndowns in the past two decades and I feel like there is always an appetite for upscale — especially when it isn’t fussy or precious — and high atmospheric places,” McDonald tells Side Dish. “This just makes the challenge and pressure all the more intense.”
Smyth Tavern takes over the space once held 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 with seating for 50.
The new space has been transformed into a mahogany-wood-and-red-leather, brasserie-style tavern after the hotel, managed by Highgate, changed owners during the pandemic. It pops with photographs from nearby galleries, including Peter Schlesinger photos from 1969-1970 and a large SEX photo from Vivian Westwood’s original shop.
“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 “straightforward” menu offers “range and versatility,” according to McDonald, with staples, like grilled fish, steak and pastas. It also features upscale fare such as deviled eggs with caviar, steak tartare, heirloom tomato salad and a signature entree dish called Mafaldine – a pasta with sea urchin, jumbo lump 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 glass of wine, but it also works if you are all suited up with a business client, ordering a good bottle of wine.”
McDonald shut down his restaurants after the pandemic hit and hunkered down in Soho, where he lives with his family, to rethink his eatery empire.
Hard times “always force me to focus and get more creative in order to survive,” McDonald said.
As the city began to reemerge from the pandemic lockdowns last year, he opened Hancock Street, with chef Ryan Schmidtberger, at 257 Sixth Ave. — the space where McDonald’s former restaurant, El Toro Blanco, had prospered for more than a decade.
He worked with his friend Serge Becker to design Hancock Street, an American tavern-style eatery with white tablecloths and a “not fancy or prissy feel,” he says.
McDonald then launched Bar Tulix, a seafood-centric Mexican hotspot, in partnership with Michelin-starred chef Justin Bazdarich four months ago. He teamed with Meyer Davis to design the new bar in his former Burger & Barrel space at 25 W. Houston St.
“It was exciting to launch something new. It got my energy back,” McDonald said. “I was fortunate because I was already doing the changes on the existing restaurants and they were in good condition, but we still decided to go pretty deep and not just do a subtle change in decor, but really make sure they did not look or feel the same as their predecessors.”
Opening up Smyth Tavern has been “by far the strangest and most challenging of those other instances,” he says, since it’s outside his usual Soho haunts.
Jennifer Fisher, a jewelry designer 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 to come after work for oysters and martinis. It’s a beautiful bar space and restaurant to go at the end of the day,” she said, adding that she hopes it will become “the new ‘Cheers.'”