Pastis: Risen From The Dead
One of NYC's most famous haunts might be more haunted than we think...
By Hope Donovan
Ghost Stories is a monthly column featuring investigations into the haunted history behind New York's iconic purlieus and up-and-coming hotspots.
While walking around the Meatpacking District, you’ll notice remnants of its industrial past: low-rise market buildings, cast-iron beams, metal awnings, and rusticated granite give the neighborhood a sense of commercial grit. When strolling down 10th Avenue, however, it would probably never occur to you that street-level freight trains once barreled down the street beside you, because that would be a stupid idea. But in early American industrialization, there was no such thing as a stupid idea, so long as it made money.
In 1846, the Hudson River Railroad Company approached the city with plans to build street-level freight trains down 10th and 11th Avenues. These avenues were home to many factories and warehouses as well as a number of densely-populated tenement buildings.
As it turns out, running a freight train through traffic in a busy neighborhood was, in fact, a stupid idea. In a surprising display of corporate transparency, the New York Central Railroad Company reported approximately 548 deaths and over 1,500 injuries caused by freight trains over the 50 years it was in operation—earning both 10th and 11th Avenues the nickname “Death Avenue.” In lieu of any actual safety measures, the railroads brought in cowboys to ride along the thoroughfare and signal oncoming trains Paul Revere style.
Just down the block from the former Death Avenue and comfortably situated in the background of many Highline selfies, sits an iconic piece of New York history in its own right: Pastis, risen from the dead.
The French bistro opened in 1999 and quickly became a staple of the downtown scene, earning the highest honor a restaurant could receive in the early 2000s: a passing mention of its popularity in Sex and the City. Despite its untimely closure in 2014, owner Keith McNally fulfilled his promise to reopen its doors just five years later. Pastis 2.0’s classic brasserie-inspired interior and menu remain true to source material, gaining enthusiastic approval from in-the-know New Yorkers of generations both old and new.
However, some, like restaurant critic Bryan Kim, feel that a soul transfer failed to take place between the old Pastis and its current iteration. Did McNally successfully exercise Pastis from the dead, or is it just a doppelganger of its former cachet à la Jordan Peele’s "Us?" Given its proximity to the neighborhood’s most death-ridden piece of history, is it possible that Pastis’ iconic past is not the only thing it's haunted by?
Above all, Pastis is a place to see and be seen. The latter portion of that adage is often overshadowed by the intrigue of its former, but it’s an equally important part of the people watching experience: in order to see, you must subject yourself to being seen. This is one of the most wretched plights of human existence. Alas, if I must be perceived, it will not be as someone who brings an Ouija board to dinner.
Upon entering the bistro, even without an Ouija board, one is greeted by a complete ego death. What feels like a million pairs of expectant eyes snap in your direction, conducting a high-speed scan of your appearance to see if it matches anything in their mental culture catalog. The process takes about a millisecond, but regardless of whether or not you have been identified as ‘someone’, its effect on the crowd is the same— nothing.
This is what makes New York great: no one really cares who you are (although it doesn’t hurt to know). While this might seem depressing, its effect is just the opposite. Pastis attracts a crowd that knows better than to point fingers and snap not-so-subtle pictures. There is an inviting air of indifference that puts both the photo-fatigued celebrity and imposter syndrome-inflicted out-of-towner at ease.
It’s an experience not unlike what I imagine entering the pearly gates (or the abyss of eternal suffering, if that resonates more) is like: You walk in, all upset about the fact that you’re dead, and the other dead people are too busy eating Duck à l’Orange to acknowledge your personal issues, such as being dead. “We’re all dead, hotshot, have a drink a forgettaboutit,” croaks an Iris Apfel-esque woman chain smoking at a nearby table. The bottom line is, you’re by default just as much of a ghost as anyone else. The same goes for Pastis.
“If I was a ghost,” I retroactively think to myself, projecting thoughts onto last week’s ego-dead version of myself as I write this, “this is where I would want to be. Everyone is too distracted by their food and company to notice a Cosmopolitan floating around. Better yet, I could gawk at Sarah Jessica Parker as long as I want from a distance that would definitely make everyone uncomfortable if I was a material entity— I could see without being seen!”.
Not so fast, ontologically inaccurate version of my conscience. Although you raise some very valid points, the ghosts of Meatpacking don’t see eye to phantasmal eye with you. Pastis, despite its ghost-ridden locale and apparitional facade, is not haunted— I know because I asked.
Our lovely waiter willingly indulged our investigation with the same consequence and sincerity he would a complaint from Sarah Jessica Parker of a hair in her salade niçoise. Unsatisfied with his ability to provide us with informed answers, he referred us to an in-house expert, explaining that “if anyone’s seen anything, it’s him”.
Our ghost sommelier was equally obliging, informing us that he’s seen many a specter throughout downtown but never at his place of work. His evident enthusiasm for the subject gave his word merit, negating any sense that he was attempting to smother our potentially bad-for-business inquiries with surface-level satiety.
So, no ghosts. Whether it’s because they are put off by the prices or respect it as one of their own, it’s clear that the ghosts of Meatpacking keep their distance from Pastis 2.0. However, the question of whether the beloved bistro is haunted by its past still remains.
Although you won’t encounter any floating Cosmopolitans, enthusiasts of the supernatural and Sex and the City alike will leave Pastis with holes of both heart and mouth sufficiently filled by nostalgic steak sandwiches and scenes of ‘‘old New York’— whatever that means to you.