Jim Poris / December 2007
Food Arts presents the December 2007 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michael O'Neal, the New York City restaurateur who more than 40 years ago transformed the chophouse into a genre now in full, everblooming flower—the American bistro. Starting with The Ginger Man in 1964, now O'Neals', opposite the mushrooming music and theater venues at a new Lincoln Center, going on to expansion and contraction to and from various locations coast-to-coast, and ending with his continued prominence with a number of outlets on Manhattan's Upper West Side, O'Neal has always subscribed to the tenet of serving "really good food at a fair price."
It was never O'Neal's intention to create a template for a style of restaurant that had few antecedents aside from some of the testosterone-filled saloons-cum-eateries such as P.J. Clarke's. Nor was it written that his place would foster a lively singles scene, as it was known in the '60s, to compete with the original T.G.I. Friday's that was attracting stewardesses and jocks on the Upper East Side. Unwittingly he did both, the first with the Julia Child precursor Dione Lucas as opening chef (for three years) and the second with a bar scene/late night menu that attracted the post-performance pretty performers from Lincoln Center and nearby Broadway and those in their thrall. "Come to think of it," O'Neal muses, "I have many friends who met their wives here." As did O'Neal, 70, married 41 years to Christine.
After graduating with a business degree from Emory University in Atlanta, O'Neal, a native of Ocala, Florida, spent four years in the Air Force as a foodservice officer. He came to New York City to stay with his brother Patrick, an actor. He trained 18 months with Joe Baum's Restaurant Associates, then went into the restaurant business with his brother. Catching Lucas' attention while doing reconnaissance as the lone male attending her Upper East Side cooking school, the feisty 50-something Englishwoman got wind of his plans and offered herself as chef.
"She was considered a French chef even though she was English, so we had boeuf bourguignon, coquilles St.-Jacques, and quenelles de brochet. And we added a hamburger on a French roll, because we thought of ourselves as being like Joe Allen or Clarke's," says O'Neal. New York Times critic Craig Claiborne soon weighed in—positively—Lincoln Center took off, and O'Neal caught the spirit of the times that were a-changin'.
At his height he ran a mini empire of 13 restaurants, but in the tumult of business he lost the name The Ginger Man. He remains involved as a director emeritus of the National Restaurant Association—"I'm the token liberal" for, among other things, being an early advocate of smoking bans—and as a daily fixture at his restaurant, from where he also oversees the seasonal West 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe along the Hudson River and concessions in Central and Riverside Parks."We just got a new lease," O'Neal states, "and if I can make it to the end of it, I'll be very happy."