Like my father before me, I am a creature of habit. Especially when it comes to dining out. I prefer to keep a handful of haunts in heavy rotation rather than race to have my ticket punched at the latest, must-try spot. And if it’s Friday night you’re likely to find me at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. If you’re friends with me on Facebook you probably already know this as I have a (surely annoying) habit of checking in with a choice lyric from whatever song might be be blasting from the speakers as I settle in. Sometimes it’s utterly random but, being a sentimental sort, you can’t discount synchronicity. Pull up a stool and you might hear the Pixies’ “Debaser,” the Stones’ “Shattered,” Bowie’s “Queen Bitch,” the Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll,” or Pulp’s “Common People.” And since this is a David Chang restaurant you can count on at least one Pavement song per half-hour. So if I’m on a date or feeling particularly wistful when “Spit on a Stranger” comes on, I hope you’ll cut me some slack if Stephen Malkmus singing “Honey I’m a prize and you’re a catch / and we’re a perfect match” makes it seem like the movie of my life is being backed by a killer soundtrack.
One late night this summer I was sitting across from Ssäm Bar’s John McEnroe Shrine, the framed painting of McEnroe that stands sentry over the bottles of brown whiskey and amari. The picture represents six different McEnroes: five smaller action shots orbit around a grinning portrait of the man in his tennis whites. (Note: This is not to be confused with the oversized framed Nike poster of McEnroe that hangs on the wall opposite the bar.) And depending on how long you sit across from the McEnroe Shrine (and how many drinks you knock back) that portrait can possess an angel/devil-on-your-shoulder quality. The grin might be interpreted as a reassuring smirk, warning “I think you’ve had enough tonight, buddy. Let’s get back to Brooklyn,” then quickly morph into a mocking sneer, “Man up, brother. It’s Friday—another Pappy Van Winkle isn’t going to kill you!” As I was finishing the last OB of the night the fellow next to me gave a quick survey of the room. He then motioned with his chopsticks to the McEnroe portrait and asked, “So, what’s the deal with McEnroe here?” Without looking up from my beer, I volleyed back: “Spirit animal.” He nodded, instantly getting it.
BTP: Your restaurants are pretty boisterous and filled with a great energy but the design aesthetics are pretty austere. Each place has a simple decoration—a photograph of the Band at Noodle Bar, John McEnroe at Ssäm Bar. What’s the story behind those particular images and what they mean to you and the energy of the restaurant?
Chang: Everyone thought that we had this minimalist approach because we wanted to convey something about our food, about our aesthetics. But, as usual, it was a simple answer: we had no money. When you have no money you can’t really decorate anything. The first version of Momofuku we literally had nothing, there was nothing on the walls.
Meehan: That Tsukiji poster in the bathroom…
Chang: I stole a poster from Tsukiji fish market in broad daylight in Tokyo.
Meehan: It was of a sushi chef with a lazy eye—
Chang: No, it’s not a sushi chef. He’s a famous comedian from Osaka… with a lazy eye. I remember jumping up on a trash can and ripping it down and nobody really caring what I was doing.
Meehan: Oh, that’s good, I didn’t realize it was all stolen art. And the McEnroe poster—
Chang: Peter Lano, my good friend Luka Lano’s older brother, moved to Switzerland—he and his friend stole it off the side of a bus stop in 1984. It had been passed down to Luka. When we were figuring out Ssäm Bar and in the initial days of construction really my only concern was where can we put John McEnroe? I wasn’t concerned really about anything else. I was infatuated with this big giant lifesize poster of John McEnroe and that was pretty much it.
Meehan: But you later followed it up with an additional John McEnroe poster.
Chang: That was because John McEnroe’s dad called and he gave us a bunch of stuff—John McEnroe, Sr.
BTP: So do you have a particular affinity for that particular poster or the man himself?
Chang: Both. But that poster’s amazing, just because it’s totally, utterly random. But also because McEnroe’s ridiculously hilarious.
And in the far corner of the restaurant, near the pass, you’ll find another framed poster that completes the John McEnroe Ssäm Bar Spirit Animal Trilogy. Cast in a haze of early-80’s purple, McEnroe—in jeans and a leather jacket, clutching two wooden Dunlop rackets—slouches in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, with the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers standing tall across the East River. The whole violet twilight tableau lands on the line of equal parts Cocktail one-sheet and the Vintage Contemporaries edition of Bright Lights, Big City. And it’s a thing to behold.