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[Photographs: Roger Kamholz]

When dining at a restaurant you follow a certain script, expectations heaped as much on you as the people taking care of your meal. Eat at the bar and you're far more free.

You're free, in ways the sit-downer isn't, to eat how you want in as much or little time as you want. The service is at your pace, not your server's. The same goes for the booze. Dining at the bar gives you options.

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But you, barstool diner, reap more than just practical rewards from your elevated perch. At a joint like The Odeon, whose neons have lit Tribeca since 1980, the vantage point whets the senses as well. The historic restaurant takes its name from the U.K. cinema chain, but the word itself is as old as ancient Greek theater. And so it seems only fitting to think of the bar as balcony seating, offering the full sweep of the drama: the cascade of faces lighting the dining room, the glistening steak frites and teetering burgers walking by, even the private banter of the servers when they rendezvous at a POS terminal or fill a glass of Sancerre at the bar's business end.

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The Odeon grew up fast, becoming a glittering rumpus room for artists and celebrities and SNLers. And even now, serving as the neighborhood's elder statesman of Cool, it still feels youthful and celebratory. The epitome of the scene-y New York restaurant, secretly engineered for longevity. On a recent Monday evening, I found the room happily swamped. I headed north, snaked my way past the bistro tables that form an aisle with the bar, and scored one of the last remaining open stools. (Fight the urge to settle for a bistro table; the way Odeon's laid out, it's low, cramped hobbit dining.)

Even as I lingered over the cocktail menu, the energy of the place was still dancing in the periphery—transmitted via the expansive mirror hung over the bar, which is pitched just so as to give you the run of the restaurant. There are mirrors everywhere at the Odeon. They of course come in handy for those engaged in surreptitious people-watching, but as decor they serve to turn the room back onto itself, the way the high wall of a Champagne flute catches the fizz from spilling over.

I finally pick my poison: the Calvados Sidecar ($13), which updates the 1920s-vintage Cognac cocktail with French apple brandy. The Odeon's version was strong and crisp, and included the customary sugar-crusting along the rim of the cocktail glass.

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But back to those expectations. Sit down at a restaurant and you're expected to order a full meal. At the bar you're free to graze. One of the more nibble-able appetizers on the Odeon's menu is the Spicy Chicken Dumplings. At $15, this plate of six diminutive dough-wrapped bits of bird are the farthest thing from a bargain. (A better course of action is to arrive hungrier and invest in the $18 burger.) To their credit, the dumplings were tasty. They come plunked down in dabs of balsamic sauce and accompanied by blue cheese—a rich man's basket of Buffalo wings. I could have eaten a full bowling frame's worth, had the kitchen been so generous.

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But ambitious, revelatory food has never really figured largely into the legacy of the Odeon. People come to bask in its spirit and admire the patina. I loved the play of the street lamps and the striped awning through the wooden window blinds. I loved that the vintage Tak-a-check machine in the vestibule, left over from the site's former life as a cafeteria, still dispenses tickets. I loved the globe pendant lamps that hang from the ceiling like pearls. And I loved how this night was all mine, scripted the way I wanted, no need to share with anyone.

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I capped off my stay at the bar with a glass of inky, warming Côtes du Rhône ($13). Between sips, I drew in the Odeon's rich perfume: the sweet smell of anise as the bartender prepared a Sazerac, the salty steam off a plate of frites that just departed the kitchen. It was theater in the round.

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