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by max a. goldstein

the pre-theater rush at o'neals' one wednesday night was misleading. though the vibrant restaurant is packed, as it has been for the past 46 years, come june 27 it will serve its last patrons.

the famed west 64th street eatery opened in 1964 as the ginger man, under owners michael o'neal, his brother patrick and their friend ned mcdavid. ever since, the restaurant has attracted a mix of celebrities, neighborhood regulars and lincoln center types.

"hawkeye from m.a.s.h. was here for lunch yesterday. robert de niro, madonna-they've all been here. i really can't think of anyone who hasn't come in here," michael o'neal said during a recent interview. "andy warhol was here all the time back in the day. it was a hotspot for those in that crowd. we had so many people coming in that we had to place people practically on other people's heads."

but it seems that even famous clientele and a bustling pre-theater business couldn't fend off the triple threats of high rent, taxes and the economic downturn. that apparently created an opening for stephen p. hanson, founder of the b.r. guest restaurant group, to take over the space. in mid-august, hanson reportedly plans to open an upper west side outpost of his popular east 70s seafood eatery atlantic grill, although a spokesperson for b.r. guest was unable to confirm those plans.

o'neals' has always had a special connection to theater. co-owner patrick o'neal was an actor in an off-broadway play called the ginger man. theatergoers have filled the restaurant during the pre-lincoln center show rush and opera singers, ballet dancers and conductors frequently stop by after performances.

"a lot of the ballet dancers, composers and such used to come in here after-leonard bernstein, jacques d'amboise," o'neal said. "there is a story that i wouldn't let marc chagall come in here once because he had paint all over him from painting his murals at lincoln center. that is not true, of course."

the restaurant also has a famous mural of lincoln center ballet dancers, which o'neal thinks he might donate to the ballet.

"a lot of them still come in here. i think i will give it to them, so that they can keep it in their basement or something," he said. "it's really a snapshot in time."

in addition to living on the upper west side for much of his life, o'neal has served with numerous local groups, including the lincoln square business improvement district, which he helped found.

"i come from a small town in florida and my dad was very involved. he served in the chamber of commerce in our town," o'neal said. "getting involved is in my dna, you see, and i view the upper west side as a small town."

but o'neal will have to step down from the bid once he no longer operates an area business.

"it's the end of a chapter, so to speak," said monica blum, the bid's president. "every annual meeting has been held at o'neals', an amazing tradition. it's a real loss for the community because mr. o'neal is extremely generous and participates in everything. he's the quintessential community partner."

o'neals' patrons are equally dismayed to see the restaurant go. elisha durand, who works nearby, often stops by for lunch or an after-work drink.

"they treat us really well. it has a real familial feel, a little like cheers," she said. "a lot of people in my office come here, and we're all devastated."

"we love this place, and we're sad to see it go. we don't need another high-end sushi or fish place," said fellow patron chris tuscand, in a dig at o'neals' replacement. "it's a real neighborhood establishment."

for now, o'neal said he has no plans to relocate.

"if i can find an appropriate place in the area, i'd make it smaller, more like 100 tables. the 300 tables here is too many," he said. "but so far i have no plans."

he still owns the 79th street basin café and ball fields café in central park, but it is his namesake restaurant that he will always treasure.

"i'm gonna miss a place to go with people to see," o'neal said. "but what i will miss the most is that o'neals' was a real neighborhood gathering spot."

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