Clinton Kelly, who has dined at the Odeon restaurant in TriBeCa every week for several years, can’t recall when he first noticed Roya Shanks, who works there. However, he does recall her dress. “She was wearing an outfit unlike anyone in the room — or below 14th Street,” said Mr. Kelly, a fashion consultant and TV host, describing it as “a kind of patchwork caftan thing” that reminded him of “The Dinah Shore Show.”
He also quickly realized that there was more to Ms. Shanks than her eye-catching ensemble. “She has not only a distinct style, but a distinct aura,” Mr. Kelly said. “She’s so fascinating.”
Officially, Ms. Shanks is a manager at the restaurant, famous for its red banquettes, burgers and depiction on the cover (and in the plot) of the novel “Bright Lights, Big City.” But her role is more central and also more ephemeral than that title.
With its amber lighting and “fame-ish” clientele, the Odeon has the feel of a theatrical stage set, and it is Ms. Shanks who narrates and to a degree stars in the nightly play, like the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” Standing steady behind a podium as the dinner crowd packs in, showing an artist, actor, rock star to a table, sprinkling what she calls “hospitality sugar” around the room — Ms. Shanks does it all with a cool, calm authority.
“It’s her party, so to speak, every night,” said Lynn Wagenknecht, the owner.
As the Odeon has become hip again, a favorite spot for Condé Nast editors, young socialites and the new superrich residents of TriBeCa, more people are being introduced to Ms. Shanks. Because she has worked at the restaurant for 16 years, and because she greets guests as they come in, and because Ms. Wagenknecht is not one of those schmoozy, public-facing restaurateurs, Ms. Shanks has come to represent the Odeon itself.
“People come in here all day and say, ‘You’re still here?’” Ms. Shanks, 38, said, sitting in the empty restaurant one recent afternoon before her shift. “Because it sounds ridiculous, but we all know it’s true, New York is changing. Places that do have to pay rent are folding left and right, and Odeon endures. People are so happy it’s still here. And at this point, I’m part of the furniture.”
For longtime neighborhood residents, Ms. Shanks, a tall brunette who wears bold vintage dresses and blazers pulled from a seemingly endless closet, reminds them of a less slick TriBeCa of the late 20th century, populated with artists living in dubiously legal lofts, not bankers in multi-million-dollar luxury condos.
“When you go there and see this familiar face, dressed in this beautiful delicacy of that time period, it feels like the fun is still there,” said Joana Avillez, an illustrator raised in one of those lofts by parents who were artists.
Even when the room is dimly lit and overflowing, Ms. Avillez said, she can detect Ms. Shanks’s presence: “There’s a dash of bright, sparkly fabric in the corner of your eye, and you know that’s her. She’s the jewel of the Odeon.”
The historian and best-selling author Ron Chernow sees in Ms. Shanks’s elevated way of carrying herself echoes of an even earlier, more sophisticated Manhattan. “At a time when sweatshirts and hoodies count as fashion statements,” Mr. Chernow said, Ms. Shanks “evokes for me the elegance of a lost New York. Perhaps the glamour of New York in the 1940s, when cafe society reigned supreme.”
Like so many seemingly indelible New York characters, Ms. Shanks is from someplace else. She grew up in San Diego and Israel, and attended Yale University, where she majored in theater and planned to be adoctor. After graduating and touring South Africa with a theater company, however, she decided to pursue acting full-time.
She moved to New York in the fall of 2001, right after it had been torn asunder by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, finding her way to the Odeon through a classified ad in The Village Voice, then still a printed newspaper. Many at the time were reluctant to go downtown, where acrid air, fear and devastation lingered. She started as a server.
“I didn’t know what I was getting into at all,” Ms. Shanks said, meaning working downtown after the attacks and in the restaurant industry.
Ms. Shanks had no prior restaurant experience. Nor did she have a clue about the Odeon’s hot-spot status. She waited on Richard Serra for years before learning through a museum retrospective that he was a titan of the art world.
And as a follower of the Baha’i faith, she said, “I’ve never even had a drink in my entire life,” so the hard-partying hospitality workers portrayed in the novel “Sweetbitter,” soon to be a television series on Starz, bears “zero reflection on my life or experience.”
But she has followed a familiar if different script: working restaurant shifts by night and going to auditions by day. She used to keep a record of them, but stopped at 1,000, about 10 years ago. Through sheer persistence, she has carved out a modest acting career, doing voice-over work, small TV and film parts and theater, including starring with Kathleen Turner in an Off Broadway play.
Like a handful of regulars-turned-friends, Mr. Chernow has gone to see Ms. Shanks perform. “There is an intelligence and clarity and strength about her acting that will surprise no one who has seen her striding around the Odeon,” he said.
On his website, Mr. Kelly, the TV host, has cited Ms. Shanks as a model for how to wear vintage clothing, which she discovered after a youth outfitted by the Gap (and which she has taken to showing off on Instagram). She doesn’t pay attention to labels or rules, and can be daring in her choice of patterns, colors and textures.
“The world is full of people who try to look a certain way,” said Duro Olowu, a designer and Odeon regular. “Roya looks that way without making much effort.”
For Ms. Shanks the outfits are like costumes, helping her assume the persona necessary to work the room. “I’m actually fairly introverted,” she said. “But because I’m so comfortable here, and this is like my house, it’s a totally authentic version of myself. I just turn it on.”
On a recent night at the restaurant, she had on a floor-length purple dress with white striping, set off with gold foil appliqué running down the center. As she tended to a spirited table ofemployees from the nearby Whitney Museum, and a young family of four, the foil made a whooshing sound when she walked by.
Ms. Shanks has been at the Odeon for so long, she has seen Ms. Avillez and other children of the regulars grow up.
“As time passes, once in a while I think, ‘O.K., this is a silly job,’ or ‘I am an intelligent person, is this a waste of a brain?’” she said. “Anyone in the service industry can have those thoughts.”
But her role at the Odeon has given her a sense of stability and psychological comfort that her actor friends don’t have, Ms. Shanks said. And, “Maybe it is silly because we’re just serving dinner, but we do make people happy. I think there’s value in that.”
Fixtures, a new column running regularly, will feature people who are dependable and complex.
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