When Momofuku Ssäm Bar opened in 2006, a framed, oversized poster featuring tennis great John McEnroe in a sleeveless Nike T-shirt was the only piece of artwork adorning the walls. It might have seemed out of place, but it was deliberate: David Chang calls the tennis great the “Patron Saint of Momofuku,” and it’s easy to see how McEnroe’s style on the court—brash, tenacious, unorthodox—would connect with that of the chef, whose own often confrontational reputation was frequently chronicled during his rise to success.
“In the initial days of construction, when we were figuring out Ssäm Bar, my only concern was, ‘Where can we put John McEnroe?,'” Chang told me when I interviewed him in 2009. The poster, stolen by the older brother of Chang’s college roommate from a bus stop in Switzerland in 1984, served as a tribute as well as inspiration. “I was infatuated with this big, giant, life-sized poster of John McEnroe and that was pretty much it.”
While the original poster is impressive, it’s a framed acrylic painting featuring a collage of six different McEnroes set against an inky blue background that still continues to lure me in like a beacon. It’s signed by artist Stan Kotzen, dated “’92” and captures five smaller action shots of McEnroe in tennis whites orbiting around a larger portrait of the tennis star.
Kozen’s painting has kept me company on countless Friday nights, especially in 2010 when I was getting re-acclimated with New York after a decade spent living in Seattle. I was wrestling with the dissolution of a long-distance relationship, of moving across the country, starting a new job and staring down a looming book deadline—a potion of things you’re never supposed to deal with all at once. I was in way over my head and paralyzed with anxiety and doubt about the weeks and months ticking away until the book’s due date.
Those Friday nights should have been spent back in Brooklyn writing, but there I was, sitting at the bar eating pork buns, drinking Don Lee’s drinks and soaking up the overall vibe of the room and the music of the Pixies, Roxy Music, LCD Soundsystem and, since this is a David Chang restaurant, a healthy rotation of Pavement. And while my own apartment isn’t adorned with John McEnroe posters, he played a vital part of my formative years and served as an enviable symbol of complicated-cool comparable only to Han Solo. He was the player I looked up to growing up in the early 1980s; my summers were bookended watching McEnroe’s Wimbledon and U.S. Open matches on TV. When I moved back to New York and was trying to find my way, I found myself looking up to him again—literally.
“I never did anything else of John and I have no idea how it got there,” says Kotzen of his painting’s permanent residency at Ssäm Bar. His McEnroe painting, I gather, doesn’t seem to have the same emotional hold on him as it does on me. “This was an original I did for a huge McEnroe fan who was going to get John to sign it. The guy who commissioned it passed away and I never heard if he had gotten it to John.”
Aside from the painting and the poster, the tennis legend is all over the joint. Sometime after opening, Chang received a call from the late John McEnroe, Sr., who, intrigued with Chang’s unusual dedication to his son, shared additional McEnroe memorabilia, some of which is on display at Ssäm Bar, including another framed Nike poster of McEnroe dressed in jeans, a purple T-shirt and a brown leather jacket (collar popped, of course). He’s clutching two wooden Dunlop rackets under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge with the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers standing tall across the East River.
Matthew Rudofker, Momofuku’s Senior Director of Culinary Operations, says the first time McEnroe randomly came into Ssäm Bar for dinner one night several years ago, “He at first was extremely confused and thought all the photos were a prank, but we explained it to him,” says Rudofker. “He has joined us multiple times since then.” (A 2016 renovation expanded the bar, moving the Kotzen work to a new spot and adding three additional McEnroe photos to the back room, as well as broken rackets and a tennis ball wallpaper pattern to the restrooms.)
“McEnrore was in many ways not just seen as the ‘bad boy’ of tennis but an antagonist to what was originally seen as how a tennis player should be,” Rudofker says. “In many ways, Ssäm Bar was the same for restaurants.”
Sitting across from the McEnroe shrine and communing with that multi-headed McEnroe hydra for an hour or two each week served as a therapeutic Rorschach test as I faced my own struggles. Somehow, inspired by McEnroe’s drive to always try to find a way to win, I finally did finish my manuscript. And as a personal Easter egg, one of the last photographs in my first book, Bitters, is of the Momofuku McEnroe shrine forever smiling back to readers over the acknowledgements.