He pronounced the word with the same distaste he uses when talking about Republicans.
“People are so very dramatic, aren’t they?”
When Morellet was a small child in Bumfuck, France—otherwise known as Cholet—he started to draw maps: obsessively detailed renderings first of actual cities and later of those he imagined. His father, the conceptual artist François Morellet, encouraged Florent to follow his artistic inclinations; instead, at 18, Morellet moved to London to study urban planning. He left before graduating (“I am still on sabbatical”) and moved to San Francisco, where he remembers discovering quaaludes (but not much else). Next came a stint in Paris, where on a whim he opened a restaurant that hemorrhaged money for a few years before closing, after which he moved to New York. It was 1978. He had no idea what he wanted to do. He ended up becoming the manager of La Gamelle, a long-since-extinct Soho restaurant, which inspired him, against the advice of friends, to give owning a restaurant another go. “We had a bubbly economy, the term yuppies was coined,” he recalled. “I wanted a place that would attract a broad range of customers. I was looking off the beaten track.” A friend of his named Patricia Decker, a meat saleswoman and photographer, told Morellet that a luncheonette on Gansevoort Street called R&L was looking to sell its space. He knew the neighborhood well: On his second night in the city, he had been mugged there by two men who, before they placed a gun to his head, Morellet had assumed were looking for a threesome. “I loved the neighborhood!” he told me. “I had been to R&L in the middle of the night when I’d come out of the gay bars. You come out of clubs at three or four in the morning, and coming down from all the drugs and alcohol—it can be depressing in a dead city. But the meatpacking district was alive! The meatpackers yelling, the transgendered prostitutes—it reminded me of Les Halles in Paris.”
When Morellet took over the space, he hardly touched it. The Formica counter is the same one where longshoremen took their meals in the forties; the chrome-plated walls are original, as is the fluorescent lighting, which Morellet tinted pink to give the place an ebullient, buttery glow. Other than that? He added a red vinyl banquette along the rear wall, covered the walls in maps, and created a menu that includes a classic BLT and a wicked boudin noir: part American diner, part French bistro. The restaurant’s spirit, though, was never conventional, and is perhaps best understood by studying the message boards above the counter. Instead of the nightly specials, Florent displays everything from demented holiday haikus (“War bells ring are you listening/Iraqi oil must be glistening”) to New Year’s predictions (from 1999: “Linda Tripp poses for Playboy; the Internet is a hoax; WWIII; Martha Stewart is a man; You git all the respect you deserve; WWIV”). A string of numbers run along the bottom: 554, 704, 658, 684 … a riddle? A distant cousin of Sudoku? No, this is a chronicle of Morellet’s fluctuating T-cell count, which he has kept updated since 1987, the year he tested positive for HIV. It was this kind of subversive act—nothing quite like destigmatizing the AIDS virus while serving moules-frites—that made the restaurant a safe haven in the early days of the AIDS crisis, a home where a makeshift family could congregate without fear of ostracism. Morellet inverted what is now the universal code of downtown establishments: Florent strained to be inclusive instead of exclusive—always open, literally and figuratively, to all who enter.
“Basically, if you took the show Cheers and made it a million times more fabulous, a million times more unique, and a million times more offbeat, then you’d have Florent,” says Christine Quinn, the speaker of the New York City Council who, two years ago, served with Morellet as co-marshals of the gay-pride parade. “In Cheers everybody knew your name, right? Well, in Florent, everyone knows your name and your drag name.”
From the beginning, the restaurant has been a supporter, financially and spiritually, of a number of fringe artists. Lucy Sexton, now an established performance artist and theater director, used to be the night manager back when Matthew Barney, whose studio used to be around the corner, was a lunchtime regular. Richard Move, a performer and choreographer recently commissioned by the Martha Graham Dance Company, was a waiter for many years, and if you go for dinner tonight, you might be served by Vestal McIntyre, author of the short-story collection You Are Not the One. “The number of artists who managed to survive in New York up through the nineties by working at Florent is a long, very illustrious list of people,” says Stephen Daldry, director of The Hours, who has for years used Florent as an unofficial office to meet with “literally every actor I’ve worked with.” David Byrne, too, used to meet at Florent to discuss Talking Heads album covers with Tibor Kalman, the legendary designer whose firm M&Co used to design Florent’s menus and cheekily provocative ad campaigns in exchange for free meals. Byrne also remembers going on one of Morellet’s many chartered bus trips to Washington, D.C., to protest wars or advocate for gay rights. “I was on one of them years ago, to protest the first Gulf War,” he says. “Cyndi Lauper got on the microphone and acted as a tour guide, pointing out all the beautiful sights along the New Jersey Turnpike.”