Morellet’s world began to change one summer afternoon around a million years ago—1999, to be precise—when he got a call from Keith McNally, the man whose pseudo-brasseries had opened at the precise moments when Tribeca (Odeon; est. 1980) and Soho (Balthazar; est. 1997) further catapulted into the moneyed neighborhoods they are today. McNally and Morellet have known each other since the late seventies; in fact, shortly after Morellet left La Gamelle, McNally turned it into Lucky Strike. Morellet speaks of McNally with respect, but as restaurateurs the two are guided by sharply different philosophies. Whereas Morellet created a reservation line just for neighborhood locals (“I didn’t care if famous people could get a table, but it was important that core people could get a table”), McNally was already notorious for issuing ever-changing secret numbers known only to the famous and the super-connected. At Balthazar, the “neighborhood people” were those who waited for hours—and sometimes days and months—for the privilege of eating in the same place where Anna Wintour does not have to wait one second.
“I just signed a lease on a space up the block from you,” McNally told Morellet that day in 1999. “I wanted you to hear it from me before anyone else.”
Pastis opened that winter at the corner of Little West 12th and Ninth Avenue, a moment that armchair urbanologists tend to infuse with epic significance. When Jay McInerney, writing in this magazine in 2004, pronounced the meatpacking district “so popular that nobody goes there anymore,” he noted that “Pastis was, of course, the beginning of the transformation,” the instant when the neighborhood suddenly appeared on the collective GPS of the Black Card set, after which, goes the argument, there was no stopping the carnival of excess that followed. Soon came the legions of hyperstylized restaurants (Rhône, Meet, Chinghalle) that opened and closed and reopened at such a vertiginous pace that you could practically order a $15 drink in one place and finish it in another without ever leaving your bar stool. The opening of the high-end department store Jeffrey, also in 1999, signaled the coming boutique boom (Scoop, Dernier Cri, Alexander McQueen). Then Jean-Georges and Mario Batali were moving in, along with the members-only Soho House, followed shortly by the Hotel Gansevoort, a Tower of Babel built on the principle that nothing conveys sophistication quite like stainless steel and fuchsia neon.
It is tempting to see Florent, in its twilight, as a casualty of the neighborhood, a classic case of the old snuffed out by the new. But of course the matter is more complicated given that Florent is both the old and the new, the establishment that, fourteen years before Pastis, introduced the neighborhood as a place of unexpected mass appeal. (“The dowager queen of Gansevoort,” the author Michael Cunningham has called the restaurant. “The one enterprise common to its disreputable past and its more presentable present.”) In their own cold way, the numerical facts behind Florent’s closing tell the story of just how profoundly the restaurant raised the neighborhood’s profile. Morellet’s first lease was $1,350 a month for ten years, a figure that, even in the eighties, was seen as high for the neighborhood. His current lease is $6,180 a month, a sum that only recently seemed ridiculously low. Before his lease expired, Morellet offered his landlord $18,000 a month, three times his current rate and the highest he could go without significantly raising prices and fundamentally changing the restaurant. The offer was rejected. Today the space is being shown to prospective tenants by the Lansco Corporation, which is marketing it as an “existing, established” property that can be yours for about $35,000 a month, or just over $400,000 a year.
“Look, I don’t particularly love it now,” Morellet said about the neighborhood. “I like it, but I don’t love it. A lot of the times, in the past, I really didn’t like it. In the eighties and early nineties, with the crack epidemic, it was terrible. The gay bars had closed. It was scary. We were losing money. We had to be in groups of three leaving in the middle of the night. I used to lie to people: ‘Oh no, it’s not dangerous!’ ” He paused. “So do I have nostalgia for the old meat market? No!” Morellet added that he “respectfully disagrees” with the notion that he is being driven out of the neighborhood that he created. “Look, it is a very sweet idea, but really people give me too much credit,” he said. “Had I not been there, okay, maybe the landmarking would not have happened, because, my God, at first people were like, ‘You want to landmark this?’ And if that hadn’t happened, you would have maybe just a generic and expensive neighborhood that wasn’t as chic. But aside from that? Come on! We are talking about a neighborhood that is geographically central. Maybe I sped up the process by one or two years, but that is all. If it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.”