Until a few weeks ago, a tiny map of Liechtenstein, the world’s sixth-smallest country, hung in the back of Florent, the 24-hour French diner that opened in 1985 at what was then one of the more improbable locations in Manhattan: 69 Gansevoort Street, along the southern edge of the meatpacking district. The map was one of dozens mounted on the walls by the owner, a charismatic 54-year-old Frenchman named Florent Morellet, who thinks of maps as accidental works of art, still portraits of places that are constantly changing. Little Liechtenstein had seen a lot in its day. The map was there back when the neighborhood was a forlorn tangle of cobblestones where slaughterhouse workers hacked apart bovine carcasses and transvestite hookers prowled outside unsubtly named sex clubs like the Manhole and the Mineshaft. Little Liechtenstein was there, too, as the slaughterhouses were taken over by Helmut Lang and Stella McCartney and Apple and as restaurants serving lobster fra diavolo opened in buildings where, as John Waters puts it, “I remember watching men pay good money to get pissed on.” And Liechtenstein was still there, quietly minding its business, on the day two months ago when Morellet told his staff that his lease was up, that the new rent was far out of reach, and that Florent, the establishment that established the neighborhood, would be closing after 23 delightfully wild years.
Morellet removed the map not as a gesture of mourning but as a precaution. “I was worried,” he told me over a recent dinner at the restaurant, “that it would be stolen.” Florent has a fervid following that includes (but is not limited to) neighborhood stalwarts, fashion icons, queer activists, famous drag performers, eccentric night owls, club kids, the offspring of club kids, maverick politicians, burlesque dancers, and celebrities ranging from Lou Reed to Sarah Jessica Parker—some of whom, after learning of the restaurant’s impending closure, have developed a nostalgia-induced kleptomania. “The menus, they have started vanishing!” continued Morellet. Wine lists, saucers, coffee cups, cloth napkins, and silverware have also gone missing in recent weeks. Morellet doesn’t mind such theft—he finds it sweet, really—but Liechtenstein was special, marking the spot where Roy Lichtenstein, the Pop artist, used to have his daily lunch. Morellet didn’t want to see the map surreptitiously escorted off the premises in, say, a knockoff Fendi tote slung over the shoulder of an inconsolable drag queen.
“People are coming to me all the time, in the restaurant and on the street, crazy with grief,” he said, sounding both concerned and somewhat pleased. “They want to protest and erect barricades! They want”—he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper—“to bomb my landlord’s house!”
Of course, such extreme reactions seem perfectly reasonable to those who spent time at Florent over the years. From the moment it opened, the restaurant was not just a place to preemptively strike down your hangover with a 5 A.M. steak au poivre but a crossroads where the status-based rules of the city seemed not to apply. Even today, you can walk into Florent and see Calvin Klein dining next to a homeless transsexual dining next to an advertising executive dining next to an octogenarian finance whiz dining next to a guy (or is that a girl?) you hope to go home with later. “It was what New York was supposed to be, but no longer is,” says Isaac Mizrahi, the designer, a regular since Florent opened. “I used to go there in between bars, when I was out with my friends, doing drugs and cruising. Then I’d end up at Florent the next day for a serious lunch meeting and all the same people were there, kind of smiling in secret.”
For many, the cruel irony of Florent’s closing comes from the sense that Morellet is being devoured by his own creation: forced out of a neighborhood that is now a historic landmark thanks to his tireless lobbying, a neighborhood in which he is known as the Unofficial Mayor of the Meatpacking District (or, as he prefers, its Unofficial Queen). “They say it’s the value of the real estate and blah blah blah. But the irony is that he was vital in helping to raise that value,” says Diane Von Furstenberg, who has lived and worked within a few blocks of the restaurant for ten years. “He was the reason people started coming to the neighborhood.”
Morellet, however, refuses to be maudlin about Florent’s fate. “I used to be the light in the middle of the darkness, and now I suppose I am the dark spot in the middle of the light,” he told me. “Of course I have prayed that maybe I would be saved at the last minute by a collapse of the world economy. And when it became real? Yes, I drove out to my lake house in New Jersey and wept for three days straight. But,” he quickly added, “only three days!” Morellet then took a sip from the five thimble-size bowls before him, samples of that evening’s soups, an appetizer not found on the menu. “I am from Bumfuck, France, okay?” he said. “And when I grew up I wanted to kill myself every Sunday because nothing happened. So I moved to Paris, but you know what? Paris is awful! Americans, they love Paris, but I absolutely hate Paris. It is always gray, it is always the same. So I came to New York for the reason everyone comes to New York, because it is the city of changes. People forget this is what they love about New York. They get old, they get grumpy. They get … nostalgic.”