The 25th Hour of Florent Morellet

Photo: Kevin Cooley

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.”

Dressed as Marie Antoinette (in red sash) for Bastille Day 1989.Photo: Courtesy of Florent

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.”

Alan Cumming, Morellet, and Michael Musto at Florent's twentieth anniversary party at the Roxy.Photo: Courtesy of Florent

The restaurant’s particular brand of charming, anything-goes nuttiness is, in the end, the by-product of Morellet’s personality. The man is a natural-born exhibitionist, someone with a contagious immunity to shame. “How are you?” I asked him when we first sat down for dinner—one of those rhetorical questions you don’t expect people to answer seriously. Morellet responded by telling me about the “total miserable fucking breakdown” he had suffered in the wake of 9/11, and then about the 30 days he spent in a posh Arizona rehab clinic, and the meditation classes he now attends every week, in addition to group and individual therapy sessions, as well as meetings for Overeaters Anonymous (“Some people can eat a slice of cake—me, I eat the cake”), which he sometimes misses when they overlap with those for Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (“Oh, I was a slut in the seventies!”), and about how he now sometimes has to skip those in favor of Alcoholics Anonymous, which he added to his repertoire this past September. “Yes, yes, I’m a 12-step addict. Do you know why I joined AA?” he asked offhandedly. Back in the fall, he was doing a little midnight gardening at his lake house when he slipped and tumbled down a steep incline and knocked himself unconscious a few yards from the shore. “My GWI!” he bellowed. “Gardening While Intoxicated!”

He took a minute, reluctantly, to catch his breath. “So that’s me,” he concluded. “Now, what shall we eat?”

“New York is the city of changes. People forget this is what they love about it. They get old, they get grumpy. They get nostalgic.”

Over dinner, I asked Morellet to describe the one or two memories that, for him, stand out above all others. He politely laughed in my face: “One or two? Please.” And then, over more than two hours, I heard about the day when he mistook Bette Midler for Bette Midler’s mother; and the night when Diana Ross stormed out of the restaurant after a waiter launched into an impromptu performance of one of her “gay anthems”; and old Hank, a neighborhood regular who used to come in every day for lunch and who, when he became too sick to leave his house, had his meals delivered by a waiter up until the week of his death. Eventually, though, Morellet managed to land on two moments that held particular significance for him—moments that, each in their own way, spoke to what the city will lose when Florent closes.

“Do you know who is James Dale?” he asked me, referring to the New Jersey scoutmaster who sued the Boy Scouts of America for discrimination after he was expelled for being gay. Morellet had gotten to know Dale, and he recalled one night in 2000 when the two of them were talking over dinner at Florent about Dale’s upcoming hearing before the Supreme Court: “James says to me, ‘You know, I don’t really have a suit to wear to the Supreme Court. Do you think you could help me find a suit?’ So I say to him, ‘Hold on a moment.’ And then I walk a few tables down, where Calvin Klein is sitting. I say, ‘Calvin, that man over there is the Boy Scout who is going to the Supreme Court. He doesn’t have much money because—well, because he is a Boy Scout. It would be great if he was wearing a Calvin Klein suit for the Supreme Court.’ Calvin says, ‘No problem, call the store, I’ll take care of it.’ So we go up to the store on Madison Avenue and everyone was just beside themselves, because Calvin had personally said to take care of us, and also just because James is so damn gorgeous.”

And then there was the more somber night, in 1989, when a young man went into the bathroom and never came out. “It was a Saturday, I think, at like two in the morning, and the place was packed—just like right now,” Morellet recalled. “We opened the door, and saw the needle in his arm. Yes, he was dead.” One of the officers on duty that evening was Edgar Rodriguez, an openly gay cop in the Greenwich Village precinct, whose portrait is now framed behind the counter. “What he hears on the radio is that they’re going to close the restaurant to get the body out, which I think is probably standard procedure,” Morellet remembered. “And so he says, ‘No, no—I know the restaurant, they can take the body out through the basement.’ So they carry the body out of the basement and into the ambulance. And inside the restaurant everything just kept going.” Morellet grew serious. “A few weeks later, this man comes in. He’s very well dressed, he’s kind of shy. He says, ‘My brother died here, in the bathroom.’ I thought, Oh my God! I’ve had problems with drugs myself, so I said to him, ‘Sit down, let’s talk.’ It was good for him to see that it was not a dive—at least not a dive dive.” Some droll laughter. “I explained to him what we were all about. I told him that my restaurant is full of young, successful people who are partying at night, and that, from what I could see, the death was an accident. It was really great, you know, because I could help this man get some sense because he was so lost.”

Morellet as Miss Kitchenette, at Wigstock 1993.Photo: Courtesy of Florent

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.”

Amy Winehouse at Florent in 2007.Photo: Lawrence Schwartzwald/Splash News

Morellet has lived in the same spacious, white-walled loft on Lafayette Street since he moved to New York. The apartment is on the eleventh floor, with many massive windows offering panoramic views of a downtown that has been declared officially over countless times over the past three decades. It wasn’t long ago, for instance, that Morellet spent his mornings watching the slow rise of the Hotel on Rivington, the much-bemoaned glass tower that marked the end of the Lower East Side—at least for the hipsters, whose arrival had long ago marked the neighborhood’s demise to the Jews and Puerto Ricans. “I loved seeing that!” Morellet told me one afternoon at his apartment, pointing at the hotel from his dining table, where he was eating a late breakfast. “People complain about the high-rises, but I want more skyscrapers as high as the Empire State Building. I believe a city is supposed to be hills and valleys, you know?”

These days, he spends most of his time planted at this table, taking calls and preparing for the end, a file marked “Closing Flo” open on his MacBook’s desktop. He’s planning an elaborate farewell leading up to the restaurant’s final night, June 29, the day of the annual gay-pride parade. On the Monday of each of the five weeks prior, the restaurant will host a raucous party themed to one of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance—featuring countertop skits and drag performances. “My staff have reached the Acceptance stage,” Morellet said. “But my customers are still very angry, still in the shock-and-awe phase of things. By the time the restaurant closes, people will have found some kind of peace.” As part of the festivities, he will be auctioning off the restaurant’s maps over eBay, with the funds to be divided among the staff, though there was one map which would not be for sale: Little Liechtenstein, which he had long ago promised to Roy Lichtenstein’s widow, Dorothy. “I called her the other day and told her about the auction,” said Morellet. “And do you know what she did? She insisted on taking part. She bought it for $25,000! Can you believe it.”

Morellet has been approached by investors in Brazil and Japan about franchising Florent, and, locally, there has been some talk of the Whitney Museum having a version of the restaurant in its satellite museum that’s part of the current High Line development. “Would I like all of that? Sure, but it is not a priority right now,” Morellet told me. After the restaurant closes, he plans to travel around Europe with his boyfriend, the novelist Peter Cameron. He also wants to write his memoir and dedicate more time to drawing maps and neighborhood activism. Lately, he’s been working with the Department of Transportation to make Prince Street pedestrian-only for one Sunday a month. “But it has been a horror! Some people can’t imagine a world where they can’t unload their cars after coming back from the Hamptons.” He shook his head, and focused once more on the immediate task at hand. “Anyway, you’ll have to excuse me now,” he said. “There is so much I need to do.” He opened his daily planner. On its first page, the Unofficial Queen of the Meatpacking District had copied the opening line of Diana Vreeland’s autobiography: I loathe nostalgia.

The 25th Hour of Florent Morellet