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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

florent. the end of an era...

I am so sad to say one of my favorite NYC spots is closing June 29th.  I have so many memories in this place.  It was the late night stop after just about every late night out... and there were many... 24 hour french diner.  It was my favorite.  years before pastis, helmut lang, mcqueen and gansevoort hotel, soho house moved in to the ever so fashionable meatpacking district.   Waaay before samantha moved there in sex and the city. 

 Florent was in the middle of the dismal slaughterhouses and next to gay bars, sex clubs and biker bars.  Drag queens and transvestites could be seen at all hours of the night, walking the streets.  The street was kinda scary, but the destination worth it.  The outside looked like a diner or luncheonette out of another era, it still had the old name R & L Restaurant and chrome benches out front.   the florescent pink FLORENT in the window was the only thing telling you it was something different and it would shine eerily on the cobblestone street.  It was an unusual choice.  Inside, it looked like an eclectic diner, not really different than what you would expect from the outside.  Then you start taking it all in..  the hand drawn maps, the message board..  with it’s political, satirical statements and odd assortment of numbers at the bottom.  The staff was amazingly colourful, mostly gay, theatrical and usual both.  The customers were all over the spectrum...  no pretense, a place to sink in your red vinyl covered chair and enjoy.  the food was amazing (it’s where I picked up serving cheeseburgers on a toasty english muffin) and I loved soaking it all in.  It summed up nyc to me.
Years ago, as an design student, I sat at the counter and ordered an omelette next to Calvin Klein.  He was by himself, just reading the paper.  New yorkers never stare or even get caught glancing.. so neither did i.  Another time Simon from Barneys.. the amazing window dresser, then there was Mizrahi, David Byrne (which was pointed out to me), Annie Lennox..  and more recently it was studded with the new celebrities, as it became on the map of trendy.  

So many memories, I’ll share just one.  One afternoon in september in 1999, I brought a friend for lunch after we visited some chelsea galleries.  Proud to share one of my favorite spots.  Nervous of the area and thinking I was crazy, she was immediately won over when we sat down at the red banquette table and began to take in the place and read the menu.  I saw she got it and was stoked.   She suddenly ordered champagne when the waiter came.  odd shift in mood, I thought.  what was the occasion?    she wouldn’t tell me until it was poured.  she then began to pour out her heart as I never expected.  she wanted to get a divorce from her husband of 11 years.   I was shocked, but in a knowing, friend way.. and we sat in Florent for hours and hours, crying and laughing and crying more, as we sipped the bubbly and ate garlicky escargot, pate and mussels.  It was the perfect place and the champagne was a celebration of courage that she never thought she would have.  I will never forget that.  And we never felt inconspicuous or at odds for having such a private happening in a public place.
In New York magazine this week, there is a great article on Florent and the owner, Morellet, an amazing man.  He was always there, usually at the front window.  I spoke with him often, mostly about my love of the maps on the wall which he drew and the menu I loved, or he would tell me a quick story that would always end in laughter.   Reading the article, I wish I had the chance to get to know him more.  What he has done for that part of nyc and the gay community.. melts my heart.  Truly a good soul and an influential activist.  The string of numbers on the message board, I found out were a chronicle of Morellet’s t-cell count since he tested positive for HIV in the late 80’s.  He was very open about it and that’s what the restaurant was about.. it was an open place for all.  And that’s what resonated in me, without even really knowing it till now.

So, the rent has skyrocketed to $38,000 a month.  Florent will be closing due partially to how Morellet, an advocate of the neighborhood, eventually saw the area become as valued as he envisioned it 23 years ago.  Kinda ironic.  Now pushing out the one who fought for it the most.    Even the bar called Hell has moved out to give room for yet another extremely trendy restaurant.  The weeks before closing,  every monday night, the staff is putting on skits based on the stages of loss.  Each week a different stage.. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  This is a brilliant end of a spectacular place.  I can’t wait to see what Morellet does next.  Whatever it is, I will be there and I am sure I will love it.  

“I used to be the light in the middle of darkness, and now I suppose I am the dark spot in the middle of the light”...  “Of course I have prayed that I may be saved last minute by the collapse of the world economy.  And when it came to be real? Yes, I drove out to my lake house in NJ and wept for 3 days.  But, only 2 days!... I am from bumfuck france, okay? and when I grew up I wanted to kill myself every sunday because nothing ever 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 so grey, 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.” 
                                              -Morellet, as in New York Magazine

69 Gansevoort street

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