I know, I know, I’ve been blogging a lot about diners lately, but on my recent visit to New York City, I had to take in a veritable New York institution before it closes at the end of this month. Florent is a 24-hour eatery located in the heart of the Meatpacking District, and its been credited with transforming the hardscrabble corner west of Union Square from a haven of prostitutes and meat hooks into the swanky, “let’s-drink-cosmos-like-Carrie-Bradshaw” locale it is today. (Indeed, the final scene of the new film pans out to look over a gaggle of women teetering in their Manolos down the cobblestones of Gansevoort Street).
The diner itself has been around for decades. It first catered to meatpackers, then it changed hands in 1985 and came under the ownership of Florent Morellet, a Parisian who infused the menu with French bistro fare. Florent became a home for all the “creatures of the night;” it was the “dowager queen” of the neighborhood, says Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, in an essay for the New York Times in 2001. He writes:
It was, and remains, a haven for artists, performers, club habitues and assorted creatures of the night. The clientele, in its early days, was restricted to those who knew it existed, which was not knowledge easily obtained, since Florent barely advertised and was on a street likely to produce only blank looks from cabdrivers. You could go there for breakfast at 4 a.m., after you’d been, say, to the ”Night of a Thousand Stevies” (an annual event attended by hundreds of men and women, all dressed as Stevie Nicks) at Jackie 60, a nightclub two blocks north of Gansevoort. If you went at that hour, as the first trucks were arriving with their cargoes of cold flesh, you might have found yourself seated at the counter with David Byrne on your right and, on your left, a man in a full beard, a merry widow and fishnet stockings.
Florent has mellowed a bit with age (who among us hasn’t?), has taken to closing for a couple of hours in the deep dead of the night, but has lost none of its soul. The staff is still charming and raucous, the food still cheap and good. I make a particular point of going there whenever I return from a trip to a kinder, gentler place (be it Paris or Pittsburgh) and need to be reminded of the particular, voluble mix of eccentricity, intellect and sleaze that makes New York worth the trouble.
It’s hard not to see the irony of the diner’s closing. Morellet created a safe space in the unseemly district, which eventually allowed the onslaught of sleek high-end eateries, hotels and boutiques (hello Apple store) that populate it today. Morellet is also credited with pushing the New York City Council into landmarking the Meatpacking district. But he’s closing shop because the rent is too high.
But, in a way, says Morellet, in an excellent piece in New York Magazine, the diner’s closing is a reflection of New York life. “I came to New York for the reason everyone comes to New York, because it is the city of changes,” Morellet says. “People forget this is what they love about New York. They get old, they get grumpy. They get . . . nostalgic.”
You can revel in the nostalgia for the next few weeks, as the diner is hosting a party each Monday night to acknowledge the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Florent shuts its doors on June 29th. If you go, try the mac and cheese, it’s fantastic.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Photo: The mac and cheese with ham at Florent. It tastes even better at 3 a.m. by Janelle Nanos