On Tuesday evening, May 30th, 2006, millions of New Yorkers will finish their frantic day as usual, dashing home to shed the burdensome weight of their daily pressures and upgrading their attire to prepare for their reward – an evening of dining out. Some will walk uptown, or more likely downtown, to 58th street, toward the latest towering model of excess and architectural prowess that is One Beacon Court. For those fortunate enough to own a residence between the 32nd and 55th floors, an elevator ride down to street level will suffice. Pushing onward through the seven-story elliptical glass courtyard, the orange circus big-top suddenly comes into view, easily spotted between the soaring vertical veins of ice-blue windows. Once inside, they will be greeted with warmth by a familiar face, by someone who has been terribly missed from New York restaurants since New Years Day 2005. A hand will greet the gentlemen, a smile and a compliment will welcome the ladies. Just as elegantly as he has done for 35 years, Sirio Maccioni will once again lead his guests to their seats in the new and ultra-modern Le Cirque restaurant.
Mr. Maccioni had already accomplished more than a restaurateur could dare to dream when he closed down Le Cirque 2000 on December 31, 2004. Although the Le Cirque name lives on in Mexico and Las Vegas, most of New York would have forgiven him if he had packed it in after a lifetime of successes and gone on to enjoy life in a quieter, less frantic jungle. Although he admits to being tired and wanting to be free of the demanding pace of Manhattan, the smile that greets his friends, new and old, is a genuine one. He cannot hide the delight of being back in business.
Before our interview, Mr. Maccioni asked me how much time my small digital tape recorder could hold on it. When I told him that it had a 2 hour limit, he informed me that the newer ones can now hold up to 15 hours. I wondered if he was implying that my device would not be adequate to record all that he planned on divulging that afternoon, but a busy schedule and his sore throat kept the interview to a mere hour, leaving my techno-wimp recorder with plenty of minutes to spare. It had been 14 months since we last interviewed the celebrated restaurateur, and at 72, Mr. Maccioni has barely lost a step. His knack for the dramatic remains a considerable specialty, as does his ability to make those around him feel comfortable, which is arguably his strongest skill. He still speaks with unwavering eloquence, sprinkling every sentence with humor and emotion, and loves to communicate not only by flirting, conjecturing and politicizing, but also by using his hands and perhaps unknowingly, with his expressive eyes. Although the huge project of rebuilding Le Cirque from the ground up has taken an enormous amount of energy, he appears confident that the new venue will make his job easier.
“I’m always tired, I’m tired mentally. But I can say that when I work, I try to do my best. I don’t want to be here and not want to be here. The last year at The Palace, I really didn’t feel comfortable. I did things - now I am remembering - sometimes if people were leaving, I was sitting there and - not that I did that on purpose not to look at them - but I didn’t get up and say goodbye, which is the thing that you have to do. So here, it’s going to be different, because when the people come in, it’s smaller, it’s under control - visual control I’m talking about.”
He often talks about his last restaurant as if it is a troubled child with whom he no longer speaks; one he still has the chance to set right with the proper amount of reflection. He likes to compare his first location on 65th Street, seemingly his favorite, with his second on Madison and 51st, and when encouraged, with his new location. He bounces seamlessly from one to the next, as if he is speaking not of three restaurants but of three sons, all different, all with strengths and weaknesses, all of whom he loves in different ways but somehow equally. He spoke of the complaints among his customers, many of whom 51st Street was already too “downtown.” Their drivers would bring them to Le Cirque 2000, where they had to walk through the courtyard to reach the entrance, a journey made all the more complicated by the lack of a hotel doorman to protect them from foul weather. The new restaurant’s entrance on 58th street will improve that, and add valet parking to boot.
The last restaurant was “beautiful, a different interpretation,” says Sirio. “We had good men who built that restaurant. They had the courage to take from whatever was beautiful, and leave the beauty as what it was, and make it a modern attraction.” Although the move from the Palace Hotel took 18 months, a lifetime in restaurant years, Sirio still feels the desire to clarify, and justify, his reason for that move.
“I didn’t move away from the Madison Avenue because one day I woke up and said we’ll move. The place was beautiful. We really were very busy, we didn’t move because of lack of business. The business was there. But the interest of a hotel is different than the interest of the restaurant. The mentality of the hotel and the hotel management is that the restaurant has always been some kind of a playground for the hotel, or for the management at the hotel. And I believe that we were too independent.”
The new 16,000 square foot space is more personal to him. It is as stunning as it is comforting, and in spite of the huge cost of creating it, “I believe that as beautiful as it is, you need things to come together to create the ambience where people feel comfortable.”
Sirio recognizes that this ambience does not come from warm carpet colors, comforting seat cushions, or high-end sound systems, which the new restaurant certainly does have. It comes from intangibles, from asking the right questions, and of course, by making sure everyone is happy even when problems arise. “On 65th street, even a mistake became a positive. We had a small table like this that was for 6 people, and we used it for 10, and everybody was happy. And they were all saying, ‘how can you complain when you’re sitting next to a beautiful woman or to somebody very important?’ It was incredible with the amount of people the restaurant was serving there. We were open 25 years and we had an average of 325 covers a day.”
Never one to be afraid to say what is on his mind (“because at my age, I can afford to tell the truth”), Sirio still delivers one-liners like an experienced nightclub comic. The new building: “I like this building because Bloomberg is here. And you know, I’m not politically correct, I like Bloomberg.” Fois Gras: “Why tell me that we cannot eat duck anymore? Who’s protecting the chicken? Okay, so we can kill the chicken, but we cannot kill the duck.” The new female White House chef: “It was about time that they did something like that. I never had any problem with race, with nationality, or with sexual orientation, as long as they leave me alone.”
We asked if there will still be some of the classic Le Cirque dishes on the menu for the 90-seat dining room, and Sirio nodded and joked, “Yeah, I brainwashed Pierre. I hope it works.” Executive Chef Schaedelin will surely accommodate those customers who may ask for something that is not on the menu, which they have always done, or a diner who yearns for an old Le Cirque dish that is no longer on the menu. The 65-seat bar will have a smaller menu with smaller portions than the dining room, and the dress code, which applies to both areas, will be more relaxed than Le Cirque’s previous incarnations, allowing men to leave their ties at home as long as they have a jacket, even if happens to be matched with designer jeans. But whatever you do, don’t get Sirio started on the idea of a prix fixe menu.
“I don’t like prix fixe. To make somebody pay $150,175, $200, you are making them pay to breathe the air of your restaurant, to look at whatever you have there. But is it good to have it at those places? Of course. When you do a prix fixe, most of the time is to help the restaurant, because with the prix fixe, everybody will eat the same. It’s easier on the kitchen.”
The restaurant was built by famous restaurant designer and longtime Maccioni collaborator Adam Tihany, whose touches include a 27 foot steel and glass wine tower, which acts as a connective element between the 80- person private dining room upstairs and the first floor. The main entrance is nothing if not dramatic, with soaring two-story ceilings, dark walnut tables, and Alexander Calder inspired wire-art that evokes the subtle circus feeling that Tihany and Maccioni were looking for. It is a dramatic enough departure to stand apart from both of Sirio’s previous restaurants, but with enough Le Cirque-ish features to please his fans.
“A restaurant has to change with time,” said Sirio. “If you’re able to change, people keep on coming. Doing the same thing now that we had done 10 years ago is madness. I like what we’re going to have again now, something that you control visually, and physically if you want. I think as a restaurateur, but I also think as a person who walks into the door. When you walk into the door, what do you want to see? If it’s beautiful, beautiful legs, that’s very important.” The beautiful legs will begin walking into Le Cirque starting May 30th.
The wine will be poured by an all-female sommelier staff, and besides Pierre, only a few employees still remain from the previous restaurant. Sirio’s three sons Mauro, Mario, and Marco will be working the new restaurant, sharing duties in rotating three month shifts.
As we were wrapping up, I mentioned to Sirio that the beautiful and successful restaurateur Donatella Arpaia was this month’s cover story. Sirio’s eye immediately lit up. “Oh, I said to one of my sons, why don’t you marry her? She’s good, very good, because she decides to be very good. I always knew that women can do everything better than men. So I said to my son, go to Dona, please! Leave me alone!” Sirio laughed, unable to hide the joy he gets from talking about his family, who are so closely tied to him and his successes.