Florent Was the Most Progressive Diner in New York
A hub for artists and designers and a safe haven for the queer community in the midst of the AIDS crisis, the restaurant's legacy lives on
On the north side of Gansevoort in Manhattan’s West Village, visitors on their way to the Whitney Museum are likely to pass an empty twenties-style luncheonette, green “R&L Restaurant” sign still mounted above the door, Formica counters visible through the window. The space was indeed once home to an R&L Restaurant—a favored spot for longshoremen and butchers in the ’40s—but in more recent years the jewel box was a known as Florent, a beloved, pointedly unpretentious downtown diner that in many respects was the first of its kind in the city.
Florent was a downtown hub that served as a mixing ground for old and new guard New Yorkers; a beloved LGBT hangout and a shelter for the community during the terrible storm of the AIDS epidemic. “Pastis before Pastis,” food critics liked to remark, as if Pastis would ever welcome the mélange of transgender prostitutes, out-of-town tourists, artists, locals, and celebrities that Florent was known for. By the time the diner closed in 2008, after twenty-three years in business, it was considered an institution by high-turnover New York standards: a hub of activism, affordable mussels and annual Bastille Day drag parties, all spearheaded by its charismatic, openly gay, and cheerfully Francophobic French owner, Florent Morellet.
Morellet took over the R&L Restaurant when the Meatpacking was synonymous with nightclubs and industrial butchering, and animal blood from the factories ran in the streets. Despite having been robbed in the neighborhood (he mistook two burglars for a swinging couple in search of a third) Morellet was so charmed by it that in 1985 he signed a ten-year lease for $1,350 a month. The restaurant quietly opened that summer, and Florent relied on word-of-mouth to generate buzz. Within six months New York Magazine had labeled Florent the “hottest downtown eating spot,” where sanitation workers rubbed elbows with “costumey Brits, fast-talking Frenchmen, downtown artists and uptown yups.” Isaac Mizrahi and Diane Von Furstenberg were regulars; Ray Kelly once offered to break up a fight between two line cooks. Roy Lichtenstein ate at the same table in the back of the restaurant every day, and after his death, Morellet commemorated the spot by hanging a map of Liechtenstein nearby. Tables were close enough together that strangers wound up sharing meals.
The restaurant’s success had partly to do with being in the right place at the right time—a seedy, sometimes swinging neighborhood hungry for bonhomie and 24-hour comfort food—and with Morellet himself, whose ebullience and openness drew people in. 1985 was the year Reagan first said the word “AIDS” in public, even though it had already claimed more than 5,500 people, many in the LGBTQ community, and Florent became a kind of living expression of the ACT UP slogan “silence = death.” Morellet learned he was HIV-positive in 1987, and rather than stay quiet, he began posting his T-cell count every day on wall menu, warning irate diners that he was not willing to compromise his immune system to appease their demands. (“Let me tell you,” he remarked to the Times, “that really shut them up.”) By 1993, a National Research Council study found that the Meatpacking had one of the highest HIV infection rates in the city. Within this grim climate, Florent was a refuge, a joyous and open rebuke to the stigma then associated with homosexuality.
Morellet was the source of Florent’s creative spirit, but he also encouraged it in his colleagues. Tom Blunt, Morellet’s personal assistant during the last year of the restaurant’s operation, described the atmosphere around Florent as “fabulously informal,” one in which the boss’s sex addiction might be addressed as casually as his various political or artistic causes. Darinka, the bee-hived maître d’, served as inspiration for the artist Alex Katz, and graphic designer Tibor Kalman made menus and ads for Florent in exchange for free meals. The menus are now in the MoMA collection; the ads are taught in design school. One, a full-pager in a local paper, captured the exuberant fringe of the diner’s heyday: “Restaurant Florent, since 1985 the proud home of: political drag queens, suicidal libertines, secular surgeons, transvestal virgins, lunatic ravers, steroidal saviors, twelve-stepping two-steppers, infidel lepers, sadistic humanists, lunatic sensualists, wondering Jews [sic], multicultural views, leftist rituals, and delectable victuals.” Over the years, Kalman’s ads became more stridently political, exhorting patrons to practice safe sex or join the Florent staff for a march on Washington in support of reproductive rights. Kalman wasn’t the only artist to bring politics into the restaurant: For the tenth anniversary issue of the gay advocacy magazine Poz, Spencer Tunick photographed dozens of naked, HIV-positive men and women inside Florent, Morellet included.
And then, of course, there was the food. Meals can get blurry when it comes to 24-hour joints—a 9-to-5er’s first dish of the day might come hours after a hungover club kid’s; a late-night snack can easily bleed into an early morning meal. To keep things simple, Florent served breakfast from 3 a.m. to 10 a.m., and lunch after 10:30 a.m. On offer during breakfast hours were various kinds of eggs (Benedictine, Florentine, eggs with boudin, eggs with kippers), bread baskets and salmon bagels, crudité and fruit plates for more virtuous patrons. Burgers were available at any hour. The lunch and dinner menus combined French staples—steak frites, onion soup gratinée, escargot in garlic butter—with mac and cheese, salads and chili, standard American diner fare. When the Meatpacking became more family-friendly, Florent introduced a children’s menu.
As the years passed, Morellet’s work began to take him farther and farther away from the restaurant. He organized art exhibits, got involved in the right-to-die movement, and led the charge to get Gansevoort Street landmarked as a historical district, which ultimately happened in 2003. Blunt, who was brought on to help with these efforts, recalled his tenure with Morellet as a lesson in “what you could get away with out of sheer force of personality and humor and publicity.” By the time Florent shuttered for good in the summer of 2008—after the landlord upped the rent to $35,000 a month—Morellet was ready to move on.
In the five weeks leading up to the closing, Florent hosted a series of parties themed after the Kübler-Ross stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. To some, the diner’s demise represented the death of the old Meatpacking District, though by that point it was hard to argue that that there was much of the old spirit left to preserve. New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn gave the staff citations for their cultural contributions to the city; the media came out to pay their respects. New York Magazine ran a laudatory feature, and the Times put together a comprehensive oral history whose best parts were illustrated in David Sigal’s 2010 documentary, Florent: Queen of the Meat Market. Even now, the fascination with Florent persists: Just last fall, Alan Cumming revealed that he will star as the restaurateur in a forthcoming Showtime miniseries.
Remembering the good old days is a profitable industry in New York, and it’s easy to see why Florent likes to say that one of the two dirtiest words in the English language is “nostalgia” (the other is “gentrification”). Walking past the shell of Florent, which, for a time boasted a cheeky “F orent” sign out front (one recalls the Clinton White House staffers removing the “w”s from their keyboards to welcome the incoming administration), it’s tempting to indulge in nostalgia, to wish for a New York in which history could be lived with, rather than raided for parts or swept away entirely. For more than two decades, Florent was the soul of a certain version of the city, one in which artists and activists and young New Yorkers with empty bank accounts could mix freely, where AIDS and the financial crisis and aggressive gentrification (sorry) were not dealt with privately, but through community. But then, Florent was never intended to stay open forever, and Morellet has always said he loves the city for its capacity for endless renewal. Florent has yet to find its next iteration—the landlords are still looking for a tenant—but Morellet has. In 2013, he moved to Bushwick.