French diner owner embraces NYC as own
By DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
NEW YORK -- It is easy to look like a dot on a dense map when visiting New York City. I have a tip. Next time you go to Manhattan begin your trip at Restaurant Florent in the Meatpacking District, south of 14th Street and west of Ninth Avenue.
The 24-hour French diner is owned by Florent Morellet, a French-born mapmaker who has led preservation efforts in the historic district.
Restaurant Florent is about a sense of place.
In 1884 the City of New York parted two acres of land to establish an outdoor food market called the Gansevoort Market -- named after Revolutionary War hero Peter Gansevoort, the grandfather of Herman Melville. (In Dutch, gans means goose and voort means ahead.)The Gansevoort Meat Center opened in 1949, giving birth to the Meatpacking District. The cobblestone streets are still paved with red Belgian blocks and remain unusually large by Manhattan standards. Streets were widened in the late 1880s to allow for a greater number of vendors.
Morellet's quilted stainless steel diner is a former longshoreman's hangout previously known as the R & L Restaurant. Market workers and meat-packers of the early 1950s called the joint "Eatem and Beatem" because they would zip in and out around 3 in the morning.
Today, the 75-seat diner reflects Morellet's personality. It is warm, daring and irreverent. He kept the original formica tables from the R & L. There are 28 old-fashioned red stools along the diner counter. A signboard behind the counter is headlined "Reasons to Be Thankful" and Morellet changes the messages every couple of months. During my visit, "4 years will go fast and history will prove us right," as well as "Vietnam is finally over" mark the sign. The north wall is lined with maps of cities from across the world, creating an orderly atmosphere of grids and griddles.
The maps reflect his passion for community. "These are beautiful maps," he says during a talk in the diner before the Saturday night onslaught. " There are no indexes or extra information [on them.] I don't want to make it easy for people to figure out which city is which. I am fascinated by cities. One reason I studied city planning [from 1971-73 at Central London Polytechnic in England] is that ever since I was a kid I've been drawing maps."
His father, Francois, is one of France's noted conceptual artists. Three framed maps on the diner's wall are his son's drawings. "It's not the primary thing in my life," says Morelett, 51. "I like to do it for my father and my friends." All of the maps at the diner are of complex cities, except for a small map that depicts the European country of Lichtenstein, only 15 miles across. "It is a memorial to [pop artist] Roy Lichtenstein," Morelett says. "His wife still lives three blocks from here. They came every day during the week with a whole group for 10, 12 years until he died [in 1997 at age 74]. He sat. Facing that wall. Right there, every day. After he died I wanted to do something, so that's my little homage to my best customer."
Breakfast at Florent's has a muscular neighborhood feel that makes any Chicagoan feel at home. For three days straight, I enjoy McCann's Irish Oatmeal (with raisins and nuts, $5.95). A surefire dinner highlight is the Steamed Prince Edward Island Mussels in white wine with lemon, garlic, onions and fresh herbs. ($10.95) And that's a recipe Morellet got from his mother.
When Morellet opened his restaurant in 1985, he was familiar with this area between Greenwich Village and Chelsea. The Meatpacking District was a gay mecca during the late 1970s with rather scary sounding establishments like the Anvil, the Mine Shaft and Alex in Wonderland. The basement of the current Hog Pit barbecue joint, 22 Ninth Ave. (212-604-0092), once was an S&M bar. "Coming out of those clubs at 3, 4 o'clock in the morning, this wasn't a dead town," Morelett says. "It was bustling with traffic. Trucks. Meat-packers. In those days there were 2,500 people working in the middle of the night. I had come to this restaurant a couple of times -- pretty bad hamburgers. But this is exactly what I wanted. I didn't want to open a restaurant in SoHo or a known street."
Today the Meatpacking District has become one of New York's trendiest spots.
Many buildings still have metal shed awnings, from which pulley systems were used to move animal carcasses. The area is punctuated by the dilapidated High Line, an elevated freight line that ran one story above street level and passed through warehouses along its route. The High Line ceased operation in 1980, but the old tracks remain today as shelter for lowlifes and denizens of the city's underbelly.
About 10 years ago my friend Jill Richmond, lead guitarist of the Aquanettas, took me to the district when the only nightlife besides the gay bars was Hogs and Heifers, still going strong at 859 Washington St. (212-929-0655). Now, one of the hottest Asian restaurants in the city is Spice Market, 29 Ninth Ave. (212-675-2322), and Paul McCartney's daughter Stella's boutique at 429 W. 14th St. remains a popular stop for Saturday afternoon shoppers (212-255-1556, www.stellamccartney.com).
The Hotel Gansevoort, a sleek 187-room luxury hotel that opened in May, is the newest resident. The dynamic rooftop, which affords its viewers a glorious view of the district and Hudson River, features an indoor bar and a heated outdoor glass-surrounded 45-foot pool with underwater music. Rooms start at $325 (877-426-7386, www.hotelgansevoort.com).
Morellet is regarded as "The Unofficial Mayor of the Meatpacking District," but the restaurant Web site points out he is "still negotiating for Queen." He maintains, "I am not a pioneer. A pioneer is somebody who goes through the forest, cuts down trees and gets other people to come. I never imagined people would come here. It was so funky and absurd. I just liked the place. It took forever for change to happen."
And as life moves upscale, old Meatpacking District standards such as Nick's Diner go out of business because they can no longer afford rents, I suggest.
"This is true," Morellet says. "Maybe one day it will be me."
Is Morellet worried?
He takes a long pause. He looks around his diner and answers, "After Sept. 11, I went into a depression that got worse and worse. I ended up in a mental hospital. A rehab, whatever you want to call it. One good thing about going into a deep depression is you have to clear the table. No more clutter. You start from scratch. I'm in New York and why am I in New York? Because I like change. You have to go with change. And when change is not working for me, maybe it is time for me to go somewhere else. I have a lot of passion.
"I have been extremely involved with the neighborhood. With [co-chair] Jo Hamilton, five years ago we started to get this neighborhood landmarked. We saw the meat markets dwindling down. We succeeded, which was pretty amazing. We marshalled neighbors to fight a land use project three years ago. A developer tried to get a residential [zoning] variance for a 415-feet high residential building. We fought with 45 meat-packers, the nightclub owners and residents. We didn't fight against the height. We said the apartments would be economically disruptive. You start putting high-end residents in this neighborhood, there will be lawyers, doctors. The meat-packers are finished. The nightclubs are finished. This is a part of New York that right now is on the same level as the Statue of Liberty or Tribeca."
The Sept. 2003 landmark designation covers about 102 buildings in 11 blocks of the Meatpacking District, requiring changes to buildings as approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Morellet smiles and says, "I'm back doing city planning!"
Florent Morellet -- I just like typing the name -- was born in Cholet in the West of France. He likes to say he was "Born American." He explains, "At an early age I showed traits that were so American, like asking people how much money they made. How much their car cost. I was outward on the street, French people never do that."
Morellet first visited the United States in 1967. He was with his parents and a brother as they embarked on a road trip in a white Cutlass Supreme from Expo '67 in Montreal. The family motored through Niagara Falls, Chicago, south to New Orleans, west across Texas to California. "It was the deepest of America," he says of the South. "My parents were shell shocked. I was completely at ease. This was my country."
Morellet then made it a point to visit New York every summer. "In the summer of '70, I went with my boyfriend. We hitchhiked from New York to Mexico City. It took us six days. All kinds of people picked us up. You go from one car where everybody was smoking dope to the next car where they were all Christian. Because we were French and wore clean shirts, we were picked up way before everybody else. I've hitchhiked across America three times."
After high school Morellet left France to study in England. "When I was 15, my mother asked me if I was gay," he says. "It was pretty obvious. They were wonderful about it. France was conservative in those days so they said they would send me to London or Amsterdam, which were much better." Morellet studied city planning in London before taking a year off in 1973 to work at Call Board, a small restaurant in San Francisco. He cooked, waited on tables and never looked back. "That was my calling," he says.
Morellett returned to his Paris homeland and opened the restaurant Florent, Friquet, Howie and Co. "I was 22," he says. "I knew everything. And I failed. It was a social success but Parisians are the worst customers to wait on. They're obnoxious. I had a horrible time in Paris. Plus the work ethic in France is horrible. I like the way Americans work." The effervescent restaurant owner embraced America with no reservations. Restaurant Florent is a tribute to that free spirit.
Restaurant Florent is at 69 Gansevoort St. (212-989-5779, www.restaurantflorent.com) The restaurant is open 24 hours a day and only accepts cash. Also visit www.papotage.com, a compelling monthly online magazine published by Morellet and Restaurant Florent.
E-mail Dave Hoekstra at firstname.lastname@example.org.