The Sophisticated Traveler-
The New York Times Magazine

September 16, 2001

One Street at a Time
By Michael Cunningham


   GANSEVOORT STREET 'It is probably the only street in Manhattan where you could procure, in one easy trip, a side of beef and a 1970's sectional sofa in pristine condition'

Gansevoort Street, a dark and melancholy beauty, runs its modest course from east to west in downtown Manhattan's desolate riverfront neighborhood and empties into the opaque waters of the Hudson. It was, for most of its like, merely remote and sinister; it is now remote, sinister and fashionable. In that regard, it could probably exist nowhere else.

Gansevoort is in the meatpacking district- the Les Halles of New York, more or less- on the far West Side, several blocks below 14th Street. It is where the carcasses of animals who undergo their progress from slaughterhouses (discreetly located elsewhere) to the tables of Manhattan. Having gone so long without reform, it is older-looking thank most of the rest of New York. Its cobbled surface has swelled and dipped with the ongoing, restless little movements of the earth its four brick warehouses have not changed much since before the days of Upton Sinclair.

The dowager queen of Gansevoort, the one enterprise common to its disreputable past and its more presentable present, is a diner called Florent. For years it was a standard-issue diner, catering to the meatpackers. Then, in 1985, a restaurateur named Florent Morellet, who had come to New York from Paris, took it over. He started serving French bistro fare, but otherwise made only minimal changes. The Formica counter and chrome stools remained, as did its 24-hour status. A modest pink neon sign that said, simply, "Florent" appeared in the window, and strings of multicolored light bulbs, like the ones favored by used-car dealers, were strung rather haphazardly over the entry.

It was, and remains, a haven for artists, performers, club habitués 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've 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 hours in the deep dead of the night, but has lost none of its soul. The staff is still charming and raucous, the food is 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.