Monsieur Florent Morellet has wearied of the hand-wringing lamentations and soulful eulogies that New York has laid at the foot of his famous establishment, the eponymous Florent diner. Both man and restaurant have evolved into cultural centerpieces of the Meatpacking district, and news of the diner’s pending foreclosure after 23 years of service—and rumors that a faux-Florent would stand in its place—invoked hisses of culture-killing gentrification among Manhattan’s media outlets.
To be fair, the Frenchman knew well before the rest of New York that his round-the-clock diner was on a deadline. “My landlord [Joanna Lucas] and I tried to come to an agreement three years ago, and we could not reach it. But I was an optimist,” he jokes. “I thought the US economy would collapse by then.” For years pessimists have prophesied Florent’s demise in the face of the now astronomically gentrified Meatpacking District, but when news finally broke that the beloved mainstay was shuttering its windows on June 29th, queers, celebrities, neighbors, leather-men, and the overwrought breed of uber-nostalgic New Yorkers all let out a collective gasp of fury.
“I’m overwhelmed by everyone’s response,” Morellet marvels. “We’ve had to keep an eye on customers who try to take away a piece of Florent before it closes. People are stealing our menus! A woman who’s been a regular for years came up to me in tears. In tears! It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us.”
Florent’s ascent from meager diner to a top Manhattan destination unravels like a less family-friendly version of An American Tale. Discouraged by a stagnant culinary scene in Paris and his own failed venture as a restaurateur, Morellet emigrated to the States in 1985 with dreams of starting a diner on the seedy soil of New York. His account of wandering into the then-sketchy Meatpacking district has become the stuff of legends. “There I was,” he tells routinely tells reporters, “among the warehouses at night. My friends had warned me against walking there alone at night, but I went anyways. I walked into the back of a loading van, and I couldn’t see anything. Suddenly I was kissing someone’s mouth, and another set of hands was taking off my shirt. Then I felt someone put a gun to my head.” Newly divested of his clothes and money, Morellet escaped and ran to a nearby police car wearing only his underwear.
The diner opened less than a year later in the place of a former trucker haunt called R&L. The surrounding area hosted squat buildings, loading docks, and blue-collar workers who went home at sundown, making room for a young, gay male population who filed into bars with names like The Cock and wandered out hours later among the lurid warehouses.
Some New Yorkers relish the days of when trannies and muggers patrolled the western stretch of Eighth Avenue, when cow’s blood soaked the sidewalks, with the rosy blur that only unadulterated nostalgia can conjure. Morellet balks at reminiscing. “In those days, it used to be unsafe to visit the diner at certain times. My friends would ask me if they should come after 9pm, and I’d say, "Yes, yes, but be safe!"
Florent quickly hit its stride in the kinetic groove of the neighborhood, hosting annual Bastille Day galas where Morellet dressed as Marie Antoinette (one year he even stuck a cage of canaries on his wig). When tension sparked between the flux of well-to-do arrivistes and the cross-section of club-goers, cross-dressers, tourists and addicts—all them Florent regulars—Morellet mediated a détente between the warring sides. His devotion to neighborhood politics earned him the nickname, “Mayor of Meatpacking District.” (“I prefer Queen,” he always replied.)
The chalkboard that listed the daily specials also tallied Morellet's white blood cell count, and the wait staff pissed off dining Broadway divas by singing their hit showtunes. The diner proved a bellwether for the neighborhood’s gentrifying prospects, where celebrities and fashionistas slid next to dealers and artists. For over two decades the 24-hour establishment stood ground while the Meatpacking district boomed outside, replacing dilapidated warehouses with boutique pet stores and chi-chi clubs for the jet-set and bridge-and-tunnel crowds. Then, in mid-2007, Morellet and his landlord could no long meet halfway over the following year’s rent (the diner was already paying $6,000 monthly, but still well below the neighborhood average), and thus came the beginning of the end. Morellet admits that he took the news to heart.
“I was born French, but in my heart I am a New Yorker, and like every New Yorker, I see myself reflected in my job,” he says. “This event was especially hard for me because not only was I losing my work, but my name was attached to the building! People are crying, 'Oh, Florent’s closing!' and it was impossible to not feel a very personal connection to this loss.”
The Frenchman says he grieved for Florent and went into group therapy to cope with the transition, but emerged from his depression with a newfound, American sense of pioneerism. “I’m ready for the next stage,” he says brightly. “Can you imagine if Florent were around for another 23 years? I’d be 76 years old, holding a cane, saying in my shaky grandpa voice: ‘There I was, in the Meatpacking district in 1985…’ That’s ridiculous. I’m ready for something new.”
Florent is winding down a month-long extravaganza of parties to celebrate its closing. “The parties are based on the five stages of grief,” he explains. “Florent’s final days end on Gay Pride Week, which is fitting.” He shrugs off suggestions that Florent fell under to the inexorable march of gentrification. “I moved to New York because it was a city always in change. Paris never changed, and it was boring. This is part of change.”
New rumors now eddy through Manhattan’s streets, and the latest gossip comes with an ironic twist: Florent’s loathed landlord Joanna Lucas has allegedly opted to take over the business, using space’s former name, R&L diner. The menu and staff will be identical, but under the Lucas’ command.
To a cynic’s ear, this Lucas’ act of mercy rings falsely—the independent proprietor fades away, the merchant ‘s wallet grows fatter. While Florent has enjoyed nearly a quarter-century of fame and fortune thanks to Morellet’s charismatic, tireless efforts to promote and celebrate human rights, the future of a city that favors cash over character seems grim. R&L will easily assume the building where Florent once stood—the colorful pedigree will be harder to maintain.
[Images courtesy of Flickr]