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Back in the Day

by Cody Lyon  Apr 26 2010
A New Yorker’s reflection of an earlier time in Manhattan, back when nightclubs were more than $300 bottles of vodka and when restaurants weren’t part of chains. Now, those were fun times.
Explore more stories and interactives that deconstruct how the nation lives, works and plays.Read More
Empire Diner

The Empire Diner, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, is closing after more than 30 years in business.
Image: jpchan on Flickr

Agroup of people are out cocktailing at one of Gotham’s countless bars, when suddenly, someone let’s out a loud “New York is so much fun!” Chances are the person doing the shouting is either young, new to the city, or simply here on vacation.

Invariably, you’ll see someone at another table (or possibly someone else in the same group) offering an eye roll, a chortle, or just a sigh. This, they’re suggesting, is nothing. New York City used to be much, much more fun a decade or two ago. There was a time in New York City when spontaneity permeated the air. Fun, or for that matter danger, lurked just around the next corner. Sometimes the two were one in the same.

These were the days when an artist, actor or writer could find a $500 studio apartment on the far reaches of Manhattan, like Alphabet City or the Lower East Side. Today, these are the neighborhoods New York magazine calls the most livable in Manhattan. And that studio now costs $2,000 a month, if you’re lucky enough to find it.

What I’m really talking about is New York City before Rudolph Giuliani became mayor in 1994 and made it his mission to install a series of quality-of-life laws upon the city. These measures eliminated spontaneous window washing by scary squeegee men on 9th Avenue, forced the X-rated shops along 8th Avenue to shut down, and increased the police presence throughout the city.

Before Giuliani, a sense of organized chaos ruled the street. Times Square was a risky-yet-thrilling proposition and the “Disneyfication” of 42nd Street had yet to take place. Manhattan was first and foremost a playground for adults, which meant that for the over-21 crowd, fun came out at night.

Everyone knows about Studio 54—that celebrity-driven, cocaine-fueled super club. That venue spawned others that didn’t seep into the general consciousness but were highly popular with New Yorkers. Clubs like Tunnel, Palladium, Limelight and Club USA, each with their own people at the door who would pick out and choose among the eager crowds who got in and who didn’t. They were looking out for those who were beautiful, striking, important, or who might add some freakish character to the cocktail of madness once inside.

Today, club owners are catering to those who can drop a few hundred dollars for a bottle of vodka and a collection of mixers. Or they’re finding other uses for the real estate. Studio 54 long ago became a legitimate Broadway theater. Palladium was torn down and became a New York University dorm. Limelight, a club set in an old Episcopalian church that opened in 1983 and became a symbol for Giuliani’s crackdown on nightlife, this spring is becoming the Limelight Marketplace, a mini-mall for artisans.

The clubs and bars are also dealing with a 21st Century reality their predecessors couldn’t fathom: a smoking ban. Earlier this month, police showed up at Manhattan’s last mega club, the Club M2 Ultralounge in Chelsea, with “nusiance abatement” papers ordering its temporary shutdown. Mind you, the police said that over the years they’d witnessed drug dealing and violence in the spot, but news reports also pointed to a rift between the club and the city over the nightspot’s flagrant violation of the city’s 2002 anti-smoking laws. The club reopened—a weekend without business cost it $250,000, according to a spokesman—only to be raided againby police as it was about to kickoff the NFL’s official draft party last week. This time, authorities said security was an issue.

But it’s not just the club scene that has changed. What passes for fun in New York—and how someone finds it—is a different game in 2010. Forget about looking online, or checking an iPhone to find party dresses, shoes, or illegal substances. A decade or so ago, the best bet for finding anything was experiential shopping, the discovery of new neighborhoods replete with their own smell, vibe and look.

The East Village with its edgy selection of combat boots and black leather motorcycle jackets found at Trash and Vaudeville on St. Marks Place was a universe away from the well-to-do shopping for fresh vegetables at the gourmet Fairway Market on the Upper West Side, where an affection for designer wool and loafers ruled the streets. Neighborhoods like Chelsea, home to a gay leather bar called Rawhide, or Tribeca, with its chic Odeon restaurant that drew artists and Wall Street brokers alike, were uniquely New York. They weren’t chains. They were run by local business people who had dreams of tapping into the city’s zeitgeist to strike it big.

Both the Rawhide and Odeon remain, largely unchanged by time. But with each passing day, it seems another story surfaces of some Manhattan institution’s closing, relocation or flat out shutting down due to the old adage of high rents. For example, after 34 years, “the hippest diner on Earth” will serve its last chicken fried steak on May 16. After negotiations with the landlord fell through, the Empire Diner, a 24-hour retro looking rail car diner where many club goers had a sobering breakfast, is calling it quits.

Entire neighborhoods where avenues and streets were dotted by Mom and Pop stores with names like Bright Food Shop or Food Bar, all festooning local flavor, have disappeared, replaced by more widely known names like Subway, Chipotle or another bank branch of Chase or HSBC.

But enough of this complaining. New York’s bars and restaurants remain packed, the shopping is still the best in the nation, the streets are vibrant (and much safer they than used to be). Truth be told, that person among the group of drinking friends who shouts about how fun New York is will probably be the one doing the sighing or glancing or complaining of their own in ten or twenty years, provided they stick around. I’ll drink to that.

Read more:

Gotham laments closure of popular Meatpacking District eatery

by Cody Lyon
EDGE Contributor
Wednesday Jul 2

On the Wednesday evening before Gay Pride weekend in the city, the Meatpacking District was alive with activity. Finely dressed pedestrians made their way along cobblestone streets while window shoppers admired the latest fashions in freshly sandblasted buildings. All the while, sounds of laughter, conversation and clinking glass from Pastis and other polished restaurants filled the air.

But deep in the heart of this exclusive neighborhood, on Gansevoort Street, a pair of lone rainbow flags crowned the green awning at Restaurant Florent. Albeit crowded, the air of sadness over the popular eatery’s closure consumed all who entered.

“He [owner Florent Morellet] is so overwhelmed right now,” a busy hostess said after EDGE asked her about the possibility of speaking to him. “You know we only have a few days left.”

The paint on the window told the whole story.

“Serving 24 hours until the bitter “sweet” end on June 29,” it read.

After 23 years of serving countless steak frites, muscles and Boudin Noire in an area more known for beef racks, leather daddy’s, transgender prostitutes, club kids and Hogs and Heffers, the modern landmark 24 hour French diner that served the fashionable alongside the “freaky” has closed its doors. News reports account Morellet signed a lease for $6,000 in 1995. The landlord reportedly sought to increase the rent to around $700,000 per year-or $58,000 per month-this past year. And Morellet was left with little choice but to close shop after a period of unsuccessful negotiation.

Skyrocketing rents in the Meatpacking District are certainly nothing new, but Florent regular Scott Woodward, a long-time downtown resident and branding executive, was among those who expressed sadness.

“Raising the rent six times the current monthly rent is crazy,” he said as he pointed to the gentrification that has transformed the once seedy neighborhood. “Just what we need, another Stella McCartney boutique.”

In addition to a lack of good eats, Florent’s closure has left some angry. The Meatpacking District was once seen by many LGBT New Yorkers as a creative enclave, but some seem resigned to what they see as part of an ongoing trend in a city where charm, mystery and character often succumb to market forced controlled by corporate and other moneyed interests.

Antoine Maisini opened Eastern Bloc in the East Village two years ago with two fellow bartenders. The France native was quick to note the increasingly difficulty in getting any sort of service industry business off the ground in Manhattan.

“You have to have multi-million dollar backing to start almost anywhere in the borough,” Maisini said.

He added he feels most new bars; restaurants and clubs that open in the city have a more of a polished corporate feel to potentially avoid the same market forces that appeared to spark Florent’s closure. And among the many who mourn the loss of the Meatpacking District mainstay, there is even deeper sadness and resignation over the cultural change they contend it represents.

Promoter and artist John Lovett co-hosted the weekly “Pork” party at the Lure each week in the 1990s. He agreed that rising real estate values limited nightlife innovation, business and even art itself in Manhattan.

“There’s so much pressure about money, you can’t build anything interesting or daring,” Lovett said as he recalled walking around the Meatpacking District in full leather regalia in broad daylight during the heyday of the Lure, the Spike and Jackie 60’s. “The radical-ness of New York has sort of disappeared.”

“The underbelly is gone, the excitement is gone, the diva at the velvet rope is gone, all replaced by the bottle publicist in stilettos or bad wedgies and an empire waist trapeze dress in that awful print.”

Morellet’s decision to open his restaurant when and where he did was radical in its own right. The rumblings of change began to take hold on the “radical” area bounded by 14th Street to the north, Gansevoort Street to the south, the West Side Highway to the west and Ninth Avenue to the east in the late 1990s. And with the demise of the meatpackers, a hunger by investors for new opportunities coupled with a Manhattan real estate boom quickly decreased the days of the seedier and “mysterious” ambience of the Meatpacking District.

“Florent and Pastis are perfect juxtapositions,” writer and performer Idris Mignot, a former Florent server and bartender during a period in the 1990s, said. “Florent… created a mood, a feeling and a place while Pastis… [is] the bigger, stronger ’Johnny come lately’ that exudes all that is new and pseudo-fabulous.”

He continued to lament what he described as not only the disappearance of the grit and rough edge of the Meatpacking District, but the noticeable change of the “old school” downtown scene.

“The underbelly is gone, the excitement is gone, the diva at the velvet rope is gone, all replaced by the bottle publicist in stilettos or bad wedgies and an empire waist trapeze dress in that awful print,” Mignot said with a hearty laugh. “Florent symbolizes a time when you didn’t know what to expect. You didn’t know what was around the next corner.”

Regardless of Florent’s physical demise, countless memories and fond-often outrageous recollections that are uniquely New York will remain alive for the ages.

Clara Huange was among those who frequented the eatery. She was an art director at POZ Magazine, and she quipped the restaurant was her staff’s cafeteria.

“I had a romance with Florent during the entire time I worked at the magazine” Huange said as she recalled the mussels and frites, veggie burgers, egg Sophie and steak and eggs.

Writer and actor Nora Burns, who participated in Florent’s closing performances over the past few months, Denial, Depression and Acceptance, said she loved going there after a night out at Jackie 60, Clit Club or Mars. She left New York in 2002, but she told EDGE “Florent still feels like home.”

Mignot shared his own stories. He recalled a last minute costume design for his bartending shift during the annual Bastille Day celebration, a bygone street fair Morellet himself organized. Mignot based his design on the blood sausage menu item served alongside apples and onions.

“When I got to Florent in a skimpy black bathing suit, I fashioned a necklace out of apples and onions,” he said. “I called myself Booty Noir.”

Another waiter wore croissants as pig tails. Mignot said the staff-and their zany fashion antics-were half the reason people came to dine. He further noted the graveyard shift, from midnight until 8 a.m., was the most fun and spontaneous time to be in Florent. And Mignot credits Morellet with encouraging his staff’s outrageous and creative nature.

Another former patron, DJ Larry Tee, recalled a life and death incident late one night while dining at Florent with friends who were visiting from Amsterdam. He was trying to impress them and suddenly began to choke on a piece of Florent’s famous steak that became stuck in his windpipe.

“It didn’t take me but a second to remember that being alive is much better than being cool, and someone gave me a rib thrust, sending that piece of meat flying, I caught it,” he said.

Sherry Vine also shared the good times she and her friends had at Florent-especially every Tuesday night after a night at Jackie 60.

“Florent was always so generous and supportive of the queens,” she told EDGE in an e-mail from Estonia. “Bastille Day was where I met Joey Arias and invited [him] to perform at Bardo. Sadly, there’s just no place left in Manhattan for freaks and artists.”


Cody Lyon is a New York freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of national daily newspapers and New York weeklies. Lyon also writes a political opinion blog at



Written by codylyonreporter

February 7, 2012 at 1:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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