In 1985—before McCartney, McQueen and Louboutin took hub, Florent Morellet took a risk on a neighborhood that was, at the time, laden with streetwalkers and meathackers. Six years after moving to New York, the ostentatious Frenchman took over R & L diner at 69 Ganesevoort Street but did little to its interior, keeping the original Formica countertop, the chrome-plated walls and the fluorescent lighting (though Morellet did have them tinted pink for a cheery glow). Not long after his late-August opening night, Morellet was dubbed the unofficial mayor of the Meatpacking District for his namesake 24-hour French diner that prided itself on serving “French bistro fare at nonexclusive prices.”
Florent soon became a sanctuary for artists to both socialize and work. Performance artist and theatre director Lucy Sexton was once a night manager; performer and choreographer Richard Move and short-story writer Vestal McIntyre were waiters; Matthew Barney was a regular for lunch. However, over the years the crowds grew to include more than just creative types—from celebrities and socialites to silver foxes, pink-haired punks and everyday New Yorkers. In the 2010 documentary Florent: Queen of the Meat Market, which profiles this legendary diner and its fabulous owner, Morellet refers to his costumers as “an absurd mix.”
But that was exactly the point. Morellet made sure Florent was not exclusive but inclusive—open at all times, to anyone. This put the HIV-positive owner at the forefront of activism and his restaurant became a safe haven in the early days of the AIDS crisis.Morellet even posted his dwindling T-cell count on the menu board.
After nearly 23 years in business, due to an extremely high rent increase, Florent closed on Gay Pride Day, June 29, 2008—fitting for a place that was a symbol of transgressive ideas and had acceptance permeating its walls. Since its closing, the space that was once home to a New York institution has housed three different restaurants—two of which closed within a year of opening.
Two days after Florent’s closing, the landlord attempted to bring the space back to its roots and serve the same food, by the same staff, under its original name. Then, less than a year later, in September of 2009, Gansevoort 69 opened with a decor that was hardly recognizable from its modest diner days, and was flooded with a more contemporary district crowd: investment bankers, waifish models and European diplomats. This new-wave of American comfort food (traditionally uncool comfort food served alongside cool cocktails in a chic setting) didn’t seem to stick.
Today, the space houses the Vinatta Project with contemporary American small-plates and family-style dining. The interior has been redone to be more condusive to the current downtown crowd’s interests, containing a zinc bar, tufted banquettes and communal wooden tables to encourage mingling amongst guests—an idea that pays homage to the beloved inviting atmosphere of the Florent. But can it survive in a space that is so widely known for its past? Perhaps the sticking point will be the Vinatta Project’s seasonally bespoke beverages, courtesy of the Mulberry Project team, or the vending machines that offer three-ounce pours of various liquors and wine at the push of a button. Time will tell, but what is known is no matter what takes shelter at 69 Gansevoort Street, it certainly has some big, fabulous, shoes to fill.