Saturday, November 3, 2018

Then and Now: Florent on North Gansevoort Street, Manhattan

Then and Now: Florent Diner, Meatpacking District, Manhattan

R&L Lunch ca. 1938, when it opened.

The above photo of the R&L Luncheonette at 69 Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District stirred some memories for me. So, I decided to do a comparison of the R&L Luncheonette aka Florent's from 1938 to 2018. I grabbed an image from Google Street View below for the comparison.

Located at 69 Gansevoort Street, which is one of the more obscure streets in one of the more obscure sections of Manhattan, the R&L was a stalwart in a rapidly changing neighborhood. The High Line, now a park, was still operating when the R&L opened, bringing in frozen turkey and beef for the meatpacking operations around the corner. It wasn't much to look at - just a joint, in the middle of the block with a Formica counter running down the left side. There couldn't have been more than a dozen tables (the certificate of occupancy provided for 74), all squeezed together with those plastic chairs that you thought hadn't escaped the 1960s. It was hard to find and harder to find in the dark in an area that was not exactly the safest in the area. You were quite likely to pass more than one streetwalker on the way of indeterminate gender.

For all that, the R&L did great business. It stayed open 24 hours a day seven days a week and was a favorite spot of the nearby workers. It easily could have closed in the 1980s as the neighborhood changed into a center of the New York gay scene, but openly gay French cook Florent Morellet, who had failed at his previous restaurant, took it over in 1985. That began the last, and greatest, phase of the R&L, which Morellet renamed Florent. Morellet had given his father, conceptual artist François Morellet, a party at the Brooklyn Museum, and while in town spent some time in the meatpacking district. At that time, the area had clubs like Hellfire, Anvil, Mineshaft... you get the picture. The area was alive throughout the night because of the meatpackers, with trucks lined up at 2 a.m. to deliver their sausage and beef slabs. Everyone had money to spend with few nearby places to spend it, and they were hungry.

The sign in the front window which told you that you had finally found the right place in the darkness.

Florent signed a ten-year lease for $1350 a month with the family of the original owner and opened his restaurant in August 1985. He kept the original sign and furnishings and got his liquor license in 1969. Florent gave both the meatpackers and the club kids what they wanted. Roy Lichtenstein ate there all the time, but many other celebrities did, too, as there was a major recording studio nearby. If you wanted onion soup at 3:35 in the morning, you headed to Florent. It served the standard diner food mixed in with a French touch: mussels, pâté, steak frites, hamburgers, cheeseburgers. The eggs were a great choice for brunch with a side order of fries and some black coffee on a cold January morning. The payphone near the front door got a workout, as did the cigaret machine - $1 a pack for Marlboros back in the day. There were unusual events that you didn't expect anywhere north of Fire Island, such as the annual Bastille Day drag party. It was what it was, either that atmosphere was to your taste or it wasn't. If you frequented Tea Time at The Pines and lived in the Village with an occasional trip out to the Hamptons on the jitney, you felt right at home at Florent. Florent was good people, as we used to say.

Florent at the end.

Well, as you can see from the below picture, Florent is gone. A harbinger of doom was when Florent instituted a children's menu due to the influx of Yuppies. It closed 29 June 2008, a true victim of gentrification when the landlord raised the monthly rent to $30,000 (and who, it turned out, wanted to open their own restaurant). I was fortunate to patronize Florent before it closed - it seemed eternal, because it was always busy and who else would want to run a place in that dingy area? But the entire area has changed - Hogs & Heifers around the corner is long gone, too - and now the Meatpacking District is full of fancy boutiques and chic restaurants. Community Board 2 has been very picky about tenants there, and there have been several since Florent closed.

The "For Rent" sign after Florent closed.

But one thing - the facade of the R&L Diner - remains. Oh, and Florent Morellet? He moved to Bushwick. The rumor is that Showtime is developing a series about Morellet. Whether anything actually comes of that, who knows, but it shows that Florent is gone but not forgotten.

Anyway, thanks for visiting this page of my "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. I hope you find them interesting!

The R&L ca. 2018, now a clothing boutique. The owners have maintained the traditional facade and red neon light in the front window (Google Street View).


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