This was my fourth restaurant wake of 2004-and by far the jolliest and least sentimental. It is fitting that Le Cirque folded its tent on New Year’s Eve, when the entire world was clowning around and hardly paying attention. That’s how owner Sirio Maccioni wanted it-to get it over with and move on.
“I wish I didn’t have to go [to the restaurant] tomorrow night, but I have to go,” he grumbled to me the day before. But he became animated as the topic turned to his ideas for the new Le Cirque, one that he maintains will be more intimate and manageable, and less histrionic. And to carry out the project, located in the Bloomberg Tower on East 59th Street, he has turned to his longtime architect Adam Tihany, with a tentative opening at mid-year.
Le Cirque 2000 went out with a flourish Friday night, more festively than three other classic Manhattan French restaurants that were embalmed in 2004: Lutèce, La Caravelle and Le Côte Basque (which has been retooled as an upscale brasserie).
Alone for the evening, I had intended to drop into Le Cirque 2000, sip a flute of Champagne and pay my respects, then depart. Within two minutes of arriving, though, I made the acquaintance of three buoyant international businessmen-André Backar, his son, Max, and Gordon R. Larson-who had come to pay homage as well.
Upon disposing of my third Champagne, I accepted their offer to dine in the handsome wood-paneled dining room adjacent to what is now the country’s most expensive idle kitchen. There were sure to be a gaggle of celebrities on hand, but I had no idea how close until I slammed my chair into Paula Abdul’s upon being seated (she took it good-naturedly). At nearby tables dined comedian Robert Klein, Jill St. John (I think) and Neil Sedaka, whom I did not at first recognize. As a mariachi band worked the room, he hopped up and sang a Mexican love song, in Spanish. I congratulated him for having the courage to perform in what must have been an intimidating setting.
“Are you Spanish?” I asked.
“No,” he replied genially. “But I know a few Spanish songs.”
The room was so loud at this point that I had to ask him to repeat the answer.
“Really? Well, you’re very, very good,” I reassured him. “You should sing here more often.”
The prix-fixe last supper was exceptional, especially for a hectic New Year’s Eve: sliced baked potatoes with smoked salmon and osetra caviar, lobster and vegetable ravioli in fennel sauce, venison noisettes with pumpkin purée, chestnuts and caramelized pears and white truffle sauce. And it would not be Le Cirque without one of its towering Euclidean desserts, in this case a massive chocolate mousse cake impaled with chocolate triangles. At the stroke of midnight, the kitchen crew marched through the dining room banging pots and pans-a surprisingly sanguine troop of cuisiniers, considering they were about to join the unemployment line.
Le Cirque’s first (and more sedate) going-out-of-business sale was in 1986, capping a glorious 23-year run. Located in the Mayfair Regent hotel on East 65th Street off Park Avenue, it possessed the glamour and electricity of no other restaurant I’d been to around the world, owing largely to Mr. Maccioni’s charisma and his star-packed Rolodex. Le Cirque was the first port of call for scores of stars arriving from Europe, everyone from Gérard Depardieu and Anthony Quinn to the king of Spain.
Like a painting that only you can love because of its emotional attachment, the first incarnation, which was cramped, overlit and adorned with bizarre tropical sconces, kindled the devotion and imagination of its aficionados. And the food was consistently superlative under successive chefs Alain Sailhac, Daniel Boulud and Sottha Khunn. That first curtain closing was attended by, among many others, Mr. Depardieu, Rudolph Giuliani, Ron Perelman, Ed Koch and Ivana Trump, to name a few. I spotted a few misty eyes in that room.
The spring of 1997 saw the debut of Le Cirque 2000, a curious name that suggested a short sprint to obsolescence. Located in the palatial Beaux-Arts Villard Houses (part of the Palace Hotel) and bankrolled by the hotel’s owner, the Sultan of Brunei, it could not be more different-some would say bizarre-from East 65th Street: swirling neon tubes, futuristic etched glass, playful undulating banquettes.
Or, as designer Adam Tihany called it in Mr. Maccioni’s recently published autobiography, a “Ferrari parked in the middle of the palazzo.”
Judging by many of the old regulars I spoke with over the years, they, too, eventually warmed up to it, in no small part due to the stellar cooking of chef Khunn.
There was one thing, however, that I could never understand: the large television suspended overhead behind the bartenders. It seemed to me that installing a television at the romantic Le Cirque was like bringing a video game to the drive-in.
At 11:30 p.m. New Year’s Eve, we donned our silly cardboard hats and neon necklaces. The mariachis reappeared, and I turned to toast my new friend Neil, as if to reveal that I was pulling his leg and had known who he was all along. Before leaving, I bumped in to Mr. Tihany and asked him jokingly if the famous neon tubing in the bar would be auctioned off.
“Forget about that,” he replied. “Take the flat-screen TV-that’s the only thing left with any value.”