Elaine Kaufman

“There’s a lot of information here,” Elaine Kaufman said, offering one reason why her restaurant, Elaine’s, was filled to the gills last Wednesday night with a brew of writers, actors, businessmen and law-enforcement agents—including Anne, a hot, blond C.I.A. agent with an ass-kicking look. “I just introduce people to each other when it seems right,” Ms. Kaufman continued. “That’s just something you have to know. It’s about me paying attention. I mean, it’s what the world’s about. You’re not going to get it from the fucking newspapers. So you’d better be fishing in a good place, and the Internet is not the answer—I mean, that’s kiddie time. The answer is: people talking to one another.”

Then a young New York Times metro editor dipped by Mama’s table. “Hello, darling,” Ms. Kaufman said.

“Hi, Elaine,” the metro editor answered. “Hey, do you know when Lisa’s leaving to go to Ireland?”

Ms. Kaufman directed him to the person most likely to know.

The next night, Thursday, the artist LeRoy Neiman and the writer Stuart Woods were on hand. And on Friday, the legendary P.R. man Bobby Zarem stopped by. “Elaine keeps things fresh because she’s fresh,” Mr. Zarem said. “And she’s got some mouth on her, too, lemme tell you.” Col Allan from the New York Post and seventysomething producer-legend Marty Richards were there, too.

Ms. Kaufman—some folks call her the “Queen of New York,” but as far as nicknames go, she prefers “Mama”—is the Washington Heights–born waitress-turned-icon who started the restaurant with her life savings and built it into a New York institution. Her favorite word is “ awwwwesome.”

Why Elaine’s? There’s a number of reasons. The 41-year-old restaurant has a classic aesthetic, with dark wood, checkered tablecloths, a handsome bar, and the flourish of book jackets and portraits of Elaine’s illustrious clientele lining the walls high. But as much today as was the case all those years ago, the place largely prospers on the soft, lovable shoulders of Mama herself, and on her unique social savvy and judgment of character.

There is also the food. “I’ll tell ya, more people eat here on a regular basis than at those flashy places,” said Ms. Kaufman, who described the cuisine as “very solid.”

No, you won’t find your lips helplessly quivering with delight after the first bite of, say, some scallop with stupid top-secret caper-raisin-emulsion freckles. Who cares? And even those truffle-’n’-ink-stained professional masticators intent on pooh-poohing the place will undoubtedly turn up on Second Avenue in the upper 80’s for some linguine with clam sauce and friendly conversation. Particularly when they’re trying to get their book published.

“What’s happening now, and I hate to say it,” said Broadway star and soap-opera legend Michele Lee, who had dropped by to sit at Mama’s table that Wednesday, “but it seems that the government wants to railroad you into one way of thinking. And the democratic process, which is hearing both sides of an issue, is frowned upon. There are six sides to every issue—and you can still find them all here.”

“Longevity takes focus,” said Ms. Kaufman in her most sage mode. She plans to stay the course. You’ll find her at her table, on the cusp of the dining room. There she’ll remain, if only to get up to do the occasional table-hop—harder now with her hip problems—monitoring who gets a good table and who doesn’t, waving on the regulars, tolerating the tourists.

“If you slow down, you fuckin’ die, honey,” Ms. Kaufman said. She’ll be taking a trip to one of the British isles to stay at the mansion house of one of her more interesting friends, but she’ll be hungry to get back and make good on her New Year’s resolution, the same one as last year: “Oh, shit—just enjoy myself.”