69 Gansevoort Street
(between Greenwich and Washington Streets)
Noise Level: Fine
Wine List: Mainly French, limited, inexpensive
Credit Cards: Cash only
Price Range: Main courses, $7.50 to $24
Hours: 24 hours a day, seven days a week
Twenty-one years ago, Florent Morellet opened his bistro in an old diner in the meatpacking district. Since then, the neighborhood has changed almost beyond recognition. By night, it’s no longer a dark, gritty (and for some, thrillingly dangerous) part of town. Stretch limos now roam the streets once prowled by hookers. Trendy mega-restaurants, boutiques and antique stores have taken over many of the old buildings, while S&M bars like the Mine Shaft and the Anvil have disappeared. But when dawn comes, you can still watch refrigerator trucks backing into the brightly lit warehouse doorways as men in bloodstained white coveralls unload sides of meat hanging on aluminum racks like Francis Bacon still lifes. It’s the last authentic sight in a neighborhood that many feel has little more character left to it than Times Square.
And then there is Florent.
Florent is like the sort of place that people went to at 4 o’clock in the morning in Les Halles before they tore the market down. Open 24 hours a day for a bowl of onion soup or steak frites, it was a pioneer in the meatpacking district, its original “destination restaurant.” It remained hip and cool because, as Mr. Morellet put it, “The location was a natural velvet rope.” Over the years, it has kept its impish spirit and has altered very little. It’s even managed to retain most of the original staff—quite a feat, given the vagaries of the restaurant business.
This enduring bistro is tucked away on a narrow cobblestone street near the waterfront, not far from Pastis. The name is emblazoned in pink neon in the window, under the old R&L Restaurant sign, which Mr. Morellet retained. If you look to the left when you walk in, you feel you’re in an American diner. There’s quilted aluminum paneling behind the counter and three sections of cafeteria-style blackboard with white lettering. But instead of “eggs over easy” or the day’s specials, the letters spell out the weather report and recommendations for what’s going on around town (the Count Basie Orchestra, Ute Lemper). The right side of the restaurant is lined with Formica tables and red vinyl banquettes, and the wall is hung with a long mirror and fanciful maps from all over the world.
“French tourists look to the left and feel they’re in New York; Americans look to the right and imagine that they’re in Paris,” Mr. Morellet said.
An etching of Marie Antoinette hangs on the wall by the bathroom. She has a dotted line drawn across her neck and a pair of open scissors pointing toward it.
By 8:30 of an evening, Florent has filled up. Looking down the line along the banquettes, it’s as though the customers had been handpicked to represent every era and walk of life, from the grizzled intellectual couple to the young women with hair dyed like peacocks. At the next table, there’s shrieking laughter as two couples wind up dinner with brandy and sodas.
The food is traditional bistro fare, served in generous portions, and the plates come out super-fast. You can begin with a bowl of fragrant mussels cooked in white wine with lemon and garlic, piled up and served with excellent fries. A rich, grilled boudin noir arrives tender under its crackling skin, with stewed apples and fries. When did you last have a plain-boiled artichoke with Dijon vinaigrette? Delicious. There are snails, of course, and they’re served loaded with garlicky butter in a ceramic snail platter. The salads are very fresh and nicely dressed. There’s arugula topped with a goat-cheese-stuffed mushroom, and there’s a hearty tossed salad, made with beets, endive, pear and walnuts, which we could have shared among four.
Our main courses, hot on the heels of the first, were delivered by a beautiful, unsmiling waitress. Was she Russian?
“What do you think of the New York sense of humor?”
“Well, at least you don’t make cartoons.”
A classic steak frites, a juicy 10-ounce sirloin, costs $21.50; filet mignon au poivre, cut about three inches thick and served with mashed potatoes and spinach, costs $24. Grilled salmon comes with a miso vinaigrette; a tuna steak, cut on the thin side, comes with a pleasant lemon white wine sauce. The prices are certainly reasonable (only cash is accepted). I don’t know many places where you can get a free-range chicken with mashed potatoes and salad for $16.50. Come here during the day and you can set yourself up for the afternoon with a “working girl’s lunch”: choice of soup, salad or crème caramel with main course and coffee for $9.95.
Desserts include chocolate mousse served in a glass, an excellent cheesecake with a crumb crust and the fine crème caramel. The pastry on the apple crumble seemed to have had quite a workout, however.
When Mr. Morellet first moved in, the diner had been catering to the butchers. So he made a hamburger at cost for $1.95 (it’s now $9.95). “They said, ‘It’s so expensive. There goes the neighborhood!’”
In fact, Mr. Morellet has been a tireless community activist, campaigning for the meatpacking district’s designation as a historic landmark and thwarting the infamous skyscraper designed by the architect Jean Nouvel. He has also championed causes from saving the High Line to gay rights, abortion rights and the right to die. His annual Bastille Day celebration at Florent, complete with feathered drag queens, is legendary.
A few doors down on Gansevoort Street, a mega-restaurant, Sascha, is set to open. But when Mr. Morellet returned from vacation last week, he was astonished to learn that the two restaurants on either side of Florent had closed while he was away. “If you live in New York, you better enjoy change,” he said.