If you never visited the bohemian, queer-culture oasis that was Florent, you might be inclined to dismiss all the rhapsodizing as just a bit over the top. Even the lovable owner of the 24-hour haunt, Florent Morellet, says enough with the nostalgia already; he closed the restaurant after 23 years in business and is, by all accounts, happy to move on. But that hasn't kept him from supporting a new documentary about the old place, directed by long-time Florent devotee David Sigal (The Look). Called Florent: Queen of the Meat Market, the documentary aims to set down for the ages just what made Florent so fabulous, so that those who weren't there can get it—and those who were can indulge in a dash of forbidden nostalgia. Featuring archival footage from Florent's early days in the dangerous, pre-douche Meatpacking District, Sigal tracks the hotspot's trajectory all the way to its raucous closing in 2008. (Check out a trailer below.)
It premieres tomorrow night as part of the NYC Food Film Festival; Morellet will be in attendance and plans to "open the cookbook for one night only" for the screening/party, hosted by Murray Hill and featuring performances by Daniel Nardicio, David Ilku, David Rakoff, Dirty Martini, Flotilla DeBarge, Lucy Sexton, Nora Burns, and Penny Arcade.
For those who never went there, what was Florent and why did you want to make a documentary about the place? Florent was the closest thing I’d ever seen in New York to Andy Warhol’s factory—I mean you’d have all these blue-haired punk kids, blue-haired old ladies, you’d have celebrities, you’d have socialites, and everyday New Yorkers. Florent was a lot like Times Square, pretty soon everyone passed through the doors. Like, in the '80s you’d have people like Madonna, and right before it closed, you’d have Amy Winehouse... It was really a little diner on Gansevoort Street, in the Meatpacking District, but it represented so many New York stories to me. Within that story of Florent you have the story of the AIDS crisis, you have the story of LGBT activism, you have the story of historic preservation, you even have some 9/11 stories in there. And it’s really a story about how New York changes.
What are the 9/11 stories? Well, actually, Florent is one of the investors in this fireboat called the John Harvey, which was this decommissioned old fireboat, and when 9/11 happened, this fireboat was used to spray water on the Ground Zero site. It’s really quite an amazing story. And Maira Kalman, an illustrator and author, went on to publish a children’s book about the John Harvey. So Florent was one of the owners of John Harvey, which went to go put out some of the fires on 9/11. It’s really an interesting story, and it’s in the film.
What was it about this diner that made it appealing for so many interesting people? I think everyone who came into Florent felt comfortable. I don’t want to compare it to Cheers, but it was a place where everyone knew your name. You really could be a little old lady or you could be neighborhood person or you could be a celebrity—everyone felt welcome there. It had to do with the service. Everyone there was like a member of Florent’s family, and they made everyone feel welcome and great. You were special—you were never hurried or rushed. It was one of the few places you could really go to, regardless of your schedule. You could be a mother and child in there at 7 a.m. for breakfast, you could be an all-night partygoer at four in the morning, you could be a worker going there right after work just to have dinner and a drink. Any type of New Yorker would walk in there.
Did they ever ban anyone or throw anyone out? I don’t think I ever really asked him if he ever banned anyone there. But we had a lot of stories in the film of crazy people—like there’s one story in the film where someone goes into the bathroom and takes off their clothes and covers themselves with jelly, and the host, his name is Darren Anthony, relates this story and how they dealt with it—with the guy covered in jelly. Yeah, there were definitely some fist fights, and someone overdosed in the bathroom and the police had to remove him while there were customers in the restaurant. There are also stories like that. But I never really heard of them banning anyone. I’m not really sure, though.
Who were some of the people you talked with whose names we might recognize? I talked with Isaac Mizrahi, Robin Bird, Michael Musto, Diane Von Furstenburg, Julianne Moore, Christo and Jean-Claude—right before she died I interviewed them for the film—Spencer Tunick, and a lot of very wacky New Yorkers, like The Dueling Bankheads. There were a lot of Burlesque performers, like Infamous BOB, Dirty Martini, there’s Peter Cameron, who’s an author, there’s Murray Hill, who’s a drag king, there’s Penny Arcade, who was in the Warhol factory, and I talked to all the people who worked there.
I read somewhere that Michael Kelly, the NYPD Commissioner, used to go there. Did you try to talk to him? There’s a story about Ray Kelly in the film, but he’s not actually in the film. Ray Kelly was there during a change in shifts, and he witnessed a fist fight in the kitchen. Ray Kelly told one of the waiters to break up the fight, and the waiter said, “Oh, don’t worry about it, honey.” And it’s sort of funny, the way he called Ray Kelly, the police commissioner, “honey.” But he was just a regular there, like everybody else.
When did you start making the film? I started shooting the film in January 2008, before we knew it was going to be closed. And I continued to film until closing day, which was Gay Pride Day 2008. Then I shot an epilogue one year later, since I thought the people might be interested in what everyone was up to, so that was one year later, in 2009.
Florent on Bastille Day
And he’s willing to go to the premiere and embrace this film even though he's so anti-nostalgia? Yeah, the film isn’t really nostalgic. It’s a celebration of him. It’s a fun film that’s a celebration of a place and time. He’s definitely celebrating the film, and he is extremely happy with it. Yes, New York is about change, and part of this film documents this kind of Warhol factory-like institution. I think in 40 years people will look back on this film and it will be a real time capsule, because there are so many New Yorkers in it and it really captures a time. So yes, he is very happy.
What motivated you to make the film? You didn't known that it was closing when you decided to do it. Well, I really just felt like he is a New York icon, and the way he was able to run a successful business while being an activist, and the way he made activism fun, I thought was fascinating. And I thought that he was almost a role model for so many communities, and the more I found out about him, the more I was interested. For instance, the fact that during the AIDS crisis, he’d give out living wills on his menus. I thought that was both really wacky and an interesting way of being an activist.
And he also had something up about the T-cell count or something? There was an old-fashioned diner menu board, and on that there were a lot of witty sayings, not just what the special soup of the day was. But on the bottom of the menu board he would post his T-cell count, and that’s covered in the film.
So how long had you been going there? I don’t think I can even remember. I had been going to Florent for about 10 years, but I was more part of the 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. breakfast set. I mean, I’m not an all-night guy, so I’d go there a lot for breakfast. I think in the earlier days I’d go for dinner, but I really loved going there in the morning, when it was less crowded. I’ve lived in the Village for about 20 years, and I loved walking over there, to the Meatpacking District. I mean I also think Florent pioneered the Meatpacking District for better or worse, and I think that change is really interesting to see. A lot of people discussed that change in the film. And you get to see how it changed because I have a lot of archival footage.
Have you been back to the new restaurant that’s replaced it? Yeah, actually, when he closed, the landlord took over and she reopened something and then that closed and then whoever runs it now has completely gutted the place from Florent. Ee went there last week, and it’s great, because they sort of took out the ghost of Florent, and it’s a completely new place now. And we hope it thrives.
I remember seeing the photos of when the landlord took over, and it was really sad, and it was sort of like in Planet of the Apes, when they lobotomize the astronauts. There’s nothing behind the eyes. It was exactly true. She drained the personality out of it. I had nothing to do with her and that incarnation of the place. But the new place is great, and I hope that they do really well.
Is there a present-day version of this restaurant? I keep thinking about that, and I really can’t think of anything that’s a present-day version of Florent. As we keep on saying, New York is about change. So maybe something will take over, but I can’t think of anything since that. There’s a whole field of restaurants—right after Florent closed, Joe Jr.’s in the West Village closed, that was a sort of old-fashioned diner. And it was different because it mostly had locals, but it was still old-time New York. Now we find that changing.
And the Empire Diner. Yeah! The Empire Diner just closed. I walked by there recently.
The Cheyenne. That was beautiful. They got rid of that. Yeah! They moved that somewhere in the West.
I think the Moondance went out West and the Cheyenne went to Alabama or something. And the Empire is going to reopened as another diner or something?
Yeah, I think the owners of Coffee Shop have taken over. Oh! I didn’t realize that. Yeah, I mean I had the best time filming it. I got meet so many locals, iconic New Yorkers I mean, some of these people, like Robin Byrd, maybe you’d see on TV in your younger days, and here they are. I felt really lucky to be there, documenting this place and time and meeting all these people and spending so much time with them. I think Florent is really an outstanding individual and should be considered a role model for a lot of communities. I mean, he’s accomplished so much. And he’s so fun! He always does it with fun. It’s never boring, and it’s never really serious. It’s always tongue-in-cheek. There’s a lot of moments in the movie that really explain it.