Family Circus

On the street-level south-side interior of the curious glass palace built by New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to house the parts of his empire that do not include city government, there was serious consternation. The stars were clearly not aligned. I was at the new Le Cirque restaurant for a follow-up meeting with the owner and power-room legend, Sirio Maccioni, and designer Adam D. Tihany. No one was happy. Maccioni was engaged in a passionate phone call with someone in Italian. Tihany scratched his head and looked alarmed. Attractive assistants tiptoed around whispering. The crisp “seen everything and everyone” Le Cirque waitstaff was, of course, unaffected. I was asked if I wanted to drink something while I waited with the gravitas of being notified I had won the Nobel Prize. It seemed as though I had stumbled upon a very important state funeral. At Le Cirque everything seems very important.

To Maccioni it was more like I was a reporter who had stumbled onto the scene of a murder. New York magazine had reviewed Le Cirque the day before and had given it two stars out of four (which in the nomenclature of restaurant reviews means “very good”). In the annals of damnation with faint praise, this review had landed like a rocket from southern Lebanon, and Maccioni was furious. He turned to me, jamming a finger angrily into his cell phone. “My son Mauro, you see—I was talking to him right now—he was crying all night. My wife said he never stopped sobbing once all night.” Maccioni pulled up a chair and ushered me over to a table in the bar area, where daylight was filtered through the dark-toned wood bar and caromed off the green and maroon bottles in the breathtaking cylindrical three-story wine tower overhead. Tihany sat down, rolled his eyes, and smirked as if to say that he could not be responsible for what was about to happen.

Maccioni proceeded to deliver a tirade of wounded invective that turned aside all but two of my questions about design, the difficulty of this third New York space for Le Cirque, and his more than quarter-century collaboration with Tihany. Whatever I asked, Maccioni’s answers were all a direct response to the review: “Is this room a more difficult place for Le Cirque than its two predecessors?”

“No.” (Pause.) “Can I say about the critics, you know, people who come to Le Cirque don’t need to be bombarded with schizophrenic style? We don’t do like these places that give people a single scallop and some butter on a spoon, and call that cuisine. What is that? I’ve been here working fourteen-hour days. I know how to make people happy and to feel important. This is what I do.” He took off his tinted glasses and noted that even they were among the critics’ victims. “This is pretentious, they say in New York? My glasses are like this because my doctor says I have to have blue for my eyes. Anyway I am not allowed to be eccentric?”

At Le Cirque, the aging dowager of Manhattan power dining, there is always a lot at stake; and being eccentric is probably a good strategy for a restaurant in this jarringly new, almost sci-fi midtown building of steel and glass. Le Cirque’s latest makeover restores something of the intimacy of the original French-style location at 65th and Park Avenue, in the long gone Mayfair Hotel. It also retains something of the soaring Italianate fantasy of Le Cirque 2000, which occupied the stone mausoleum-like Villard House (McKim, Mead & White), in the Palace Hotel, at 50th and Madison. Yet the new Le Cirque has a completely new identity. “We are for the first time not connected to any hotel,” Maccioni says as though he’s announcing his escape from kidnappers. This new identity also comes from dealing with the difficulties of making this space work for a restaurant.

The Bloomberg building—designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects—occupies an entire city block, and its street-level spaces are colorful retail boxes that glare at the legendary Bloomingdales one block away. It has a vast, open central courtyard facing 60th Street that suggests the interior of a giant glowing colander. “It’s a lot like Circus Maximus from the outside, and then when you go in all the architecture works against you in the narrow space,” Tihany says.

Le Cirque’s entrance is off this garish atrium, where the layout is a challenging bow-tie shape, narrow in the middle and wide at both ends. The entrance divides a pair of very different spaces: to the left is the main formal dining room, to the right is the less formal bar/café. Upstairs there is a private-party dining space on the mezzanine. All three of these glassed-in rooms are potential fishbowls to the outside world, with full views on the flashing lights and signage of the Bloomberg building. “You’re crammed into this space, and there is this enormous storefront, and from every place you look out all you see is the Bloomberg circus,” Tihany says. “And it’s not our circus.”

Le Cirque’s own circus is inspired by artist Alexander Calder, whose playful and dazzling wire circus sculpture has lived in the lobby of the Whitney Museum for more than half a century. That idea was Tihany’s. He has designed all three Le Cirque New York locations as well as Le Cirques in Mexico City and Las Vegas. All of them, he says, are detailed passionate portraits of Maccioni at different times of his life. “I told Sirio, ‘We’ve been French, we’ve done Italian—why don’t we do American? I said, ‘Why not do an American circus?’ He said, ‘Is there such a thing?’ I said, ‘Well, first of all you’ve been doing it for years.’ I said, ‘Let me take you to the Whitney and show you something.’ And it started there with Calder. This space is also a way for Sirio to say, ‘Hey, I’m American. I don’t have to oversell my Italian or French. This is good enough.’”

So I ask Maccioni, “Is this your first American restaurant?”

(Pause.) “No, every Le Cirque has been American.” Then he continues to talk about his review: “And always I respect the people who come here. For instance, why does a reviewer mention people in my dining room? I had to talk to [former Citigroup chairman] Sandy Weill today, who asked why I mentioned his name. I said to him, ‘I mentioned nothing.’”

Unlike a lot of restaurants where the ambience is a detached showcase for the kitchen’s presentation or a set piece of memorable interior design, Le Cirque’s decor necessarily involves the cast of regulars who constitute its distinctive social cuisine. Tihany says the idea of a Manhattan power room has changed in the last 20 years. “Le Cirque means a circle and also a circus. Back in the eighties these power restaurants were like private clubs. Back then it was all froufrou frilly, French-style prissy eighteenth century with monkeys and garden parties. You know, Louis the Sunshine King was the decor of the time—very appropriate.”

The seating arrangement in the original Le Cirque was a mysterious talisman of New York society, and the room at the Mayfair Hotel was notorious for its cramped quarters and low ceiling. “There were ninety-one seats, and that will not tell you how many tables,” Tihany recalls. “When people complained about having to be sandwiched together, Sirio would say, ‘Oh, you don’t want to be sitting next to Sofia Loren? I can arrange that.’ And then he would say, ‘If I have to remove a table I’m going to have to raise my price.’”

But the Mayfair arrangement became the template for a room that would be always full of sound and allowed people to see one another and make eye contact with a minimum of effort. It was as though Maccioni imagined Le Cirque as some stylized chummy picnic table of the powerful. It is this idea that has been updated and preserved in the new room. “The people are new, like the money, and the whole idea of a power restaurant is different, more open. But it is still a noisy room,” Tihany says with a smile. “Quiet restaurants are for dead people.”

Paul Gregory, who designed the lighting for Le Cirque and has worked with Tihany for 25 years, says the mission and challenge was to make a space where people would be visible and look spectacular. “You don’t have such high drama when your table is in the traditional restaurant sea of darkness,” says Gregory, who was trained as a theatrical lighting designer. “It’s about seeing and being seen.”

Inside the spaces, light and warmth are controlled and contained through the use of fabric, which wraps the outside in translucent white and forms large light-colored ceiling-mounted domes. (See photos.) Tihany says these false ceilings help keep the space intimate and prevent people’s gaze from getting lost above. “It’s a massive semicircular lamp shade, and when it glows it’s just beautiful. It gives us two levels of energy and architecture—and it’s spectacular.”

Tihany himself glows as he describes what he believes is a triumphant solution to a troublesome interior space. Light is the one element in his designs that comes from his Israeli roots. He came of age in Italy, where his understandings of space and decoration were developed, but in all of his spaces it is the special light of the Jerusalem sunset that he tries to simulate. “Everything I try to do is to re-create that moment in the evening at six o’clock when everything in Jerusalem turns to gold, pink, and gold. That light is like no other place in the world.” As Tihany remembers, it’s as though the light from the Mount of Olives enters his eyes. “When you go to Le Cirque, you see that light.”

These effects operate invisibly on a day when Maccioni’s operatic pain over his two stars is upstaging everything in the new space. I ask him to describe his relationship with Tihany, and to this sole question he interrupts his angry aria. “I mostly want to kill him,” he says lovingly as the designer rolls his eyes again. “This job was eight million, and it was only ten million dollars over—only ten.” Tihany protests passively with a nod that suggests that the overage might have been somewhat less than ten million. He watches bemusedly as his close friend and a man he has known for decades (“I am kind of his in-house architect”) goes back to talking about the review, ticking off the important people who have called since then to offer their support.

I stop writing down names after Martha Stewart, Regis Philbin, Calvin Klein, Mort Janklow, and Elaine Kaufman—and then lunch begins. Tihany reaches out his hand and winks. “I’ll leave you in Sirio’s hands,” he says. “Don’t expect to leave here hungry.”

I had no idea how right he would be. At a small table where I had ordered a single lobster salad, dishes and side courses appeared with teams of waiters. A steaming copper pot appeared filled with lamb shoulder that floated off the bone swimming in an exotically spiced braise marbled with tangy flavors. And as I sat at my table piled with desserts, profiteroles, and a double espresso, I looked around and felt very important. I did not yearn for a scallop on a spoon with butter. Not that I would have had room anyway. Watching my every move and smiling was Maccioni, wearing his blue-tinted glasses proudly. Both rooms of the restaurant were full.

As I departed, parked near the door of Le Cirque were three large black SUV limos with men standing around sporting earpieces and bulgy jackets. I turned to Maccioni and whispered, “They are in here?” He smiled and nodded and started to reveal what well-protected legend was having lunch inside. “Don’t tell me,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to get you in trouble.” I slipped past Tihany’s white fabric membrane in Le Cirque’s windows, and I was out of Maccioni’s world once again and back into Bloomberg’s city. The light was harsh. It made me blink. I could see Bloomberg News employees walking to their offices. We were not in Jerusalem anymore.

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