Saturday, November 3, 2018

Then and Now: Florent Diner in Manhattan

Then and Now: Florent Diner, Meatpacking District, Manhattan

R&L Lunch ca. 1938, when it opened.

I stumbled across the above photo of the R&L Luncheonette at 69 Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District stirred some memories for me. So, I decided to do a comparison of the R&L Luncheonette aka Florent's from 1938 to 2018. I grabbed an image from Google Street View below for the comparison.

The R&L opened its doors at 69 Gansevoort Street, which is one of the more obscure streets in one of the more obscure sections of Manhattan. One of the few food places in a grim area full of working men working late nights, the R&L was a stalwart in a rapidly changing neighborhood. The High Line, now a nearby park, was still operating when the R&L opened, bringing in frozen turkey and beef for the meatpacking operations around the corner on Washington Street.

It wasn't much to look at - just a joint, in the middle of the block with a Formica counter running down the left side - but the R&L filled a need. There couldn't have been more than a couple dozen tables (the certificate of occupancy provided for 74), all squeezed together with those plastic chairs that you thought hadn't escaped the 1960s. The restaurant was hard to find and even harder to find in the dark. It was in an area that was not exactly the safest in the city. You were quite likely to pass more than one streetwalker on the way of indeterminate gender. That's the way it was, and that's the way the locals liked it.

Gansevoort Street
Gansevoort back in the day in this undated photo. The R&L (if it was open yet) was located down the block to the left.

For all that, the R&L did good business for three decades. It stayed open 24 hours a day seven days a week and was a favorite spot of the nearby workers. It easily could have closed in the 1960s when the meatpacking operations began to wither, or in the 1980s when the club scene took off. However, just as the neighborhood changed into a center of the New York gay scene, openly gay French cook Florent Morellet, who had failed at his previous restaurant, took it over in 1985. That began the last, and famous, phase of the R&L, which Morellet renamed Florent.

Gansevoort Street
The same view of Gansevoort Street ca. 2018 (Google Street View).

Morellet had given his father, conceptual artist François Morellet, a party at the Brooklyn Museum, and while in town spent some time in the meatpacking district. At that time, the area had clubs like Hellfire, Anvil, Mineshaft... you get the picture. The area was alive throughout the night because of the meatpackers, with trucks lined up at 2 a.m. to deliver their sausage and beef slabs, and also the clubbers. Everyone had money to spend, there were very few nearby places to spend it, and they were hungry.

The sign in the front window which told you that you had finally found the right place in the darkness.

Florent signed a ten-year lease for $1350 a month with the family of the original owner and opened his restaurant in August 1985. He kept the original sign and furnishings and got his liquor license in 1969. Florent gave both the meatpackers and the club kids what they wanted. Roy Lichtenstein ate there all the time, but many other celebrities did, too, as there was a major recording studio nearby. If you wanted onion soup at 3:35 in the morning, you headed to Florent. It served the standard diner food mixed in with a French touch: mussels, pâté, steak frites, hamburgers, cheeseburgers. The eggs were a great choice for brunch with a side order of fries and some black coffee on a cold January morning. The payphone near the front door got a workout, as did the cigaret machine - $1 a pack for Marlboros back in the day. There were unusual events that you didn't expect anywhere north of Fire Island, such as the annual Bastille Day drag party. It was what it was, either that atmosphere was to your taste or it wasn't. If you frequented Tea Time at The Pines and lived in the Village with an occasional trip out to the Hamptons on the jitney, or you went down to Key West now and then... or you just liked great food at any hour, you felt right at home at Florent. Florent was good people, as we used to say.

Florent finally silent at the end.

Well, as you can see from the below picture, Florent has gone, just as Dave's Corner Luncheonette and so many classic New York fast food joints have gone. The first harbinger of doom was when Florent instituted a children's menu due to the influx of families to the neighborhood. Hey, absolutely nothing wrong with that, families are great, it just signaled another wrenching shift for the neighborhood that a lot of joints weren't going to survive. Florent was one of the casualties.

Florent closed 29 June 2008, a classic victim of gentrification. The landlord, the family of the man who ran the original diner, jacked up the monthly rent to $30,000. They opened their own restaurant, but it quickly failed. This was the first in a succession of tenants after Florent had held down the fort for 23 years.

I was fortunate to patronize Florent before it closed - it seemed eternal, because it was always busy and who else would want to run a place in that dingy area? But the entire area has changed - Hogs & Heifers around the corner is long gone, too - and now the Meatpacking District is full of fancy boutiques and chic restaurants. Community Board 2 has been very picky about tenants there, and there have been several since Florent closed.

The tongue-in-cheek "For Rent" sign after Florent closed.

The facade of the R&L Diner lives on, a true New York landmark. There remains a red neon sign in the same spot as always, it just doesn't say "Florent" anymore. People remember. Oh, and Florent Morellet? He chucked it in and moved to Bushwick.

Anyway, thanks for visiting this page of my "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. I hope you find them fun and interesting!

The R&L ca. 2018, now a clothing boutique. The owners have maintained the traditional facade and red neon light in the front window (Google Street View).


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