April 1, 2006
Restaurant Florent – 1985
A New York restauranteur creates a cultural hub by combining politics with design, activism with good food.
Restaurants often have short (and almost entirely predictable) life spans: glitzy openings, early buzz, and big crowds, followed by declining business, bad word of mouth, and shuttered doors. In Manhattan’s Meatpacking District—in the midst of trendy restaurants likely to succumb to similar fates—there’s a glorious exception: Florent, a 21-year-old downtown institution.
The 75-seat bistro is a pure reflection of its owner, Florent Morellet, a native of France who settled in New York in 1978 and later decided he wanted a deliberately understated restaurant at a time when superdesigned eateries with Asian fusion or nouvelle cuisine themes were all the rage.
Morellet—an avid bicyclist who peddled all over Lower Manhattan in search of the perfect space—eventually found an old diner located in a neighborhood known then for cobblestone streets, hanging beef, notorious gay bars, and low-rise buildings. He left most of the 1950s luncheonette features intact, and gave Tibor Kalman and M&Co free reign to create ads and graphics that cultivated a Florent culture that survives today and extends well beyond the walls of the space. It’s a place that combines politics with decor, humor with graphics, and activism with good food.
So what’s the key? Obviously quality food helps, but that is clearly not enough. Restaurants with wonderful food and dazzling design fail on a regular basis. Long-running joints (whether the Four Seasons or the corner coffee shop) thrive on shared and communal experience. It is what keeps us coming back. Here are seven lessons on restaurant survival from Florent Morellet, urban pioneer and master of the social space.