Sirio Maccioni, the Tuscan-born owner of fabled Le Cirque, was the greatest New York restaurateur of his time. Today’s diners under the age of 60 may have no idea of what he meant to the city in so many ways.
For more than two decades, he was the light and the life of “fine dining” — but that was just for starters. From the earliest days of the original Le Cirque in 1974, his chefs, including Daniel Boulud, rescued old-school French cuisine from the trash heap with a ton of creativity and an indispensable spoonful of Italian flair.
Le Cirque’s three-ring circus of boldface customers also brought celebrity juice back to the city in its darkest days of crime, decay and near-bankruptcy.
But what I’ll miss most about always-elegant Maccioni, who died this week at 88, is his magical persona, even if the magic wasn’t equally distributed. No host’s greeting made me feel more special even though I knew it was transactional between a powerful businessman and a journalist.
Sirio personified the tuxedo-clad proprietor of legend who ran his place with an iron fist even as he coddled house pets such as Frank Sinatra, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Sophia Loren and even rocker Frank Zappa, who was seated only after he agreed to wear a house tie. Zappa liked the food so much he came back — but still needed the loaner tie.
In the 1980s, when Le Cirque reigned supreme, the restaurant stood for shameless luxury, a crowd dressed to kill, and the idea that sharing a great meal among strangers can be life-affirming.
Its seating hierarchy was widely ridiculed. New York Times critic Ruth Reichl once was made to wait at the bar and treated with snarky contempt on a night Sirio and his team failed to recognize her beneath a disguise. But when spotted on later visits, she was pampered like a princess and shown to a table “ahead of the King of Spain,” a waiter told her.
Pundits went crazy over “elitism.” But it’s always been part of the restaurant game. And I’d rather be bumped for a critic or a genuine celebrity than for an “influencer” who brings a modern-day café to its knees for the sake of a few Instagram shots.
Sirio’s contribution to the culinary scene is often reduced to pasta primavera, a dish he introduced to please paper-thin lunching ladies. But Le Cirque was a talent incubator and a prime mover behind a culinary revolution.
If Le Cirque had not shown the way out of the cream- and canned-pheasant morass, there could not have been chefs such as Eric Ripert and Jean-Georges Vongerichten — nor younger gods like Le Coucou’s Daniel Rose or Frenchette’s Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson.
Although Le Cirque in New York would hang on until 2017, I knew its golden time, and Sirio’s, were over in 2004, when he was honored at a James Beard Foundation bash in the Hamptons.
He was the toast for his memoir, “The Story of My Life and Le Cirque.” An hour later, I watched him enter Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton looking lost as clueless young hosts, rushing to seat East End nobodies, failed to recognize him.
But Sirio’s legacy will long outlive today’s trends and their in-the-moment followers. May the circus go on forever.