That young lady on the right is exactly who you think she is.
Back before every other restaurant in this town was named after some animal, there was the Quilted Giraffe. You probably weren’t cool enough or rich enough to go there, not when it was frequented by the likes of Woody Allen, Jacquie O., the Paltrow family (yes, as in Gwyneth), plus everybody from Mexican tycoons to Saudi arms dealers, and not when the average AmEx charge was $442 (in eighties dollars), as a print-only story in the November issue of Town & Country reminds us. In a dining scene dominated by French places like Lutece, just down Second Avenue, “it was really the first restaurant of its kind: a fine-dining restaurant with American waiters and American cooks,” writes Jay Cheshes. This was where the Masters of the Universe went to show off and where the Patrick Batemans of the world took their dates (or in his case, prey). It was the home of the caviar-filled, gold-leaf-topped Beggar’s Purse, which high rollers would order by the trayful, not caring that the morsels had reached $50 apiece by 1990. “It was New York in the ‘80s, when sex and drugs, and power and made such a conspicuous, combustible mess,” Cheshes recalls. The restaurant rode high until going out with an ostentatious bang on New Year’s eve 1992. Read on for a few of the highlights and check out some vintage photos of boldface regulars in our slideshow.
• “Then there was the night Susan [Wine, co-owner] allegedly ejected three women, tossing their furs out into the alley after they had begged to be squeezed in for dinner between reservation times and two hours later refused to get up.”
• “And how about the con man who brought two high-priced call girls to dinner, ordering tasting menus and bottles of Cristal before running out at dessert, leaving his dates with the bill?”
• “At $28.50 for a three-course meal, the opening menu — featuring ‘flavored cheese with red caviar’ and ‘lobster and lotte with melon and raspberries’ — was exorbitant. But from the very beginning Barry [Wine, co-owner] knew better than to give it away. ‘I used to raise the price $5 every four months—$35 to $40, $45 to $50,’ he says. Money brings money; that was clear from day one.”
• “It was the dawn of an American food revolution. Diners with money began to seriously fetishize food, and the Quilted Giraffe very quickly became the place where they did it. It was an almost instant success. It started with the lawyers and bankers, and then the politicians, movie stars, and media titans, too. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. once sent a four-paragraph apology on New York Times letterhead for a Monday no-show.”
• “In 1980, Barry and Susan discovered aumonieres, tiny crepes filled with crème fraîche and caviar, at Vieille Fontaine, just outside Paris. The ‘beggar’s purses,’ as they started calling them, debuted at the Quilted Giraffe not long after that, belugastuffed crepe bundles with chives as the purse strings and gold leaf on top. They were extravagant, flashy — bling on a plate. In 1981 they were a $30 supplement on the $75 prix-fixe menu. By 1990 they’d been bumped up to $50. No matter their price, the purses were always hot sellers, the restaurant’s most enduring and iconic dish.”
• “On the weekends they began to notice a new clientele, ‘bridge and tunnel’ types coming in just to ‘wear their fur coats and fancy shoes,’ as King puts it. ‘They were awful,’ Susan says, ‘the kind of people who just wanted to tell people they’d eaten in that kind of restaurant.’ And so the Quilted Giraffe began to close on weekends. Can you imagine a hot spot today closed on Saturday nights?”
• “As a running joke [Barry Wine] often slipped plastic food he’d brought back from Japan into [Warren Beatty’s] meal — a piece of fake broccoli in with his vegetables, say, or a plastic egg in a moat of real mashed potatoes.”
• “The focus of the food had turned Japanese. Barry had been traveling to Tokyo in search of ideas and ingredients — returning with pricey knives and handmade plates. He served mashed potato sushi and tuna sashimi on wasabi cream pizza. Alongside the $110 tasting menu he offered ‘Kaiseki New York Style’ — an American twist on a traditional Kyoto dinner service — for $135.”
Caviar & Cocaine (not online) [Town & Country]