Today, the New York Times published a rough one-star review of the 38-year-old Le Cirque, Midtown East’s fine-dining fortress of solitude and birthplace of black-bass paupiette. It’s a restaurant considered by most to be an institution, albeit a fussy one that serves $49 sole. Yet, New York’s restaurant conversation years ago shifted away from this kind of place in favor of the dining counters and casual spots that clutter the city now. For many people, Grub Street included, today’s Times review probably marks the first time in a long time they’ve even thought about Le Cirque, which is why the negative review and the removal of two Times stars might be the nail in the coffin. And even though we can’t remember the last time we even considered eating at the restaurant, we hope it weathers this storm.
As if to broker fallout, critic Pete Wells today also appeared on Heritage Radio to tell Mitchell Davis that Le Cirque is representative of New York’s "old, old-school" restaurants where the restaurateur was the host, and the host, not the chef, was the star. (Of course plenty of Le Cirque’s chefs — Boulud, Bouley — have gone on to become stars on their own.)
But since restaurant culture has shifted focus to the food, the charm of good service wears off the minute subpar beef carpaccio arrives at the table. "The kitchen," Wells wrote of Le Cirque, "gave the impression that it had stopped reaching for excellence and possibly no longer remembered what that might mean."
Of course, the subtle difference between a negative two-star and enthusiastic one-star review means little to the woman at table eight who stops by a restaurant like this three times a week and gets a standing, off-menu order of something like chicken breast with watercress and lightly salted tomatoes on the side.
In short, Le Cirque and, to a greater extent, other old-guard Manhattan spots like "21" Club, aren’t about daring, cutting-edge food. They’re about coddled customers feeling right at home. Wells is excited by a place like Mission Chinese Food, where the chef, in his words, "grabs hold of tradition and runs at it with abandon, hitting the accents hard, going heavy on the funk and causing all kinds of delicious havoc." It’s exciting, and Le Cirque is boring (and far more expensive).
Yet, having room for it all has often been the whole point of living in New York. Let’s hope Le Cirque figures out a way to stay both endangered and relevant, because its spirit, however high-priced and haughty, imbues many, many other restaurants.