Le Cirque at the Crossroads

Sirio Maccioni
Sirio Maccioni Photo: Getty Images

“My father has worked so many years to help us build a brand,” said Mauro Maccioni with a sigh. “But we are not like Mario Batali, worth $25 million. If, God forbid, Sirio gets angry and wants to do something disastrous, you will be the first person I tell.” It’s hard to imagine that a guy with a ponytail and shorts could have become more iconic than what is probably the most famous restaurant in New York history, but that’s just what’s frustrating the elder restaurateur. In the past few weeks, there have been rumblings that the legendary Le Cirque may move out of its current location by the end of the year, or close altogether.

Montecatini native Sirio Maccioni opened the intimate French restaurant on East 65th Street in 1974, and operated it there for 22 years, during which he served and charmed Frank Sinatra, Jackie O., Joan Collins, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Stavros Niarchos, Rudy Giuliani, and a host of nternational leaders and aristocrats. Daniel Boulud served a stint as chef, and it was the place for Brooke Astor, Pat Buckley, and other ladies who lunched. In 1997, Le Cirque relocated to the Palace hotel, and in 2006 to the 16,000-square-foot swanky space it currently occupies in Bloomberg Tower.

This year the Zagat survey reported that 46 percent of New York City residents say they are eating out less, 43 percent said they were more attentive to prices, and 41 percent said they were eating in less costly restaurants. The Maccionis have tried to adjust, adding a lower-priced menu to the bar area and bringing in a promoter to turn it into a short-lived pseudo-club on Friday nights, a move that must have left Sirio shaking his head in disbelief.

“It’s been a tough time,” admits Mauro, who says that they have stabilized for the moment thanks to an investment from Simest, a public-private holding company involved in international promotion of Italian ventures, and a renegotiation with their landlord, Vornado, the company that famously invested in the disastrous relaunch of the Russian Tea Room. “It’s a large and expensive space, but they’ve been helpful in light if the economy. They’ve given us concessions and become our partners, and we are trying to make the numbers work. They know that if we are not able to make it a success, it will be very difficult for others.”

The Maccionis have been busily scouting locations from the Upper West Side to Tribeca, but, according to Mauro, they are for a new concept — an Italian seafood restaurant tentatively titled Osteria del Mare. “We have some ambitious plans,” he said.

“So much anguish and disagreement went into shaping Le Cirque in its third incarnation,” says Gael Greene. “It was never quite what Sirio dreamed or what his sons wanted. Many loyalists came anyway, but many regulars from the golden era disappeared. Marco and Mauro tried everything to keep the bar bustling: $28 lunches, $38 dinners, baseball and soccer nights with burgers and free chicken wings. It’s not too late for the kids to start over. I begged Sirio to retire although I could never imagine it. ‘I’m too old to retire,’ he said.”

As for the idea of moving Le Cirque, Mauro is not too encouraged. “After a third move, I don’t know,” he said. “I wish it were smaller or that we had stayed on 65th Street. We are still doing okay, but we are not Nobu or Babbo.”

Still, he doesn’t think we have seen the end of an era.

“The business of luxury dining in New York is down by 30 percent, but before people know it they will be tired of casual environments. They might even want to put on jackets again.”

Le Cirque at the Crossroads