Le Cirque: 40 years at the heart of New York’s restaurant scene. A foundation of French cuisine in 'La Grande Pomme', and one of the last remaining, old-school, truly customer-driven restaurants in the city. A place of opulence and coddled luxury, where the customer is king and men are required to wear dinner jackets, if only to pay respect to the ladies in their dazzling dresses.
With three different locations they’ve called home, Le Cirque has been nestled at the centre of New York’s restaurant scene since it was first opened by owner Sirio Maccioni, a self proclaimed ‘man on a mission’, back in 1974.
It’s acted as a culinary springboard for some of the world’s biggest chefs, including Daniel Boulud, and has been a frequent haunt for presidents, celebrities and at least one Pope - all of them finding comfort in the no nonsense approach of Maccioni. Bill Cunningham, the famous New York Times photographer, once said he could do an entire week’s work standing outside Le Cirque for just one day.
“Kissinger would come everyday,” explains Maccioni from a chair just near the entrance of Le Cirque's newest home in the Bloomberg Building on East 58th St. He’s in his element recalling anecdotes about Nobel Prize winners such as Henry Kissinger. “Like me, he loved dessert but he couldn’t eat it so we would hide him a creme brûlée behind the bar, ask if he wanted dessert at the table, he would say ‘no’ then take a trip to the bathroom and eat some pieces of the creme brûlée on his way back.” Maccioni has hundreds of stories like this.
It's one of the reasons that he is widely regarded as one of the most iconic restaurateurs in New York and was recently given the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award. However, the man honoured for operating an iconic French restaurant in America actually screams Italy at every chance.
“We’re very Italian,” he smiles from his chair, “everything that is Italian is the best,” this is within minutes of meeting and for the next hour he confirms in more ways than one that, had things been different, Le Cirque may have been called il Circo, serving only the finest Italian cuisine.
As Marco, one of his three sons, business partners and heirs, points out: “He opened a French restaurant because back then he knew he could replicate what was recognised as classic French cuisine.” Maccioni, or dad to Marco, chips in again from behind the large bowl of fruit he claims the family are forcing him to eat, “Italian cuisine wasn’t even a name back then,” he chuckles, referring to the time when he opened what he hoped would be a quality local brasserie.
He continues while chewing down on segments of fruit, “we couldn’t make an Italian restaurant - no Olive Oil, no Parmesan, you didn’t have the quality of fruits and vegetables that you can find readily in Italy." Marco explains that dad didn't want to compromise his Italian side, knowing he couldn’t translate what he knew was good Italian cuisine. Over the years this changed, Sirio gained access to more and more Italian ingredients, and, as Marco puts it: "Le Cirque became known as the French restaurant with some basil on top.”
An Italian man, living in New York, running a French restaurant and still holidaying in Tuscany with a spare suitcase for sneaking Italian products back into America. It sums up Macciona perfectly. A man who, despite the strong shot New York must have been, refused to dilute the Italian within. “We had the first white and black truffles, we would leave Italy with one suitcase for clothes and one suitcase for products, you couldn’t find S.Pellegrino in New York and I insisted on having it.” He says Le Cirque had New York’s first leg of cured prosciutto ham and the first chunk of authentic lardo, before looking up at one of his staff members from his chair to ask that some good prosciutto be placed on the menu.
As a young restaurateur, with kitchens manned by some of the greatest chefs of the 21st century, Maccioni has always been more than happy to step away from their meticulously planned French menus and offer Italian dishes instead, especially if it's what the customer asked for: “Frank liked sicilian food - pasta and pizza.” That’s Mr. Frank Sinatra to me and you. “Frankie would say, 'we don’t want to come today because we want to eat pizza, so I had my wife make pizza and one of the children would get on the bicycle and bring it to the restaurant.”
The 82-year-old, now with a restaurant empire spanning 12 different locations from Las Vegas to Mumbai, seems happiest when recalling memories. When reminiscing about Tuscan holidays with Secretary of States, friendly meetings with Jimmy Carter, and his personal favourite President John Kennedy. He says he never liked to call them President, even bringing it up with his customer, neighbour three doors down, and friend, Richard Nixon, who would head straight to the Le Cirque kitchen and tell the chef what he wanted to eat if Maccioni was ever busy, explaining that President always felt strange to say for him, “I’m Italian, we don’t like the word.”
Diplomats mixed with singers, Popes with Presidents and actors and actresses with scientists and academics. The Le Cirque of today is very different from the Le Cirque started by Maccioni 40 years ago, and, although his approach remains the same, dining in general, New York, clientele and chefs, all changed.
He’s certainly not as happy discussing the changes, or thinking about the future of fine dining in the city, he’s just happy to have built a business that remains within the family. A legacy to leave for his sons, Marco, Mauro and Mario, the trio tasked with driving Le Cirque through the ever changing dining demands of a city that moves incredibly fast.
“The clientele, the way they dress, the way they talk - it’s all different now”, says Maccioni, looking down at his perfectly shined shoes, “we used to wear a suit and tie to fly in economy class to Italy. I respect elegance and decorum - chivalry should not be dead.” For dad, the days of stuffy were better, but for his boys, they know times are changing. It's something reflected by the recent split down the middle of the restaurant offering a mix between a dining room with strict dress code and a more relaxed bar area. A move to informality that’s evidently pushed by his sons. If Sirlio had his way, he’d keep things exactly the same as they were when he opened the restaurant back in 1974. Perhaps the only thing he’d change would be the food.
Now, it's the boys who once biked mama’s freshly baked pizza down to the restaurant for dad’s old friend, Frankie Sinatra, who are in charge of protecting the unique French menu of Le Cirque and keeping the business firmly within the family. After all, that is the Italian way.