In Love with Le Cirque

Eric Laignel

Sirio Maccioni’s beloved New York restaurant remains a favorite after 38 years and two moves.

Since it opened in 1974, Le Cirque has changed locations twice, but the mainstay through it all has been owner Sirio Maccioni, an Italian whose vision of a haute French restaurant captivated New York. Last month, Maccioni opened his newest restaurant, Sirio, at the Pierre hotel, designed by longtime collaborator Adam Tihany, and he also released a new book (from Rizzoli) of stories and recipes that span nearly 40 years. Here, a chronicle of why the restaurant still reigns supreme.

1974–96

Le Cirque, 58 E. 65th St.

Signature Look: True to its circus motif, the restaurant welcomed guests under an awning reminiscent of a carnival tent; inside, costumed monkeys entertained across wall murals and on the cover of the dinner menu.

Leader of the Line: Daniel Boulud, the chef de cuisine between 1986 and 1992, once said that without Sirio, he’d be a short-order cook.

Must-Order Dish: Chef Jean Vergnes refused to put the Italian spaghetti primavera on his French menu and forced cooks to make it in the prep room; the restaurant still serves the dish about ten times a week, by request.

Star Turn: A haughty maître d’ rebuffs a young Charlie Sheen in Wall Street, and in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, Drew Barrymore swallows an engagement ring hidden in her parfait.

Ladies Who Lunch: In the 1980s, Estée Lauder regularly dined with Nancy Reagan and those closest to her, including Betsy Bloomingdale and Nan Kempner.

Boldfaced Gossip: Lunchtime regular Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis never ate much, until a meal in 1994 when she devoured an array of desserts.

Straight from Sirio: “Once, some food critic said that the beautiful, the powerful people come to my restaurant. I’m not discriminating. I have a small restaurant, and I like to see the same faces!”

1997–2004

Le Cirque 2000, 455 Madison Ave. (at 50th St.)

Signature Look: Designer Adam Tihany created high-backed velvet chairs for the dining room, which had to be cut down after customers complained they couldn’t see who was sitting at other tables.

Leader of the Line: Pierre Schaedelin took over from Cambodian chef Sottha Kuhnn and added touches from his native Alsace, like tarte flambée.

Must-Order Dish: Robert De Niro would phone ahead to order the Caesar Salad Le Cirque—a dish Schaedelin deconstructed into layers of lettuce on one side and a fried egg in a round crouton on the other.

Star Turn: In Andrew Rossi’s 2007 documentary Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven, which charts the restaurant’s move from the Palace to One Beacon Court, Maccioni’s youngest son, Mauro, memorably huffs at his father, “Asshole!”

Ladies Who Lunch: Notorious as one of the few places where Ivana Trump could stand to be in the same room as ex-husband Donald.

Boldfaced Gossip: In 2003, at Liz Smith’s 80th-birthday party (attended by Bette Midler, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Wolfe), Liza Minnelli dragged the gossip columnist up to the microphone for an impromptu duet of “New York, New York.”

Straight from Sirio: “I would love to move back to the Upper East Side, in the 60s, to a place that looked more like the old Le Cirque. Some of my customers still wonder why I went downtown.”

2006–present

Le Cirque, One Beacon Court (at 58th St.)

Signature Look: A big-top-themed canopy covers the dining room rotunda and is often described (affectionately) as a giant lamp shade.

Leader of the Line: The recently installed Olivier Reginensi, a former sous-chef at Daniel, whom Maccioni calls a “very good chef” despite a tough one-star review in The New York Times in September.

Must-Order Dish: The truffle-bathed foie gras ravioli was a Frank Bruni favorite. The critic called the dish a “triumph of luxury ingredients” in a 2008 three-star review.

Star Turn: A drunken Russell Brand grudgingly proposes to Jennifer Garner in the 2011 Arthur remake, and Steven Soderbergh shot scenes for the forthcoming The Bitter Pill.

Ladies Who Lunch: Barbara Walters trades stories here with the Harpies, including Liz Smith and Cynthia McFadden; and Eileen Ford of Ford Models still brings the most successful girls on her roster.

Boldfaced Gossip: On opening night in 2006, amid hundreds crowding the restaurant, Maccioni led Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn through to a back room after Previn said of Allen, “He’s claustrophobic!”

Straight from Sirio: “The young people come in and tell me they like that they need to put on a jacket in the dining room. That is who we are—we are elegant.”