I can’t help but vividly recall my first meal at Le Cirque (but then, who doesn’t? The experience is unforgettable). My friend, a prominent, low-key philanthropist, invited me to lunch at its present incarnation at 1 Beacon Court in the Bloomberg Tower in New York City. At the time, I was the arts and entertainment editor at George magazine and was more accustomed to grabbing a sandwich at my desk or at a humble coffee shop on occasion with my boss, John Kennedy Jr. Le Cirque could be a caloric sensation, but my buddy had instructed his nutritionist to oversee his meal so that it was tailored to his dietary regimen.
An exceptional request? perhaps. But then, Sirio Maccioni, the inimitable impresario of Le Cirque, is an exception to the rule—even within the highest layers of the culinary firmament (he’s shown, right, in a photo dating from his pre-Le Cirque days). When the proud Tuscan opened, in March 1974, Le Cirque’s first location within the Mayfair house at 58 E. 65th street, tout le monde flocked to what would become the epicenter of high-society dining in Manhattan for years. Of course, the food was divine: Along with the unparalleled nose of his young executive chef, the great Daniel Boulud, Sirio introduced a lightness of being to the predictable french cuisine afforded at such traditional eateries as La Grenouille, La Côte Basque, La Caravelle and, previously, Le Pavillon and the Colony, the latter being where Sirio had been, for many years, the all-knowing maître d’ at the bar. (Legend has it that Bianca Jagger, in the midst of a rather boisterous row with husband Mick, further infuriated the rocker by claiming that Sirio was her lover—an erroneous assertion that a chagrined Sirio quickly corrected.)
Word of mouth, so to speak, spread like a zephyr among café society, attracting regulars to Le Cirque ranging from Spanish King Juan Carlos I to Princess Grace of Monaco—as well as potentates like Henry Kissinger, Nancy and Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Sirio was unintrusive and elegantly reserved with his super-chic clientele, greeting who John Fairchild, the legendary editor of Women’s Wear Daily, termed the Ladies Who Lunch with a baisemain and welcoming their powerful husbands with a genteel handshake (despite the protestations of Malcolm Forbes for Sirio to call him “Malcolm,” Sirio would forever defer and utter, “Mr. Forbes”).
After escorting society swans, business titans or the inevitable celebrity to coveted tables one, two (the catch of the day with its corner layout) or three (which Sirio always kept aside in his breast pocket for an unexpected luminary), the performance would begin. Le Cirque was Sirio’s stage: His talented chefs were the performers, but Sirio was the playwright. On any given weekly afternoon, one might glimpse the premier Hollywood agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar plying his clients with double martinis while brokering a deal; Sean Connery marveling at the wild Scottish grouse; and Woody Allen with Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow, who only nibbled on vegan crudités. Frank Sinatra insisted that Sirio’s wife personally whip up minute pizzas from her kitchen home for him, and Frank Zappa demurred to Sirio’s insistence that he don a tie over his white tee (Sirio later routinely shipped Zappa’s favorite dish, lobster salad, and the res- taurant’s signature crème brûlée to him while the musician was dying of cancer).
Then there were the ladies: prim, pretty and perfectly pulled together with their back-combed hair (thanks to a pricey blowout at Kenneth just before lunching) and couture suits by fellow Le Cirque patrons Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta and bedecked in David Webb. Soigné figures such as Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Nan Kempner, Lynn Wyatt, Casey Ribicoff and Betsy Bloomingdale sat next to Jacqueline Onassis and Sirio’s society seer John Loring. “These women had money, taste and manners,” says Fairchild. “They knew how to fold a napkin. Their taste wasn’t plooky. Sirio’s attitude was ‘I want to please,’ and he did it very well. He wasn’t a stupid snob.”
A master (and ultradiscreet) juggler (he knew more uptown secrets than a hairstylist), Sirio squeezed them together so artfully that “it was a like a ballet,” says Boulud, who recalls that wayward husbands would order the finest champagne for their mistresses and the cheapest Burgundy for their wives. “Tables were flying in the air,” Boulud says.
In the asphalt jungle of New York City, loyalty is rare. After A Table at Le Cirque (out on Oct. 16) coauthor Pamela Fiori parted ways with Town & Country as its editor, sirio rang her at home. “‘Pamela, nothing has changed,’” Fiori remembers Sirio saying. “‘Come to lunch.’ it was the sweetest thing anybody has ever said to me.”
The once young pup, now 80, may be hobbled by a bum knee, but he still sits, six days a week, next to the coat check at Le Cirque’s tiger ebony–paneled present locale. His three boys oversee his global empire, including the new Sirio Ristorante, opening this month in the Pierre Hotel, where the impresario hopes to recapture the cozy neighborhood feel of the first Le Cirque as well as court a new generation of ladies. Naysayers would be foolish to underestimate him. “Sirio could always make everything happen,” Fairchild says. “He is just a gracious gentleman.”
All images Courtesy of Rizzoli