It was 1985, Reagan and Bush were in power, the yuppie scene was exploding, there were million dollar restaurants, and the “design of the year” was passé six months later. I was appalled by it all.
I decided to open a restaurant that if possible didn’t need any design; a place that was already in existence, and looked as though it had been, and would be, there forever. Somewhere that was not on a main street. If you tell people that you know a restaurant on, say, Broadway, they won’t really listen. But if you say that you know a restaurant that’s impossible to find, that‘s in the weirdest place, people will be curious: “What? Where?” The more difficult it is to find, the more a certain clientele will be tempted to go, and in another way it stops the wrong people coming. So it’s a way of having an invisible velvet rope with bouncers, and choosing your customers.
The diner that I found fulfilled all my dreams. It was unpretentious and out of the way, in an eccentric neighborhood—New York’s meat district (like les Halles, in Paris—though I left Paris because it was too pretentious, and not eccentric enough). The American diner was a perfect setting, because it made people feel very comfortable, in the same way that a bistro makes people feel very comfortable in Paris. The only thing I did to the place was put a banquette with a mirror along the wall, which is very French, so people facing the wall could see the rest of the world and not feel like they were in purgatory. I kept the counter, the Formica tables, the stools, the fluorescent lights and that was pretty much it.
The most important ingredient of a successful restaurant is that the food is good, and worth the price. the second most important thing is that the place has a feeling of being a home, an environment where you feel comfortable as soon as you set foot inside the door. here, it’s the decor and the politics. People know that Florent is a bastion of liberal ideas. It’s a place you know you’re not going to be judged, whatever race you are or sexual preferences you have. It’s a place where you go to take a bus to demonstrate in Washington. It’s the physical and the abstract place, the ideas behind it, the mirth and the glow. Some restaurants have it, and some don’t.
The graphic design very much fit with spreading the message of the restaurant’s environment. Tibor and I hit it off very well; he was smart, and good at pushing me. For a restaurant my size the amount of advertising that was done was absurd. I was M&Co’s wild account and in return we fed them four days a week, from 1985 to 1993. Since then I’ve worked with other people but there has never been nothing like that relationship.
—Florent Morellet, from Tibor Kalman: Perverse Optimist, edited by Peter Hall and Michael Bierut
We went to Florent last night to say goodbye to a place that not only represents history in many New Yorkers' lives, but one whose iconic design/food relationship stands true today, and outshines a lot of the work I see still. At the counter we sang our hearts out with the waiters to Spandau Ballet, ate our chocolate mousses and stumbled out, a little drunk, one last time. New York is steadily becoming like London – there's no room for the small institutions that make up a city's fabric and history. As Muji, Topshop, Mango and Zara take over Broadway, our city center is becoming a mirror image of our European counterpart. First CBGB's, now Florent, what's next before we lose our character entirely?