Le Cirque: The Rise and Fall of a French Restaurant

Due to close on December 31, Le Cirque was once considered New York’s best French restaurant. The famed institution was held up as an ideal for fine-dining in the U.S. and acted as a starting point for many French chefs that still influence the culinary scene today.

At Le Cirque, the show was in the dining room as much as at the stove. While a parade of celebrities which included Frank Sinatra, Woody Allen, Henry Kissinger, Salvador Dali, and Ronald Reagan sat down for dinner, young prodigies like Alain Sailhac, Daniel Boulud, and Jacques Torres led the kitchen brigade. Le Cirque founder and owner Sirio Maccioni, an immigrant who paid his voyage from Italy by working on cruise ships, had a gift for spotting and attracting talent.

“He was a playwright,” Marco Maccioni said of his father, now mostly retired. “What he needed were performers, people who were ready to do whichever high wire act it took to accommodate the customers.” Le Cirque earned three New York Times stars under Alain Sailhac, who was the executive chef from 1978 to 1987, and four stars — the newspaper’s highest honor — under Daniel Boulud, who took over until 1992.

In the past years, however, the storied restaurant has fallen on hard times. The latest Times review, in 2012, awarded the establishment a lone star. The steak au poivre and the chocolate soufflé “lacked conviction,” wrote the critic. “The kitchen gave the impression that it had stopped reaching for excellence and possibly no longer remembered what that might mean.”

On a recent Monday afternoon, the lunch crowd did not fill half of the dining room. Sirio Maccioni, who was nicknamed “the ringleader” and had been a constant at Le Cirque since its opening in 1974, greeting guests, shaking hands and reserving tables for his most important customers, was absent from his post near the door. The restaurant filed for bankruptcy last March, and a few months later, the Maccioni family announced that they would not renew their lease and close the 58th Street location on the last day of 2017. “We will be closing after New Year’s Eve dinner,” added a spokesperson for the restaurant.

Le Cirque may reopen as a different, smaller restaurant on the Upper East Side, but for two generations of chefs and customers, the 16,000 square-foot dining room will remain the center of the world. “Food trends are cyclical,” said Marco Maccioni. “But I think of Le Cirque like James Bond’s tuxedo, representative of the classics and ageless.”

  • Remember some wonderful food media events there years ago that I was lucky to attend. My last visit, to the current location maybe ten years ago, was for lunch with a friend and included a fabulous Île Flottante for dessert.

  • It really is a shame, people would wear suits to dine here. Tastes change and diners started wearing jeans and sports coats (myself included). Its dining era has passed. $20 for a bellini is a crime. When its over, its over. Thank you, Maccioni family.

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