Florent closed its doors three years ago, but Gay Pride Week still doesn’t feel the same without it. The week was always a big deal for Florent Morellet’s iconic Meatpacking District diner, which served as a LGBT community center of sorts. The restaurant was a popular place to meet up during and after the Pride parade, and in 2006 Morellet himself even served as one of the parade’s grand marshals. And Florent closed its doors, of course, on the last day of Pride Week 2008.
Although his restaurant was synonymous with Morellet himself, Darinka Chase was probably its second most recognizable face. As Florent’s hostess for much of its 21-year existence, she greeted most of the people who came through its doors at all hours of the day and night. And as the wife of Café Katja co-owner Andrew Chase, she knows a thing or two about the alchemy behind a successful neighborhood restaurant. So to commemorate Florent’s distinctive role in Gay Pride Week, we spoke with Chase about her memories of working at the restaurant, and Pride Weeks past.
What sort of significance did Pride Week hold for Florent?
In the documentary they made about him [Florent: Queen of the Meat Market], it’s very poignant. He talked about being the parade’s grand marshal and said it was the best day of his life because he’s political in general, and he was marching with Bloomberg and Hillary [Clinton] and Christine Quinn. In the movie he said he doesn’t miss the restaurant and was ready to move on, but the first time he missed it was Gay Pride the following year. Everyone used to go to the restaurant to meet there, and he kind of felt like, “Where are we supposed to go?” And he felt sad for the first time. New Year’s Eve, Bastille Day, and Gay Pride were a holy trinity at the restaurant. [laughs]
What was the restaurant’s atmosphere like during the parade?
A lot of people wanted to work because you would just see everybody. We did an abbreviated menu because it was almost like a party from the beginning to the end; it was like a theme the whole day. At Florent, any excuse to wear a wig was fine — we always had a party for Wigstock, too — but that day was a really good combination of fun and politics. That’s one reason why Florent chose it as the last day we’d be open: A lot of people came together for those two reasons at Florent. Gay Pride was one of the big ones.
What was your first Gay Pride parade like?
I moved here in October 1984, and my first job was at One Fifth. I got the job and a couple of weeks later the gay parade came down Fifth Avenue. It made me so happy I moved to New York; I was in heaven. I thought, this is so much fun. Thinking about it now, AIDS was just — I don’t know if it had even been named yet. Larry Kramer lived across the street from One Fifth and I remember that his play The Normal Heart had just come out, and Larry and the actors would come in to have something to eat. It was around that time when Gran Fury and other activist organizations were starting up; it was an intense time, and there were a lot of changes for the gay community.
When I was at Florent, there were a lot of times I missed the actual parade because I was at work, but for so many reasons it was great to work there because everyone came by. Not just gay people — it was usually on a Sunday, and there were a lot of people who came in on Sundays. It was a fun mix, and fun to see kids seeing adults all dressed up.
When did you start working at Florent?
I started in February 1986. I quit a number of times — I quit for a year in the early ’90s after I had sold some large paintings, and in 1998, when Andrew was cooking in France. I came back in 2001. By that time the neighborhood was totally changed. I worked there a long time, and for a very long time, nothing changed at all. I remember in the ’80s I couldn’t believe how commercial the art world was. I had no idea how much worse it was going to get.
When Florent opened, there was no Internet. It was under the radar and that was what was great about it. People couldn’t find it, you couldn’t go home and blog about it or take a picture. We had a couple of friends over the other night and we were talking about the way people fetishize the most mundane things. Not that food shouldn’t be good — at Florent, the food was good. It wasn’t bad, and sometimes it was very good. It was a different time; there was a pay phone and a cigarette machine in the hallway.
So how did the clientele change over time?
The new people were mostly young people who were entitled. It wasn’t just Florent but the neighborhood, because it started to attract a more trendy crowd. Everyone thought they were in Sex and the City, tripping on cobblestones in high heels. Generally, Florent had a fantastic clientele, but there were some people who were very demanding. Like we’d have somebody who was 22 and wanted something that wasn’t on the menu and would ask, “Can I talk to the chef?” No. Get over it.
The world changed, too, but in that neighborhood it was so dramatic. Before, people really had to want to go there to end up at Florent, but after, it became an incidental thing, like “Can I just come in to use the bathroom?”
Do you think that Florent could have opened his restaurant in today’s New York?
I don’t think he could. I couldn’t say for sure. I wouldn’t say Florent was only driven by Florent’s personality; I think it was the time and place. There were a lot fewer restaurants then, and almost no all-night restaurants. People didn’t care about wearing designer clothes; it wasn’t one of those things where people were focused on the prominence and label — maybe now that extends to where the beef comes from, too. People see the ’80s as a golden, creative era, but in the ’70s, people felt that way too because the city was so depressed and everyone could be an artist. I think restaurants from that time [the ’80s] were sort of the awakening in everyone’s interest in restaurants.
A lot of people saw Florent’s closure as a direct result of the way the city had changed, and how greedy landlords had become.
When places close the landlord is always the bad guy, but Florent was ready to move on. He was able to do what he wanted. And have you ever seen such an extended swan song of a restaurant? I think he kind of controlled it, actually. At that point people wouldn’t even go into the Meatpacking District unless it was to Florent.
Even when it first opened, that was during the yuppie era, and Florent didn’t want the restaurant to be full of yuppies. So even though we had a liquor license, we wouldn’t serve hard liquor because it would keep them away. We didn’t want it to get taken over. That happens really fast: A place gets taken over by a certain type of crowd. People who you want to feel comfortable won’t feel comfortable after a while.
Did the new crowd ever give you trouble?
Yeah, but not so much. One of the great things about Florent was that we could really be ourselves, so I knew if I made a decision Florent would stand behind me. Usually people would behave if you told them.
I never expected to work there for so long. I was an artist and thought it would be a part-time job. But I loved it.
Check out the rest of our Pride Week coverage.
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