Secrets of Le Cirque
10 surprising facts about one of the city’s most enduring restaurants -- from the humble beginnings of its legendary owner and ringmaster to the story behind his invention of pasta primavera
Opened in 1974 as a French restaurant by the Italian Sirio Maccioni, Le Cirque soon developed into the food circus that everyone, from royalty to politicians to the hottest screen actors, ran to. It established Maccioni as New York City’s ultimate host; has been a deal-making hub; a launching pad for many stellar kitchen careers; and a no-brainer for special occasion celebrations. Now in its third location, Le Cirque is gliding gracefully, and modernly, into its 40th year. Here’s a peek inside the big top.
The story behind the restaurant’s ringmaster
Orphaned at a young age, Sirio Maccioni got his start in hospitality as a bellhop in his hometown of Montneecatini Terme, Italy, when he was just 12 years old. He moved on to work in some of Europe’s finest hotels and restaurants, and eventually he landed a job aboard a prominent cruise line, which first brought him to the U.S. Maccioni was immediately drawn to New York, so he “jumped ship” and came on board at the Manhattan classic Delmonico’s before making a name for himself as a captain at the elite Colony Club in 1958. “He was known as the skinny Italian guy who didn’t speak a word of English but moved his ass,” Sirio’s son Marco Maccioni says. In 1974, Sirio opened Le Cirque, and soon became NYC’s most welcoming host. Today, 82-year-old Sirio runs the restaurant with his three sons: Marco, Mario and Mauro. And come spring 2014, Sirio’s career will be honored when he receives the James Beard Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. The restaurant previously won the JBF Outstanding Restaurant award in 1995.
The restaurant got its name from Sirio’s busboy days
Sirio worked as a busboy at Paris’s famed Maxim’s when he was a young man. “Maxim’s was very much a hustle-and-bustle, clubby kind of environment,” Marco Maccioni says. “My father remembers people squeezing through one tight little door in their furs and finery. People would say, ‘Qu’est que passé dedans?’… ‘What is going on in there?’ He would answer, ‘C’est un cirque dedans.’ … ‘It is a circus in there.’ That dynamic electricity is what he one day wanted to capture in his own restaurant.”
Sirio’s hosting career began with an epic reservation screw-up
On his first day at the Colony Club, Sirio was charged with manning the phones while the owner headed home for a break. The first phone call that came in while he was on duty was from Frank Sinatra, requesting “his” table at 8pm. Sirio assured Sinatra that was possible. Next, he received a call from Aristotle Onassis, who also wanted his regular table at 8pm. Sirio also assured Onassis that would not be a problem. Shortly after, a call came in from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who requested their regular table at 8pm. Sirio obliged. When the owner returned to the Colony Club, he asked Sirio how the books looked. Sirio proudly recounted the big names that called and how he assured them that their requests would be honored. “All I need to know is which ones are their tables,” Sirio said. Much to his horror, the owner informed him that Frank Sinatra, Aristotle Onassis and the Duke and Duchess all preferred the same table. Maccioni’s first test of diplomacy was on that very night. As the first-arriver, Sinatra got the table, and Maccioni then charmed Onassis and the Duke and Duchess into thinking that they hadn’t been snubbed. “My father’s skillful handling of the celebs at the Colony eventually became so successful that he became sought after at the restaurant more so than the owners,” Marco says.
Sirio Maccioni coined the term “Ladies Who Lunch”
The crowd of well-heeled women who looked for a bite between shopping sprees on Madison Avenue found a convenient, welcoming refuge in Le Cirque, even though most high-end restaurants were in the East 50s at the time, 10 to 15 blocks south of the original location of Le Cirque on 65th Street. Marco Maccioni says that his father said: “If you get the ‘ladies who lunch’ here, everyone else will follow.” He guessed right, and the ladies soon brought in their power husbands, who came in for dinners. “It had a combination of power, chic and fashion,” Marco says, a mix that put the restaurant on the map.
Some of the country’s best chefs started here
Legendary chef Alain Sailhac was the first to make the critics pay attention to what was on the plate, as opposed to who was filling the seats, at Le Cirque. Sailhac put together two staffs now referred to as the “Dream Teams.” Says Marco, “His line cooks were chef de partie Geoffrey Zakarian; grill man Michael Lomonaco; poissonnier Terrance Brennan; and the saucier was a simple guy named Daniel Boulud.” A second “Dream Team,” included names such as Rick Moonen, David Bouley, Stephen Kalt, Bill Telepan and Jacques Torres.
The New York Times critic Ruth Reichl wrote her most famous, and most controversial, review about Le Cirque
Reichl’s penchant for donning disguises during reviews led to one of her most interesting critiques during her tenure at The New York Times. In her 1993 review, she reported that Sirio Maccioni, upon recognizing her, said, “The King of Spain is waiting in the bar, but your table is ready.” She added that he swept her “majestically past the waiting masses,” to her table. On a previous visit, she had dressed the part as a frumpy out-of-towner, and was given vastly different service. The experience caused her to demote Le Cirque, at that time a four-star restaurant, to three stars. While three stars is still a coveted rating from the Times, Sirio Maccioni was not happy, and he promptly replied with a full-page ad in the Times. Four stars or three, Le Cirque’s business still thrived, while Reichl’s review inspired the importance of anonymity for critics and highlighted equality for all customers. Many say that Reichl’s landmark review of Le Cirque resonates to this day, perhaps even spurring current Times critic Pete Wells’ demotion of Daniel Restaurant from four stars to three, precisely because of inconsistent treatment of guests.
Le Cirque was the subject of an anachronistic Mad Men episode
When Sterling Cooper partner Joan Holloway mentions that she has a reservation at Le Cirque, fanatics of Mad Men’s usually painstaking historical accuracy went wild: The episode was set in 1968, a full six years before Le Cirque even opened. Sirio Maccioni made light of the blunder by inviting actor Christina Hendricks, who portrays Joan, to have dinner at Le Cirque. Hendricks accepted, and Sirio treated her and her companions to a tasting menu of 1968-era dishes.
Who hasn’t eaten here?
Regulars have included Frank Sinatra, who Sirio wooed over to Le Cirque after his Colony Club days. Whenever Old Blue Eyes came to Le Cirque, he’d leave Sirio a note on a cocktail napkin that simply said: “Yes,” or “No,” about whether he enjoyed his dining experience. On the rare occasion that Sirio received a “No,” the friends would rehash the meal the next morning over coffee to remedy what had gone wrong. In 2009, the President of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, drew criticism for racking up a $20,000 dinner tab at the restaurant. According to the New York Post, the feast for 25 people included 11 bottles of Krug champagne and $1,400 worth of caviar. Other bold-faced names who supped under the big top: Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Onassis, James Beard, Ronald Reagan, Robert DeNiro, Martha Stewart, Donald Trump and many, many more.
Pasta primavera is a Maccioni invention
Though it seems like it might have come out of the kitchens of Tuscany, pasta primavera was a happy accident, tossed together during a dinner of food world notables — in Canada, of all places. While on a trip to Nova Scotia, Sirio and his wife, Egi, were charged with putting together a Sunday meal for the group, which included then critic for The New York Times, Craig Claiborne. Egi was in charge of making the pizza, and Sirio, the pasta. On that Sunday morning, Egi rose early to make the dough and used up nearly all of the tomatoes for her sauce. Sirio, meanwhile, slept in. When he woke to the make his pasta sauce, he was shocked that there were barely any tomatoes left for his dish. With little time left to spare, and the crowd arriving, he raided the freezer and found frozen broccoli, peas, asparagus tips, and some fresh zucchini and mushrooms. He put them in a pan with some cream, basil, garlic, toasted pine nuts, a bit of parmesan, and the two tomatoes he did find, served it over homemade spaghetti — and the diners were wowed. Claiborne ran the recipe for the newly-invented “spaghetti primavera” in The New York Times in October 1977. Since then, it has become one of Le Cirque’s signature dishes. It is secret, however: in-the-know diners ask for it, as it has never officially appeared on the restaurant’s menu.
Sirio’s secrets of good hospitality
Marco Maccioni says there are a few simple tenets that make his father’s brand of hospitality stand out. “My father always said to do the best that you can, no matter what you are doing,” Marco says. “He strives to always be the best restaurateur he can be.” Another, Marco says, is that a restaurant should be owner-driven rather than chef driven, explaining that chef-driven restaurants are often limited by what is on the plate. “An experienced owner accumulates experiences and desires of the client, and tries to deliver on those expectations.” He describes his father as an ambassador between the dining room and the kitchen, whose ultimate goal is to give the people what they want. And perhaps Sirio’s real secret of success is that he, and the restaurant, aren’t so elitist after all. “My father would take the most peasant of foods and raise it into elegance — a combination of simplicity and understated things set on a wonderful stage,” Marco says. “That is what my father is all about. My father is a peasant who just knows how to take care of people and work at a certain level. And that is emanated throughout his whole operation.” Those who want to learn more about Sirio’s secrets to being a successful restaurateur should pick up his memoir, The Story of My Life and Le Cirque.
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