Tucked inside the Bloomberg Tower at 58th Street and Lexington Avenue is one of New York City’s most famous restaurants, Le Cirque. The restaurant, which was established in 1974 by Sirio Maccioni, has been a staple in the New York dining scene since its inception.
Not only is Le Cirque known for inventing both the crème brûlée and spaghetti primavera, it’s been the launching pad for multiple famous chefs including Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, and Terrance Brennan. A mixture of style, wonderful food, and famous clientele have given Le Cirque its place in New York City’s fine dining history.
Le Cirque has been the setting for the “ladies who lunch” since the ’70s. Judy Taubman, the widow of property tycoon Alfred Taubman, told Vanity Fair, “That was the place, where you used to see everyone you knew. And when there was somebody you didn’t know, everybody wanted to know, Who is she?”
Mario Wainer, who’s been the maître d’ and manager of Le Cirque for 25 years, has helped seat a list of famous guests that includes Beyonce and Jay Z, members of The Rolling Stones, former US presidents, and even the pope. His work is like a song and dance between the waitstaff and the guests — he greets regular diners like he would an old friend, and sees that everything is running smoothly.
We followed Wainer on a typical Tuesday during Le Cirque’s lunch hours, and learned how the power lunch has changed in his time there.
The restaurant sits inside the Bloomberg Tower in Midtown Manhattan. Many Bloomberg reporters, including food critic Peter Elliot, hop over to Le Cirque for lunch.
There's also the Le Cirque Cafe, which has full service at night, although some lunchtime regulars choose to eat their meals at the bar.
Towering through the first and second floors of the restaurant is a 27-foot refrigerated wine tower, which can hold over 3,000 bottles of wine.
Robert Cenedella's painting 'Le Cirque -- The First Generation' hangs on the second floor and depicts the famous personalities that frequented the original location of the restaurant. (This is Le Cirque's third location since opening.) You can spot Richard Nixon, Diana Ross, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Barbara Walters, and in the center, Wainer in his suit and bow tie.
'One time there were two presidents here at once,' Wainer said, pointing out a picture depicting Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. 'They were dining together, of course.'
Le Cirque has stayed a family-owned business throughout the years. Sirio Maccioni has employed his three sons -- Mario, Marco, and Mauro -- to help keep the restaurant running smoothly.
The restaurant has been the subject of many books, as well as a documentary called 'A Table In Heaven'. Here, Wainer points himself out in the book 'A Table at Le Cirque'.
Today, the restaurant is expecting 50 to 60 people for lunch -- a typical number for the winter season.
The lunch menu includes a two- or three-course prix fixe option in addition to the Le Cirque classics, like the Le Cirque Salad and tuna tartare. The restaurant welcomed a new chef, Massimo Bebber, just this February.
Some regulars prefer to have the same table, same waiter, and same drink whenever they dine at Le Cirque. 'We're creatures of habit,' Wainer said.
By 11:45 a.m. the restaurant is ready for the lunch crowd. 'Lunch guests usually come between now and 2:30 p.m.,' he said.
On this particular Tuesday, Wainer was expecting a couple of regular heavy-hitters, including Alya Ahmed Saif Al Thani, the permanent representative of the State of Qatar to the UN, and William Lie Zeckendorf, grandson to real estate tycoon William Zeckendorf, Sr.
Although official business hours begin at noon, the first guest arrives at 11:45 a.m. on the dot, just as Wainer expected.
Wainer greeted every guest like an old friend at the door -- shaking hands left and right, and giving hugs.
Wainer speaks five different languages, including French, Italian, and Spanish. On any given day, he's greeting customers in all five.
Many orders of the tuna tartare were making their way out the door to hungry guests. It's one of Le Cirque's most popular dishes.
Over the past two decades, Wainer has seen a decline in the classic idea of the 'power lunch'. 'Everyone is so connected nowadays -- people don't want to leave their desks during the work day,' he said. 'People go out for drinks after work, but during the day it's generally less.'
He noted that people are also not drinking alcohol at lunch the way they used to. 'People change with the times,' he said. 'Today they order iced tea, sparkling water, or a soda.'
Regulars like Alya Ahmed Saif Al Thani often text Wainer's work phone to make their reservation for the day.
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