John Curtas is …

Sirio Maccioni

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He’s a worrywart, a raconteur, and a perfectionist. He’s thin-skinned one moment and a charmer the next. His love and loyalty to his family is only exceeded by his ability to drive them crazy. And if you work for him, he can also be an occasional, colossal pain in the ass. In other words, he’s just like my father. One of my many regrets in life is that the two of them never met.

When this picture was taken (by the size of the lapels and the generally forlorn fashion of the ladies, sometime in the mid-to-late-70′s), ELV was in law school and had not yet even dreamed of dining at Le Cirque.

As dated as it may seem to some, to us the photograph represents what great food in great restaurants used to be: something aspirational and exciting that all middle class Americans could strive towards, if they saved their pennies and minded their Ps and Qs.

If you forget the fashion, everything about this scene speaks to an elegance and wit that no longer informs anything about dining out in America. The table-side preparation, oversized peppermill, side-by-side seating, and top-flight Italian bottle tell you this was a time when dining well, and feeling sophisticated, mattered. It also tells you that ladies who take an elegant lunches are as dead as the dinosaurs.

Tying it all together is the mischievous grin of  Sirio Maccioni — a grin that is at once seductive (for those ladies), and playful (for the gents). It is a grin that tells the blokes who are paying the bill: “This is all in fun, and I’m here to make sure everyone has a good time.” It is a smile that is both devilish and comforting. In other words, it is the perfect countenance for a restaurateur.

The art of that smile (and of the hospitality that goes with it) was perfected by Sirio when yours truly was a mere sprat. Sadly, it is a talent that has gone the way of the gueridon and baked Alaska.

“Le Cirque taught me two important things as a restaurateur,” says Danny Meyer. “I learned the trick of using dessert wines, not only as a gift to loyal customers, but also as a way to make up for mistakes made earlier in the meal. This was in 1983 and 1984. I never saw any other place serving malvasia, moscato d’Asti and so on. And I also learned the art of bringing out a sampling of desserts.”

“We are not in the food service business,” is the way Sirio himself puts it. “We are in the hospitality business.” Would that the meretricious mavens of the Las Vegas Strip would see things that way. Instead, most restaurants here are reduced to a numbers business, pure and simple. The art of making someone feel like a big shot seems to have gone the way of the tuxedo’d waiter. Everything about our humble burg is pay to play these days, with no apologies for the crassness of the sales pitch. You want to feel like a king (and actually sit down in a nightclub)? Well, that will cost you ten large and our obsequious “host” will be happy to take your card and lead you to the promised land. You like being herded like cattle in and out of an absentee celeb chef money pit? Well, we have plenty of those here too.

Sirio Maccioni looks at some celebrity chefs like he does a piece of rancid prosciutto. “Their restaurants have no soul,” is how he put it to me. Not that he’s opposed to empire building — there is now a Le Cirque in New Delhi of all places — but the Maccioni operations have always been totally hands on (instead of accountant-driven) and you can feel the force of the paterfamilias the moment you step through the doors.

Some critics (and more than a few customers over the years) have always scoffed at Le Cirque as little more than a celebrity playpen, with all of the attention (and the good stuff) being perquisites reserved for the high-born. But this has never been the case at the Vegas Le Cirque, and on my first two trips to the mother-ship in New York back in 1989 and 1997, I didn’t find anything close to a highfalutin’ attitude to be the case, either. On both occasions, the completely unknown-to-management John A. Curtas and his guest were treated like the King of Siam from the moment we poked our heads in the door until a basket of goodies was handed to us on our way out.

True, once Le Cirque hit the high desert in October, 1998 and we started writing and talking about it on the radio, things got really fun when we went to the Big Apple. Once in 2000 (at Le Cirque 2000), Sirio and his crew spent so much time lavishing attention and extras on us, a well-heeled businessman and his trophy wife stopped by our table on the way out and inquired: “Who are you?” That envious inquiry put a smug smile on our face that didn’t come off until we left town three days later, but it’s hardly our best memory of the place.

Our best memory is when we were an unknown….and Sirio wasn’t even in the house. It was 2:45 pm on a cold, Autumn afternoon in New York. We had no reservations and the restaurant had but one table still being served. “We know you’re closing but would it be okay if we just took a peek?” we asked the maitre’d. “Would you like to eat?” he countered…with an entreating smile that told us he really wanted us to. “Well..uh…er…sure!” we responded. Within minutes, menus were in our hands and the sommelier (who I’m sure wanted to be elsewhere) was chatting us up about wine pairings. It was almost 5:00 pm before we got out of there, after that same sommelier poured us a last splash of Sauternes, and we got a kitchen tour. That the food was wonderful and the wine spectacular mattered not a bit. What mattered was Le Cirque opened his doors to a couple of rubes (and kept them open) as if we were Tricky Dick and Henry in their prime.

I hadn’t even met Sirio Maccioni at this time, but he had an admirer for life. Here was a world famous establishment that imbued its staff with an appreciation for everyone who walked through the door.

The Sirio Maccionis of the late 20th Century are a dying breed. He’s in his 80′s now and won’t be around forever,  Replacing him are numbers crunchers and “brand managers” — hotel school graduates who never lift their gaze from the bottom line to make an awkward young couple feel comfortable, or an aging beauty feel like she’s still turning every head in the house. None of them want to live above the store (as, essentially, he still does), and all of them (and their customers) think dazzling you with a “name” chef and a blizzard of small plates is what defines sophistication in the early 21st Century.

They’re wrong, of course, but everyone under 40 in America is too shell-shocked by our economy to realize it. Restaurateurs across the globe are searching for a formula that works. A formula that will have both celebrities, food lovers and the press beating a path to their door. A formula like a French restaurant, run with Italian flair, that dishes out the best there is with a twinkle in its eye. It is the twinkle you see in that picture above. A twinkle that is distinctly Sirio.

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A Table at Le Cirque by Sirio Maccioni and Pamela Fiori is a great read with fabulous photos and even greater recipes.

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3 Responses to Sirio Maccioni

  • Now this Mr. Curtis, captures what I feel is lacking in many of the high end restaurants in our fair town. You have stated the issue perfectly and frankly it is a sad commentary indeed on the state of culinary offerings not only in Las Vegas but throughout the country at large. I like many others who read your reviews and comments have no problem on paying the price of entry to dine at a fine establishment. What I lament, and you so clearly articulate is the lack of real enjoyment by many of the Celebrity eateries to welcome their guests and show them that they really want to have you experience a “hospitality” environment filled with culinary wonders that you couldn’t or wouldn’t find at home. To transport you to another place and the tastes of food and drink that make you say, “wow” I really will remember dining experience that for some time! Now, there seems only a few places left in Vegas. Also sadly they have become obscenely expensive to dine there, but at least still retain their “wow” factor. You reviews show and encouraging sign that many new and off strip chefs and dining houses are encouraging customers to enjoy their welcome and their cuisine. Thanks for the time and courage of speaking out and setting a higher standard for those who care about good food, good drink and pretty hostesses!

  • Several years back when I was but a newbie to the charms of Sin City I was staying at the Sahara while in town on “business.” (Monkey business, but I digress.) I wandered down from my hotel room without a clue in the world about where to eat. I stuck my head into the House of Lords steakhouse and was immediately greeted by a maitre’d who treated me as if I was a well-known and valued customer, rather than the rube from Flyover Country that I was. He sat me down at a large booth, and the wait staff commenced to treat me royally for a couple of hours until I could take no more food nor wine. The bill was not astronomical, I’m sure of that, and if memory serves the steaks and sides were just OK. But what struck me dumb was the high level of gracious service that the staff provided me, a complete unknown.

    In chatting with the waiters, I learned that some of them had been working that room for more than 20 years. To a man they were all long-time employees (and union members, too). That place is all gone now, and when the Sahara eventually re-opens as the SLS I’m sure that old-school steakhouse with its long-term employees will be replaced by some place featuring loud music, tattooed servers who’ve waited tables for no more than six months, and enough “attitude” to make me feel like an old man who needs to run down to the Peppermill an early-bird dinner instead of eating there.

    Ah, those were the days. Nice article, John.

  • This post started me thinking about Josef Helphinstine, who, one day at Enoteca San Marco, made this unknown solo diner feel like he was the most important customer of the week. I made a point to find out who he was and later sent a compliment to the Batali folks about him.

    Mr. Curtas, do you know where he might be working these days?

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