Long before the concept of celebrity chefs, the people best known in New York’s restaurants were owners or maitre d’s. As masters of the house, these figures commanded attention and drew diners to the restaurant for their mere presence.
It was an era that’s been over for years, and among the last and most recognizable of these towering legends was Sirio Maccioni, who led his restaurant Le Cirque through multiple decades and changes in taste. He died this week at age 88. Many high profile chefs passed through his restaurants — from Daniel Boulud to Jacques Torres to Pierre Schaedelin — but at Le Cirque, there was no one more famous than Macccioni himself.
The restaurateur was born April 5, 1932 in Montecatini Terme, Tuscany, a picturesque hilltop town northwest of Florence famous for its thermal baths. He died in his hometown, according to Italian magazine Identita Golose, and the cause of death was not reported.
By all accounts he was a gawky kid, but by the time he hit New York City in the 1960s — with intermediate stops in Paris and Hamburg — he was so suave and sophisticated that he landed a job at the prestigious Colony Club. This women-only private social club hosted special events featuring celebrities of all sexes. The aplomb he developed there, coupled with his abilities as a natural host, led him to found Le Cirque in 1974, one of the quintessential New York restaurants of the last century.
Of it, New York Times critic Bryan Miller said, in a 1987 review, “Nowhere in the United States, nor anywhere else as far as I have seen, is there a dining room that crackles with the high-voltage energy of Le Cirque.” By contrast, food critic Mimi Sheraton had complained that the tables were too close together five years earlier, and the food better when it went beyond the predictable. Still, as Miller was to do later, she awarded it three stars out of a potential four.
Running Le Cirque was a family affair, with the full participation of Maccioni’s three sons Mario, Marco and Mauro, and his wife Egidiana. The name of the restaurant, according to a piece by John Mariani in Esquire, came from his experiences during World War II as his town, after being ransacked by the Germans, was liberated by American soldiers: “The Americans, they looked like the circus coming to town!”
The food at Le Cirque was conservative, French, and perfectly prepared, running to grilled Dover sole in mustard sauce, herbed lamb chops, and crisp skinned pigeon flavored with bacon. But the service was apparently more stunning, causing Miller to observe, “Undeniably, the star attraction is Mr. Maccioni himself, a hawk-eyed perfectionist who one minute is aligning salt and pepper shakers as if the success of his establishment rests on table symmetry, while the next he is kissing the hand of a parting customer, making her feel like the Princess of Wales as she floats out the door.”
Le Cirque, riding the crest of a wave of pricey French restaurants in the city, set the bar high where food and service were concerned. It moved to the Helmsley Palace Hotel in 1997, and adopted the name Le Cirque 2000. In the ensuing decade, the family opened further restaurants in Las Vegas, India, Abu Dhabi, and Dominican Republic, creating the sort of international empire that had become de rigueur among ambitious restaurateurs.
Le Cirque closed at the end of 2017, after a 43-year run. It had stood at the very apex of the city’s idea of fine dining, and disappeared along with the kind of dining experience it once represented. The expensive restaurants of the new century became more casual affairs, doing away with starched white tablecloths, waistcoated waiters, and Champagne trolleys, and introducing classic rock soundtracks and menus much more eclectic than just French.
It is indeed ironic that Maccioni, being born and dying in a Tuscan town, never quite realized the potential of Italian as haute cuisine. When Le Cirque was founded, it was one among many French restaurants that dominated the upper end of the restaurant industry; by the new century, the number of expensive French restaurants had dwindled, as Italian places became coequal and eventually surpassed French, at such restaurants as Marea, Del Posto, Barbuto, and Carbone. The era of the famed maitre d’ was also replaced by a Top Chef-driven obsession over celebrity cooks.
Yet Maccioni’s influence will continue to be felt. The sterling list of contemporary chefs who cycled through Le Cirque is probably unparalleled at any restaurant in the city. It includes Daniel Boulud, David Bouley, Terrance Brennan, Rick Moonen, Jacques Torres, Michael Lomonaco, Alex Stratta, Geoffrey Zakarian, and Tom Valenti.
Even as he was able to maintain Le Cirque’s position in the foremost ranks of French restaurants, the type of service and menu it represented were becoming less influential. But one thing about Maccioni will never go out of style: his unflagging enthusiasm for running a restaurant that makes his customers happy.