Ever hear of a water-cannon salute? Fire trucks lined the runway to spray our plane with water, after landing in the Dominican Republic on JetBlue’s inaugural flight from JFK to La Romana. We headed to Casa de Campo, sugar baron Pepe Fanjul’s beautiful resort. The movie Rambo 2 included scenes on the stunning Chavon River there. Sting, Carlos Santana, and Frank Sinatra are among the many celebrities who have performed at the nearby amphitheater. Cygalle Dias, an entrepreneur based in New York, launched a healing spa at the resort. The spa, replete with an outdoor labyrinth and Zen gardens, is one property of a spa company that spans both the fashion and entertainment world.
Not all big restaurant successes are built to scale up, but in the case of Le Cirque, the Maccioni family’s legendary New York haunt, build up they will. And like many restaurateurs, they’ve found hotels to be a useful partner in their expansion, choosing to align their brand with properties that cater to both their current jet-setting customers. We spoke with Marco Maccioni, one of the sons of founder Sirio Maccioni, to get the scoop on where they’re headed.
Where are your current projects located?
The original Le Cirque is here in New York, established in 1974 by my father, and has had three different addresses, like 65th and Park, which is now Daniel, who took over the space from us. We moved to the Palace until 2005, and we’re now in the Bloomberg tower since 1996. Outside of New York, we opened Le Cirque at the Bellagio, which my brother manages, and as of two years now, when MGM completed City Center, we have our third Las Vegas restaurant, Sirio, named after my father. We opened in the Dominican Republic at Casa de Campo, located in La Romana on the south side. It’s a golfer’s paradise. The resort has a few F&B outlets, but we took over the two main ones—the Beach Club by Le Cirque, which is a daytime restaurant and then more elaborate in the evenings, keeping in mind that were in the Caribbean and not trying to recreate Le Cirque.
How do you decide where to expand next?
As we progress and my brothers and I get more integral to the decision-making process, we’ve been trying to establish the brand and take it from a mom-and-pop generation to a more organizational brand. Those were the first steps in that expansion. That allowed us to focus our attention on newer markets, and while we’ve had offers in the Middle East and Russia before, it wasn’t until all my brothers had established ourselves and my father was comfortable that we expanded there.
What does it take to safeguard a brand like Le Cirque when working with international partners?
We work only with friends. If we know the owners and we can count on them, we’re much more comfortable looking into these kinds of projects. The Le Cirque name, we guarantee by overseeing the operation. Our guarantee to our customers is that they’ll have a Maccioni experience whenever they’re in our restaurants. It’s the advantage of working in a family: one of us can disappear and the rest will hold down the fort at home.
My brother went out for a month to our restaurant in the Leela New Delhi in India, I’m due to go after the holidays. If we can’t walk to it, we’ll fly to it, and if we can’t fly to it, we won’t do it. We have a friendship with the Nayyar family, they’re similar to the Forbes family here in the United States. They have wonderful goodwill, a true respect for the business world and the Indian population. They’re frequent guests of ours and they know our restaurants, and we work with Kempinski, so when we had the chance to work together in India, which is a blossoming market. I think of it like Las Vegas, where we were the first big restaurant (aside from Spago)—we were the first to the gold rush. If my father does it, because he’s so cautious, then lots of people will follow.
How do those Le Cirque signature dishes translate around the world?
Where we’re located in New Delhi, it’s a governmental-political kind of neighborhood, and we get a lot of that clientele. We realized quickly that the French palate wasn’t something the Indian population liked so much, and they preferred Italian, which was not a problem for us, so we focused on the Italian preparations we’ve always offered. The pastas are the most popular by far, and they really love fish preparations. Our chef is an Italian national, born in Italy but of Indian descent, Mickey Bhoti, and he’s just perfectly in line with what we do over there—lobster risotto, not just white-sauce-red-sauce kind of cuisine. They do traditional crudo, with extra-virgin olive oil instead of wasabi, fish carpaccio, things like that.
What about the design signatures? Are they standard from restaurant to restaurant?
A lot of people say oh, we’re going to Le Cirque, so they’re looking for lions and tigers on the ceiling. My father coined the name when he was a waiter at Maxime’s in Paris. All the people pushing out of the doorway in furs and evening gowns, shoving each other to get up to the host, it was a circus in there; that’s where the name comes from. He was talking about that experience of excitement and dynamism, which is what he liked about it. We design in partnership with the venues, but Adam Tihany, who is our architect of choice, has built all our restaurants except the original in 1974, and the locations in the Dominican Republic and India, because in India they already had a design theme that was prevalent throughout the hotel. Our accents and themes were incorporated, though, and he provided drawings of our other restaurants. We try to keep a common theme, but it has to be an elegant restaurant that is flattering to the ladies, and a space that is appropriate for celebration.
How would you characterize the overall feel of the restaurant? What does it add to the hotels and cities you choose?
The energy and quality and traditions are what set us apart. I don’t mean a stodgy waiter with a greased mustache, but the standards and food traditions have stood us well in New York’s tough market, which is a unique experience to diners elsewhere. Not being a chef-driven restaurant, I believe our offering of the total experience is what we bring to the table. There are better chefs than ours, but ours are keyed into the dining experience, and our customers come back because of the atmosphere. They can entertain here, we can offer them everything food-wise, as well as the host—an order off the menu, a special request—we’ll never say no. Over four decades you get a feel for your customers, and you want them to be regulars. You have to make them feel like they’re at home—if we have it in the fridge, we’ll cook it for you. They’re elegant but also comfortable.