The Latest on The Vinatta Project, the Newest Occupant of the Old Florent Space

There was time when the Meatpacking District was just that a place where the cows got whacked and made into cuts that we could eat, as long as we didn’t know the hows and such. The streets ran red with blood and always had a distinct unpleasant smell. Maybe they were always there, or maybe I wasn’t old enough or savvy enough to notice, but then came the hookers, mostly transsexual, and those who control and favor that sort of thing. I guess then came Florent, and then the clubs Jackie 60 and Mars. Florent was home base, a place where the sex workers, the club workers and those too high to go home would gather real late.

It was mostly around the bistro food. You could get a good steak, but there was a drink to be had if you were known and almost everybody was a familiar face. The location at that time was a destination. There were no hotels, and normal people could only go to the Liberty, a place of action and ill repute. The Terminal Hotel wasn’t far, but was way down the line, a last stop on your way to heaven or hell. Various S&M clubs that catered to either gay and straight clients often spewed into Florent, their Masters and Mistresses and clients still in full-on fetish gear. Celebrities were common. The employees of the restaurant were minor celebrities themselves. Florent the proprietor was a deity.

When Florent finally closed, the Meatpacking had changed, on its way to becoming what it is today. Now it’s grand hotels, fabulous restaurants, showrooms and boutiques, and the only hookers to be seen are hanging at bottle tables at ultra-chic clubs. The streets no longer smell of death, and instead are vibrant with life. The area is a mall of fabulousness with swells rubbing elbows with wanna and never-will-bes, a microcosm of everything good and bad about nightlife.

At last night’s soiree at MPD, a restaurant celebrating its one year anniversary, I hobnobbed with long-legged women and well-heeled gents. Waitrons passed tidbits on trays and everyone was drinking tasty Beau Joie champagne. It was a festive mood and a swell crowd, accustomed to luxury, the finer things of life. I thought of Florent just a few doors up, and I could see in my cloudy mind the ancient crowd, and hear the laughter from some night long ago. Many are ghosts there now. The creatures of the deep night tend to disintegrate faster than most. Florent is something new, and I went in the other day to find out about it. The place has been re-decorated, and the name has been changed, possibly to protect the innocent. I sat with proprietor Nick Boccio who is launching 69 Ganesvoort Street as The Vinatta Project.

Thanks for sitting with me. I know you are busy, getting ready to open. What is the name of this place and your role?
Vinatta Project. I’m the managing partner.

I’ve spent too many evenings here in really bad condition. If this is the original floor, there’s part of me over there. This space has had huge success for many years. It was a neighborhood staple, the anchor of this neighborhood long before anybody came here. Then it became something else with Corey Lane and David Graziano, and now you take it over. It had a great run, a bad run, and now you. What have you done to change it, to make it great, to make it work, and what have you kept?
I think the problem with the previous occupants was they tried to continue the Florent legend. We wanted to change it to the point where we were giving homage to what Florent has done, by keeping the position of where the bar was, and keeping the aesthetics, the ceiling, the way the kitchen was, and the bar. But the overall content of what we wanted to do was to make it a neighborhood comfy place that lends itself to what we do best, which is making cocktails.

You have this contraption on the left, there’s three of them mounted on steel poles. I guess they keep the wine fresh and cold. What are they called?
They’re called animatics. They’re from a company in Italy that makes a delivery system that can keep wine up to six months. By doing that, we feel it gives the customer a lot more range of tastes. It gives them the ability to try different regions from around the world, to try different grapes without spending a lot of money.

How does the customer interact with this machine?
The customer goes to the bar, the bartender retrieves his credit card and license, and he walks over to the machine. He sees the wines we are offering. We’re going to have someone on-site to walk you through the process, so if they have questions about wines, those can be answered. They decide on what they’d like to taste, put the card in, press the button, and out comes the wine into their glass.

Fantastic. Are you doing food?
We are. Our menu that we’re starting with is very small bites. What we’re trying to do is, most of the dishes are consumed by hand. We’ll do something innovative, like spaghetti and meatballs, but do it on a skewer. It’s serious food. I’m not going to say bar food. It’s very well thought out, whether you want to come and dine on just a few little nibbles, or come here and have a full meal, we’re going to offer that.

It feels really comfortable.  There are work lights on right now as you’re getting ready, but it still reads well. Tell me about your opening schedule. Are you open now? Soft open?
Right now we’re going to be open for friends and family, and then we’re going to start doing a soft opening.

Through the weekend?
Yes. Next weekend, hopefully on Wednesday, we’re going to do our grand opening to the public.

So you’re doing your grand opening the day before Thanksgiving, so you’ll be closed for Thanksgiving and then open for the weekends.
Exactly.

Get the kinks out and then be real the week after.
Exactly.

The meatpacking district has had its ups and downs. It’s over, it’s not over. To me it’s just an incredible gathering of people, thousands and thousands and thousands of people, Fridays and Saturdays mostly. Is it skewing for those who walk by during the weekends?
Basically, what we’re skewing for is trying to bring the locals out during the week, in terms of people in the West Village and Chelsea, to come here and to enjoy themselves. We obviously want to be busy on the weekends, but that’s not the client we’re going for.

Well, you never know. There’s a lot of great people. You’re referring to the bridge and tunnel that swarm these streets on weekends, but they have green money too.

Actors Playhouse Nightclub Opens & Disappoints

I was invited to the Saturday night opening of Actors Playhouse, a club in what used to be the Actors Playhouse Theatre, 100 7th Ave. South right off of Christopher St. I had first seen the space  a couple of years ago when James Huddleston was considering it. James was hot off being the doorman of hotspot The Jane Hotel when the hip crowd couldn’t get enough of that space. For all the usual reasons, things didn’t pan out, and James found his gold over at Pravda. The Actors space he showed me was ancient wood, and had antique mirrors and a dressing room maze where people could easily get lost and then deliciously  found. At the time I thought it might be a winner. But a new crew has taken over the joint and they’ve paid no mind to the natural beauty of the room, opting to gut it and slick it out. It doesn’t work on any level.

I was told by attendee Joe "Viagra" Vicari that it was designed by Bluarch, which did Greenhouse and Juliet Supper Club. I didn’t much like either of those, but Greenhouse was affective. Juliet looked worn out way too soon. Anyway, design-wise Actors Playhouse looks like a cheap version of those. The biggest design crime was not embracing the assets the space offered; now it’s cold and lit up like a Coney Island attraction, and the flow is just awful. I could go on and on but my mother told me at dinner last night while we were discussing an entirely different matter that if you don’t have anything nice to say then don’t say anything. So I’m not going to say anything.

I will say that Joe Vicari and I have buried the hatchet after many years of wanting to hit each other with one.

Word comes that Matt Levine has grabbed the old Florent space in the Meatpacking. Florent was the in-place for the in-crowd, when they were still butchering cows where high-end clubs, restaurants, and boutiques now flourish.  Back before all that, it was the scenes last stop or – gasp – if you were real in and desperate you might get a bit of vodka in your coffee at 6am. Every ho, bro, and club employee would head there after all the chores were done for a good meal. Tables  werethisclose, and spying on the celeb and his date –  who were almost in your lap – became an art form. It was grand.

Nothing has worked in the space since Florent closed. Matt will come up with something. I have been told by a guy who should know that Matt snatched up the failed Merkato 55 space as well. Everyone in town is pushing and shoving to get an inch in the Meatpacking, and Matt lands two. He either is the wiliest of operators or paid too much. A combination of both is probably close to the truth, but then again what is too much for the area which has more foot traffic than anywhere, save Times, Herald, or Union Square. The Meatpacking District might soon be named the Cheesepacking District, but there still are outposts of elegance to entertain even a jaded old codger like me.

Farewell, Florent

As of this morning, Florent, New York’s iconic Meatpacking District diner, has closed its storied doors for good. Longtime fans of the 23-year-old stalwart have been making final pilgrimages to enjoy one last meal — or so they thought. Last week, plans for the new space were revealed. Was it another DKNY or trendy spendy club? No, actually it’s reopening as the same restaurant, boasting the same staff and menu, and bearing the name of the restaurant that Florent replaced, R&L Restaurant. And that news wasn’t the only surprise to journalists.

For weeks, the event manager had been courting me to attend Florent’s final hurrah — the “friends and family” dinner on Sunday night, after Saturday’s ostensible last public party/wake. Though I was actually on the list to cover Florent’s closing parties on two other nights, I was convinced to return for the “real” closer instead. So last night, I took a long walk across town to enjoy the city before communing with Florent fans, only to be completely snubbed at the door. I wasn’t the only one jilted; several other journalists stood outside with their jaws agape. “I just don’t think they want to deal with the obvious questions,” a girl toting a tape recorder said as I retreated to the curb.

Conspiracy! The closing celebration went off without a hitch, but at this point, who cares? As New York magazine noted, landlord Joanne Lucas “put the space on the block for something like $58,000 or maybe even $70,000 a month,” clearly fishing for the sort of high-end boutique that Florent aficionados dreaded. With no tenant takers, it seems Lucas is happy to capitalize on Florent nostalgia until she finds someone flush with rent money. Perhaps it was all a ruse to oust owner Florent Morellet while generating a tidal wave of press. Overall though, the final night bait-and-switch was almost as irritating as replacing Florent with an overpriced boutique.