Elaine’s and Woody Allen resonate in film history. The great clubhouse restaurant started by Elaine Kaufman in 1963 lasted just past her December 2010 death until May 2011. Woody Allen cemented his place there, and turned Elaine’s into a New York landmark forever in his 1979 movie “Manhattan.” Woody has dinner there with Mariel Hemingway, Michael Murphy, and Anne Byrne (then married in real life to Dustin Hoffman). For 16 years, Elaine’s had already been a tough reservation, with a room full of A list names on a nightly basis. After that, forget it.
Woody says in his memoir, “Apropos of Nothing,” that he ate there every night for 10 years. Some of that time was with Mia Farrow, the only companion of Woody’s she didn’t like. Woody and Elaine would forever be linked because of the movies. They also had a personal friendship; she adored him. For the restaurant’s 45th anniversary in 2008, I called Woody and asked him to come to a party the regulars had put together. His assistant took the information dutifully.
Sure enough, when the doors opened a black town car pulled up with Woody, Soon Yi, and their daughter Bechet. (She might have been 7 or 8.) They stayed quite a long time, and Woody talked to everyone in the packed room. Elaine beamed. We couldn’t know then that the end was near. But what a beautiful moment.
A couple of things: Woody mentions the prices at Elaine’s. I burst out laughing when I read this. My check was always the same no matter what I ate. Everyone was assigned a number that someone — Elaine, or the waiters– thought you could afford. You can have a salad or a steak and it was always the same. Also, the food, which was never great but nearly as bad as described by Woody. He got a lot of punch lines off that menu. But he ate there a lot. As Elaine would say, he didn’t look like he was suffering.
On meeting famous people at Elaine’s:
The fare there was a scandal but it was the most exciting piece of real estate
in the city, brimming with high-profile people every night
and all night long. Over the years I got friendly with Elaine
and, at one stretch, ate dinner there with friends every night
for ten years. Any night there, one might see Fellini, the
mayor, a Kennedy, Mailer, Tennessee Williams, Antonioni,
Carol Channing, Michael Caine, Mary McCarthy, George
Steinbrenner, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, Robert
Altman, Nora Ephron, just to name a tiny few. I got to
meet Simone de Beauvoir there and Gore Vidal and Roman
Polanski. You get the idea.
More on the food: It wasn’t the food, it was the atmosphere. A clean, well lighted
place. Well, a well-lighted place. And the prices were
like improvisational theater. You’d have the spaghetti and
clams Monday night and they’d be twenty-five bucks. Same
dish Tuesday could be thirty or twenty. If you were a New
Yorker in the arts or journalism or politics or a sports figure,
and you had no place to go at 1 a.m., you could go to
Elaine’s and it was six deep at the bar and you’d meet many
faces you knew and some new ones you were glad to finally
say hello to. Keaton and I, along with Jean Doumanian
or Tony Roberts and over time with Michael Murphy and
Jean’s boyfriend and assorted others, would dine there every
night and then Keaton and I would stroll home. In those
years New York was dangerous at night, and strolling home
to see if you’d make it was always exciting. Once in bed
we’d watch a movie on TV.
Those times are among my nicest memories
On meeting Mia at Elaine’s:
On this night it was a party that Mia happened to be
at. We were introduced, made some polite small talk, the
earth didn’t move, and we went our separate ways. I met
her once again years later in passing at Elaine’s. She came
in with Michael Caine, passed my table, we said hello, she
got seated elsewhere, and I lunged back into my tortellini.
Tortellini was one of the only things you could eat there and
that tasted passable if one’s demands for flavor were kept
at a minimum. I often told Elaine that her food would have
been turned down by the lost party on the Donner Pass.