After two and a half-years — and much construction tumult — the Writing Room, a $4-million, 140-seat restaurant, will open in the former spot of one of the nation’s most celebrated A-list hangouts. It was a 48-year-long party, from 1963 until the final nose-dive in 2011, nearly six months after the restaurant’s formidable proprietor, Elaine Kaufman, died at age 81.
Michael and Susy Glick, who already run a restaurant in the neighborhood, plan to open the Writing Room in the next weeks as a haunt for food, camaraderie and literary ambience. “We didn’t want to capitalize on Elaine’s,” Mrs. Glick said, “but there is a lot of iconic interest. The legacy is there. We want to pay homage to an amazing space, but also to change it. And give it better food.”
Legions of former habitués are hardly of one mind about the attempted reanimation. “Elaine would be turning in her grave to see what they’re doing in her restaurant,” said Steve Walter, a co-owner of the music club the Cutting Room, on East 32nd Street, who was a devotee of Elaine’s for a decade. He lamented the sleekness of the redesign and the disappearance of the tchotchkes and fixtures, like the pendant dining room lights “that Elaine told me she got from a funeral parlor.”
Others were wistful. “The soul was gone when Elaine was gone,” said Bobby Zarem, the longtime publicist for Elaine’s, who first visited the restaurant three weeks after it opened in 1963 “and never stopped going back,” he said. He lives in Savannah, Ga., now, but added, “I wish them well.”
Dining in New York is a movable feast, and “restaurants have lives, and afterlives, and reclaimed lives,” said the writer Gay Talese, who was a star regular at Elaine’s for more than 40 years. Popular places such as Aquavit, Minetta Tavern and Sparks Steak House have been successfully revived, and in 1999 the society haunt Mortimer’s was reinvented as Swifty’s. But the fate of the much-anticipated reset of Tavern on the Green is still in the wind.
In the case of the Writing Room, the future is similarly unclear. “Of course they are capitalizing on the original, but why not?” Mr. Talese said. “It could help them to make it.”
Will he be there? “We expect to go for one visit,” he added, of himself and his wife, the publisher and editor Nan Talese. “But we don’t expect to have a courtship.”
Elaine’s was always a conundrum. Even at its peak, non-devotees and ex-communicants (not all of them nobodies) viewed it as an overpriced, inbred purveyor of Italian-dominated food that ranged from the decent to the suspect. True zealots saw it as a magic kingdom, an ever-shifting kaleidoscope of revelry that gloriously merited the line of double-parked limos out front.
Ever at the center of the restaurant’s matrix was the mystery of Elaine the saloonkeeper: gorgon, imperious matriarch and hostess with an iron whim — but possessor of a salty laugh and generous heart that customarily melted in the presence of her in-group.
A downtown bohemian of humble origins, she was street-savvy, earthy and large, and turned her uptown watering hole into a comic-opera aristocracy of journalists, editors, playwrights, actors, politicians and their moneyed acolytes. Not only did Ms. Kaufman genuinely like writers, but early on, she may have sensed that when one coddles them, one tends to get written about.
As a reminder to the Elaine’s-challenged, the guest list over the years included (in alphabetical order): Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Simone de Beauvoir, Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Joan Didion, Clint Eastwood, Nora Ephron, Clay Felker, Jane Fonda, Judy Garland, Pete Hamill, Richard Harris, Joseph Heller, Dustin Hoffman, Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Jacqueline Kennedy, John Lennon, Sidney Lumet, Marcello Mastroianni, Norman Mailer, Robert Mitchum, Mike Nichols, Jack Nicholson, Rudolf Nureyev, Peter O’Toole, Nicholas Pileggi, George Plimpton, Mario Puzo, Irwin Shaw, Bobby Short, George Steinbrenner, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Andy Warhol, Harvey Weinstein and Raquel Welch.
The new owners thought about calling their place Elaine’s “for about an hour,” Mr. Glick said. “But there was only one Elaine.” Therefore, “the Writing Room, as a name, seemed appropriate,” he added, “since writing — aside from Elaine herself — was the most consistent thing at the restaurant.” (It is not to be confused with the Writers Room, a shared literary work space downtown.)