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At about 9:45 on Thursday night, Kevin Duffy, one of the longtime bartenders at Elaine’s, stood near the front door yelling to his fellow barkeep, Alex Greg.
“Alex, just do service!” Duffy shouted over the crowd. “We got no glassware! Just do service. They’ll wait. They’re nice people.”
A crush of eager bar customers surrounded Duffy. Only a few hours remained at the Upper East Side restaurant, which was filled to capacity. Just outside, a line of hopeful entrants stretched north up Second Avenue towards 89th Street. It had been almost six months since Elaine Kaufman, the restaurant’s outsized proprietress — and for nearly 50 year’s a den mother and matchmaker to the writers, editors, actors and power brokers who walked through her door — died at age 81. As the last last call approached, and Elaine’s was in the midst of a sort of second death, dishwashing wasn’t much of a concern anymore.
By most accounts, business had been on the lean side in the months following Kaufman’s death, a trend that contributed to manager Diane Becker’s decision to close shop and sell the building. There have been rumors of a white knight buyer for Elaine’s, but Becker referred any inquiries to her real estate broker. Reached Friday, Neal Sroka, of Prudential Douglas Elliman, said that there are several offers in play and that he believed the space would remain a restaurant.
Things had picked up following word of the official closing, though, and a mix of small time and larger than life regulars had the place filled by 7:30 on Thursday.
Former police commissioner Bill Bratton sat in the back room at the table where, he said, CompStat was born. (“We went through a lot of cocktail napkins that night,” Bratton said of the statistics system, often credited with helping to cleave the city’s crime rate in the Nineties.) The actress Linda Fiorentino sat a few seats to his left. Daphne Guinness was in the opposite corner of the room in a red fur frock alongside the artist Walton Ford. Both had come at the invitation of the film producer Lawrence Schiller, a regular, he said happily, for 30 years. Alec Baldwin sat in the back room’s most remote table with three guests.
“A clubhouse,” the actor said. “It was a clubhouse. It was a great clubhouse. It was like the common table at The Century Club… Coming here and dining here and socializing here, you made a group of friends. My friend brought me here 20 years ago — over 20 years ago — my friend David Black, he brought me here.”
“I think it was actually Carl Bernstein,” Baldwin went on. “We came here in the late Eighties, so it’s over 20 years ago, and once you were brought in by somebody who was a made guy, so to speak, you were in and you became a part of the family.” Bernstein, sure enough, was a short walk away in the restaurant’s side room.
“I just want to pay my respects and say goodbye and take one last look,” he said.
Gay Talese sat at the next table over.
“The thing about Elaine’s was all the people who came to this restaurant, in the 35, 40 years that I was in and out of this place, the only thing they had in common with each other is that they knew Elaine,” Talese said. “And now that Elaine is dead and now that the restaurant is about to die after tonight, all these people, these eclectic New Yorkers connected to one another not very, very, very well, because Elaine is gone are now really saying goodbye to one another. This is the end of a relationship for hundreds of people who came here, who didn’t know each other’s last names, maybe not even their first names, they only knew they were here. They saw one another. They saw familiar faces. This evening is the end of seeing and nodding to another whose name you didn’t know.”
Although bar service came to a close a few hours ahead of schedule on Thursday night, regulars still milled around the front room well past midnight. The crowd was decidedly older and possessed an edge that’s generally missing from the newer nighttime haunts, like The Lion or The Waverly Inn, that have followed in Elaine’s wake. The dresses were a little lower cut than perhaps was age appropriate. A facial scar wasn’t out of the question. Chris Noth shouted several times that the second floor of Sardi’s would be his new go-to. Jim Leyritz, the former Yankees catcher, took a seat at a table with his fiancé Michelle Caruso, whom he had met through Alex the bartender. Even Baldwin sported unkempt hair and a four days’ beard.
A little after 11, Father Peter Colapietro, a Catholic priest and longtime regular known across the room as “Father Pete,” had climbed atop a chair to call for a standing ovation for “our big mama.”
“I will miss her with all my heart and half my liver,” he proclaimed. As he had approached the chair, Colapietro passed by Lewis Lapham in the small hallway that served as a connector to the restaurant’s two main rooms, kitchen and restrooms.
“Sad, huh?” he asked.
Lapham replied in the affirmative.
“What are we going to do?” the priest continued. “I say we meet at my place every Saturday.”
He turned to Loren Korevec, who for a dozen years in the Eighties and Nineties had held down a spot at the Steinway (the one Sidney Pollack, Korevec said, had given Kaufman as a Valentine’s Day present) in the front room. The priest pointed to him.
“You can play piano,” he said.