Where the Power Elite Eat, a Hostess With Chutzpah

By Max Gross

Published April 09, 2004, issue of April 09, 2004.
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On Passover a number of years ago, a regular diner at Elaine’s restaurant in the Yorkville section of Manhattan’s Upper East Side popped his head into the famous eatery, surprised to find it open on the Jewish holiday.

The regular asked the owner, Elaine Kaufman, why her restaurant wasn’t closed.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” Kaufman snapped.

Kaufman is proud of that line. “The rabbis are not going to pay the rent,” Kaufman told the Forward with a laugh.

It is one of the many acid droplets of Kaufman’s wisdom that can be found in a new history of the restaurant, A.E. Hotchner’s “Everyone Comes to Elaine’s: Forty Years of Movie Stars, All-Stars, Literary Lions, Financial Scions, Top Cops, Politicians and Power Brokers at the Legendary Hot Spot” (HarperCollins).

Writer Frederic Morton called Kaufman the “number one hostess of contemporary literature.” And she certainly managed to attract the greats. Walking through the small, dimly lit restaurant, one sees the photos of writers, filmmakers, actors, athletes and politicians who made Elaine’s their hangout over the years. Woody Allen filmed the opening scene of “Manhattan” in Elaine’s. Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio and Andy Warhol all dined and caroused there. At the “Everybody Comes to Elaine’s” book party last week, hundreds crammed into the restaurant; Dr. Ruth Westheimer sat and gossiped with Kaufman; James Brady talked about his upcoming book about North Korea; James Lipton, host of the Bravo series “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” gave interviews to the TV news crews covering the party, and author Gay Talese sipped drinks with the famous New York detective Bo Dietel.

Kaufman has managed to keep the restaurant fresh and popular despite the fact that 2004 so far has been a bloody year for New York’s great eateries. At least four New York legends — Lutece, La Cote Basque, Grange Hall and Gage & Tollner — closed earlier this year.

“Elaine’s is a destination place,” Kaufman said. “People who come here have an alliance with the place. It’s just not another restaurant—it’s very special. We’re now getting the children of the original people.”

Elaine’s success, Kaufman speculated, stems from its consistency. “It hasn’t really changed” since opening in 1964, Kaufman said. “People don’t like it to change.”

The restaurateur was born in 1929 to a Jewish family in Washington Heights, a middle-class neighborhood at the northern tip of Manhattan. She started out as a finicky eater. Was her mother a bad cook? “Not at all,” Kaufman said. But relatives thought Kaufman’s mother was starving her. Kaufman’s sister, Edith, speculated that she began her love affair with food in an attempt to ingratiate herself with their mother.

As a young lady, she began a romance and partnership with the owner of an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village called Portofino. When their relationship soured, Kaufman went uptown to start her own restaurant, also serving Italian fare.

“It was very difficult” to start a restaurant as a woman, Kaufman told the Forward. Banks “were used to lending money to men, not women.”

Kaufman saved, invested wisely and got Elaine’s off the ground. It quickly began attracting literary types. Kaufman would converse with these writers late into the night, and let them put their meals on long-standing tabs. She would cook scrambled eggs for them in the wee hours of the morning after her cook had gone home.

After 40 years, Kaufman is still involved in the day-to-day operation of her restaurant, where the menu has grown more eclectic. The black-haired Kaufman, with tremendous tinted glasses, a full face and brown eyes, typically sits at the bar or at one of the front tables, greeting her guests each night.

Hospitality aside, Kaufman’s toughness shines through even in a short interview. During a lull in conversation with a reporter, Kaufman said brusquely, “You’re not very good at interviewing people, are you?… Do you do many interviews?”

A woman then came into the restaurant and warmly greeted Kaufman. After the woman departed, Kaufman said, “That was Geraldo’s ex-wife. What a f–king fool he is.”

Rather than being a hindrance, however, her sass and acidity have helped romanticize Kaufman.

Director Robert Altman told Hotchner that when he first visited Elaine’s, he saw a rowdy customer giving a waiter a hard time. Kaufman marched up behind the customer, grabbed him by his scarf, yanked him out of his chair and dragged him out onto the street.

Kaufman smiled when remembering the story. “I haven’t done that in a while,” she said.

That chutzpah made Kaufman a hero for Altman. “I knew then and there that this was my kind of place,” Altman told Hotchner, “and I ought to make friends with that lady.”

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