Ella Funt In The Room
NYC’s storied first home for drag queens (and kings) is now a spicy French boîte on the Lower East Side.
Sitting at a table in the neo-French bistro, Ella Funt, might have you wondering: “Exactly how many drinks have I had?” The Picnic in the Garden cocktail is insanely refreshing, with vodka, cucumber, St. Germain, lemon mint and sparkling sake . . . but wait, the bookcase looks seriously crooked and the ceiling is slanted.
The chefs in the pass-through kitchen are glowing purple, and are surrounded by tilted displays of disco balls, bottles and books. There’s a huge, colorful mural on one wall that includes a man with an axe, a beehive, a crow, and a skull, and the mirrors on the opposite wall suggest a fun house. Fortunately, this all looks exactly the same even if you’re sober.
“I had the idea of a wonky bookcase,” says Lounez Mazouz, Director of Operations. “The purple lighting is really random. We had a DJ for the Met Gala party here on May first, and he wanted it, and we just kept it that way.”
The scene is currently very see-and-be-seen, with no fewer than four women wearing LBDs in attendance, canoodling couples at tables, and a bar allowing for huddled conversation, but the additional draw will be live performances in the downstairs space. “Probably in February 2024,” says Mazouz, allowing for construction delays.
Once known as Club 82, the space has a long and colorful history as one of the very first drag venues, (female impersonators performed, drag kings were the waitstaff) operating from the 1930s through the 1960s. Originally opened by notorious mobster Vito Genovese, and run by his bisexual wife Anna, it’s hard to imagine celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Lancaster, Liberace and Tennessee Williams coming down to this forever-seedy slice of East 4th Street and Second Avenue, but they did: Diane Arbus photographed some of the performers in the late 1950s, and Salvatore Dali was so taken with a somewhat portly drag queen named Ella, that he christened her Ella Funt, hence the name of the restaurant.
However, when the Stonewall Inn burst upon the burgeoning gay liberation scene in the early 1970s, the club went into decline. It had brief incarnations as a disco, a punk club, and in the 1990s, as a gay porn theater and backroom club before closing in 2019. Carrying on the new cabaret torch in the reborn Club 82 downstairs will be Reginald Robson, Ella Funt’s show director.
The menu is limited, but the plates, all quite small, are wonderfully crafted by Chef Nick Koustefanou, a young, white-hot talent whose resume includes the Michelin-starred Nix, Le CouCou, and Kissaki, among many others. He brings an Asian perspective to classic French: there’s uni on a baguette with burrata and scallion jam and a raviolo with a lovely soft egg yolk inside with spinach and garlic. But the croquettes de cochon with a dipping sauce of Comté and mayo moutarde will have you flagging down a waiter for another serving. The tarte au citron is beautifully lemony, and refreshingly brisk. It’s all perfect for a pre-performance meal or late night snacks.
Mazouz grew up in France and London, immersed in the restaurant business. His father, Mourad Mazouz, is the owner of the three-Michelin-starred Sketch, the Lecture Room & Library in Mayfair, among other properties. In addition to gaining experience in the culinary scene, Lounes, (who worked for a time in the kitchen at Sketch, “plates thrown, very manly,” he says) made quite a few friends in the art world, and eventually decided front of house, or “the floor,” as he puts it, was his calling.
One friend, the artist Marcus Jamal, “loved the idea of painting a mural.” And Annabelle Karim Kassar, the renowned Lebanese architect and artist, is a childhood friend who also designed the interior. The idea of a cabaret/performance space is perfect for this particular block, which is also home to La Mama New York Theater Workshop, and the literary themed bar KGB.
When Mazouz first told his father about his plan to go into the restaurant business, he said, “Do not do this job, ever! Run away!” Mazouz shrugs. “Since the age of four, I was a fish in this sea.”
Hero photo of Picnic in a Garden cocktail by Seth Caplan