Is Lucien the New Elaine’s?
Manhattan’s hottest reservation right now is an East Village bistro that opened in the ‘90s.
On any given night for 47 years, you could find literary mavens, financial scions, socialites, and actors rubbing shoulders at Elaine’s, the eponymous Upper East Side restaurant owned by Elaine Kaufman from 1963 to her death in 2010. Formerly located on 88th and 2nd Avenue, it was one of New York’s most enduring hotspots, one beloved by Frank Sinatra, Jackie Kennedy, Andy Warhol, movie stars, diplomats, authors, professional sports players, and politicians.
Billy Joel riffed about Elaine’s in his 1978 song “Big Shot.” Woody Allen, who claimed to have eaten at the same table every night for a decade, immortalized the restaurant in the opening scene of his movie Manhattan. And disgraced Oscar-winning film director Roman Polanski sued Vanity Fair UK for libel after it published an article saying he’d been seen seducing a woman there the night before he left for his wife Sharon Tate’s funeral.
You didn’t come to Elaine’s for the mid-tier Italian-American food. You came for the conversation, the people, and a chance to schmooze with the proprietress herself, a tough cookie with a brazen New York attitude who prioritized her regulars and tended to guests between chain smoking cigarettes. She was known for orchestrating a scene, mostly of authors who seemed to walk in the door as starving artists and leave as immensely successful writers. Winston Groom, for one, reportedly once ran up a bill of several thousand dollars and settled it after the success of his novel Forrest Gump.
“Elaine was there every night. And no one ever got to Elaine’s before 10:30 at night,” Lewis Lapham, the editor of Lapham’s Quarterly, recalled to Digital Party. “She liked to introduce people, she had one celebrity writer and a non-celebrity writer. An actor to a director. She took pleasure introducing people and in moving them up the ladder.”
Regulars were also always guaranteed a place to sit. “Even as the inner circle expanded, you were always guaranteed a chair at Table Four, the fourth table from the door, on the right,” says Lapham. “They’d always move a chair. That was the attraction. There were never credit cards. You could get a bill once a month. It was completely arbitrary. Elaine wanted to make it an hospitable, easygoing place where people could show up and be assured not only of a seat at the table but of running into someone they knew.”
Today, that sort of vibe is most often found at Lucien, a French bistro at 1st and 1st that’s attracted Manhattan’s cultural elite since it opened in 1998. Founded by the late Lucien Bahaj, who passed away in 2019, the East Village haunt carries many of the same qualities as Elaine’s: A cult-favorite hangout spot and and owners who cultivate an atmosphere that’s attracted famous artists, art-world denizens, filmmakers, writers, fashion designers, celebrities, and models. Many tables are held for regulars who pack the place almost every night.
Lucien’s success can be attributed to its late, eponymous founder, a Morocco-born host who excelled at curating an inviting atmosphere. The ambient, golden-hued space is intimate, with around a dozen tables and a long bar where people easily get lost in conversation over ice-cold martinis. The restaurant, now run by Lucien’s son, Zac, and his wife, Phyllis, draws a diverse mix of penniless and powerhouse creatives.
“Hearing the name Lucien immediately conjures up something, because people in the media and in fashion have made it their clubhouse,” says writer Nate Freeman, a Vanity Fair art columnist whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, The New York Times, and more. He’s been going to Lucien since 2010.
Like Elaine, Lucien ran his namesake restaurant as though he was hosting guests in his home. “Elaine’s had a bar in Greenwich Village and she always liked writers and actors,” says Lapham. “When she moved her restaurant uptown she wanted to build the same kind of clientele she’d had in the Village and the way she did that was find a circle of something like 30-50 writers and actors and she comped them. They could come and bring their friends and they would get no bill. It gave them an incentive to bring in their friends. That was the bait. And it worked.”
Lucien did the same on his East Village corner, often taking care of bar tabs and sitting down to speak with clients to learn more about their careers and dreams. “When I was a starving writer,” Freeman recalls, “Lucien basically told me, ‘Come at 5 p.m. I’ll be sitting at a table. Sit down, order whatever you want, it’s on me. I was one of many people he told that to. He just loved having conversations with people.”
Part of the bistro’s enduring allure is that the menu and decor have remained largely unchanged since it opened. Framed photographs of patrons through the years, many of the images taken by Lucien himself, line the walls from floor to ceiling. And the classic bistro-style food—traditional moules mariniére, French onion soup, steak frites, and escargot—are still consistently good.
“There’s a certain kind of scruffy, understated elegance, which to me screams of sophistication,” declares Euan Rellie, an investment banker who used to hang out at Elaine’s and has since become a Lucien regular. “There are so few places in New York these days that can do that.”
While it’s always been an under-the-radar, if-you-know-you-know type of spot, these days, the 24-year-old bistro is one of the toughest reservations to get. Partially thanks to TikTok and the avant-garde Dimes Square community, Lucien has been reinvigorated for Gen Z and millennial New Yorkers, many of whom linger for hours, sipping wine, negronis, and espresso martinis.
“When Lucien opened his modest French bistro in the late nineties, it was hardly any surprise that it became immediately popular as a social sanctuary for the last bohemian strains and cultural elite of the downtown scene,” art critic Carlo McCormick said in an oral history of Lucien in 2019. “For our little world, a bit befuddled by the rapidly changing shape of the city as it veered towards affluence and entitlement, it was simply where everyone went for nourishment of impeccable food and convivial conversation.”
Today, it’s no different. The restaurant’s publicist, Kaitlin Phillips, recently talked about creating “Table 0” there for herself—and her very social, well-connected 20- and 30-something friends—to use as their unofficial meeting spot. And, earlier this year, actress Julia Fox, a friend of Zac’s, celebrated her 32nd birthday at Lucien’s alongside then-boyfriend Kanye West, putting Lucien even further on the mainstream map.
“[Lucien’s has] a sophistication you can’t find anywhere else and it’s hard to document, but when you see it, you know it,” Rellie confirms. “It’s what an insider club in New York should be.”
Lucien is open daily from 10AM–midnight. It’s located at 14 1st Ave. If you can’t get a reservation, go early for a seat at the bar. luciennyc.com