Elaine’s, a venerable restaurant on New York City’s upper East Side, is closing in nine days after being open for 48 years. Elaine’s, in its heyday, was a hotspot place to be seen. Woody Allen played his clarinet there. Authors celebrated their books there. Celebrities went there to be seen. Elaine Kaufman — the “Elaine” in Elaine’s — died six months ago and now her namesake restaurant is following her to the grave.
The announcement had been dreaded by anxious regulars since Ms. Kaufman’s death, on Dec. 3, of complications from emphysema. She was 81.
“It’s kind of a cliché, but it really is the end of an era,” said Stephen McFadden, a regular at Elaine’s and an owner of another bar, McFadden’s Saloon, at 800 Second Avenue. “It was a full-blooded clubhouse. There isn’t a place in town that I think comes close to it right now, and as hard as the waiters and everyone tried to keep it going, it was like a wonderful candle that went out.”
When Elaine died, she left behind a legacy and a restaurant — and neither could survive without her. Does that make Elaine something to be honored or a business example to be avoided? Do we live our lives in only our own time, or is the greater value of us in what we choose to leave behind without direct tending?
Without Elaine at Elaine’s the restaurant had nothing special to offer. The food was ordinary. The atmosphere was smoky and intriguing — but only as long as Elaine was at the bar yelling at people. You went to Elaine’s to meet Elaine. You didn’t go to Elaine’s to be well-fed.
Five or six years before Elaine died, a group of investors wanted to buy the place — as long as Elaine remained a fixture in the restaurant. I find that fascinating information in light of the quick demise of Elaine’s six months after her death. Did those investors get cold feet and back out? Or did Elaine want to retain total control of her life that had become a restaurant and she rebuked their offer?
We die twice in a lifetime — first when our body dies and the second when the last person who remembers us dies. Perhaps in the cause of Elaine Kaufman, she was able to squeeze three deaths out of a single lifetime. Two down. One to go.
In some ways it’s a good thing that Elaine’s died with her. That way people can’t go in and talk about how things were different in the Old Days when she was around.
If Elaine had made the place more about the people who came to her restaurant and less about her — her legacy might have had a chance to live on without her.
Are you absolutely certain Woody Allen played his clarinet at Elaine’s? I know he played on most Monday nights at Michael’s Pub for many years and has since played at the Cafe Carlyle. Elaine’s was a relatively small restaurant and I don’t remember any stage or space set aside for live entertainment. It didn’t need live music. The entertainment at Elaine’s was watching the famous patrons.
I may not be correctly remembering what happened, Stephen, and I thank you for the correction.