Photo via Lucien's image gallery.

An Oral History of Lucien, the New York Art World's Go-To Bistro

Jade Berreau, Christopher Hitchens, Sam McKinniss, and more share their memories of the restaurant's owner, Lucien Bahaj, who passed away in July.

by Nate Freeman
|
Aug 12 2019, 6:18pm

Photo via Lucien's image gallery.

At First Avenue and First Street in Manhattan’s East Village is the bistro Lucien. Lucien is a beacon for artists and their dealers, authors, fashion designers, actors, rock stars, academics, museum curators, nightlife impresarios, journalists, models, downtown fixtures—they all call Lucien home, lingering for hours over a menu that has never changed. (The restaurant, rather poetically, lists no closing time.) Its importance as a bonafide institution has everything to do with Lucien Bahaj, the Morocco-born New Yorker who opened the gem of a restaurant in 1998 and nurtured its scene. He was as generous with bar tabs, for starving artists, as free-flowing conversation. The garrulous spirit of Lucien Bahaj made his restaurant the city’s essential creative boîte of this young century.

On July 29, at the age of 74, Lucien Bahaj passed away. The restaurant will remain open to serve steak frites and ice cold martinis under the stewardship of Bahaj’s son, Zac, and Lucien’s wife, Phyllis. To honor the memory of Lucien, here is an oral history of his immortal spot, as told by a few of the people who have been going by for years. They very well might be sitting in that golden-hued dining room right now. Probably at table nine.

Lucien opened at 14 First Avenue on October 17, 1998. Bahaj, who previously worked at art world hangouts such as Indochine and Mr. Chow, told a food critic for the New York Daily News that he chose the address for his restaurant because the Lower East Side was more beautiful than the Mediterranean coast—to which the critic responded, “Personally, I’d rather look out the window of a villa than a tenement.” But it was a quick hit. In November 1998, Time Out New York wrote, “Barely a month old, Lucien has already reinvigorated the southern tip of First Avenue.”

CARLO MCCORMICK, ART CRITIC: 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. 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.

JADE BERREAU, MODEL AND MAGAZINE EDITOR: My first memory was when Lucien first opened. I was having dinner with Rene Ricard and my mother. Lucien was in admiration of Rene. That’s when I realized right away how unique the restaurant was. Lucien was involved in a way that went beyond restaurateur. He genuinely cared about the people he was hosting, he always made sure our glasses were filled and our hearts were full.

LIA GANGITANO, FOUNDER, PARTICIPANT INC GALLERY: For anyone whoever felt that they arrived to New York City too late, that they missed it, Lucien made you feel like you arrived right on time. Rene Ricard, Taylor Mead, Ellen Cantor, Dash Snow, Lutz Bacher, my dad, all equal stars around Lucien’s table. He saw us. Something in us. He fed us.

BERREAU: We spent hours there. From that night on it became a place that I knew I could rely on coming to, no matter what my mood.

As it became a venerable clubhouse for writers and artists, Bahaj began the practice of taking pictures of regulars and placing them on the wall. The wall became a hallowed guestbook, and a picture on it was a sort of coronation for downtown denizens.

SARAH MORRIS, ARTIST: There were always a diverse crowd there; curators, journalists, artists, filmmakers and then, of course, there are the photos which function as the ghosts of the past. A favorite is the photo of Christopher Hitchens next to the vertical light above my favorite corner booth.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, WRITER: ( Writing in Vanity Fair about Lucien) Decency forbids me from mentioning where I ate lunch, because the proprietor is an old friend and a beautiful and conscientious restaurateur and I can’t risk having him treated like a fractious juvenile. On September 11, 2001, he turned his place into a casualty-treatment station and general refuge, and he does everything he can think of to make his guests welcome and well fed.

MORRIS: There is also a photo of me standing on the banquet.

ALEX LOGSDAIL, LISSON GALLERY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: I have eaten there at least 200 times over the years, and I have—by my last count—three photos on the wall, which I am very proud of.

MCCORMICK: It is easy and tempting to list all the fabulously famous and infamous people who’ve similarly made a home for themselves there over the past twenty years, but for me it was a peculiar kind of family restaurant no matter how hip or beautiful the crowd often was.

SAM MCKINNISS, ARTIST: I often think about how funny the ad copy for Olive Garden is. It’s like, "when you're here, you're family." Can you imagine if the Olive Garden held a family reunion for everybody that's ever in their life ordered spaghetti from Olive Garden? That's kind of how I feel about eating at Lucien. When I'm there, I'm family. And I don't even like family that much if we're being honest.

LOGSDAIL: It was the place I first met Marina Abramovic, first time I met endless curators and artists. I have endless memories of dinners with artists—Jonas Mekas, Ai Weiwei, Douglas Gordon, Allora & Calzadilla, Gerard Byrne, Michel Auder, Dan Graham, Vito Acconci, Dash Snow and countless others. Most of which are still on the wall today.

DAVID VELASCO, EDITOR IN CHIEF OF ARTFORUM: I go to Lucien because my friends go to Lucien and their friends go to Lucien and sometimes some of their enemies, and it’s good to see your friends and their friends and good to remind your enemies that you aren’t too afraid to leave the house from time to time. Oh, and everyone there is either a legend or a wannabe, which feels like New York in a book.

GANGITANO: Lunches, dinners, photo shoots, opening parties, meetings, introductions, birthdays, memorials, cocktails were shared in what Lucien made us feel was our living room, office, and HQ.

LOGSDAIL: Having bounced around multiple jobs in New York and generally scraping by on very little money, I ended up waiting tables for Lucien at a moment when I was particularly broke. It lasted a week. I was a terrible waiter, I knew it, Lucien knew it, all the staff and customers knew it on day one. But he gave me a week before telling me not to come back to work.

Certain art world luminaries, such as Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg and the late Anthology founder Jonas Mekas, became fixures of the place.

MORRIS: Favorite memories of Lucien’s? It’s not possible to list as there are so many. Lunches with Jonas Mekas, Douglas Gordon, relaxed brunches post the Russian baths when no one else is there, late night drinks, and, of course, the occasional lock-ins before we would head out into the night.

JAMES FUENTES, FOUNDER, JAMES FUENTES GALLERY: A memory that stands out is celebrating Jonas's birthday at The Pink Pony, which was owned by Lucien Bahaj one Christmas eve. Late into the night, like a shaman, Jonas got everyone in the room to start chanting and drumming, it was euphoric. At some point later, I happened to take mushrooms that Spencer Sweeney gave me. Things got crazy when Gary Indiana—he had cheetah pattern hair dye at the time—tried to smash a wine bottle on Jonas's head because Jonas was calling Gary an old man. (Gary was trying to crash the party, and he is probably 30 years younger than Jonas). I proceeded to tackle Gary with a friend to save Jonas, and wrestled him outside.

MCKINNISS: I always try to get the table that RoseLee Goldberg likes near the window, because then she makes you get up and move so she can sit there. The staff is so accommodating of RoseLee Goldberg. It's so funny to me, but, like, I get it. She's there because she's family. What are you gonna do.

Often, the best time to go to Lucien is in the late afternoon, before the crowds arrive.

LOGSDAIL: I started going to Lucien for dinner, then lunch and even breakfast on the weekends. Often lunch would turn in to dinner and Lucien would never ask you to leave or make room for new guests. He wanted you to stay as long as possible and pried you with a nice bottle of Bordeaux in order that you stay and be comfortable.

BERREAU: I spent many afternoons sitting there for hours and drinking wine. Friends would come in and out. It was always comforting to know that I could walk in any afternoon and see Lucien.

MCKINNISS: My favorite thing to do at Lucien is to arrive around 4pm for a late lunch, and then secure the spot through the evening rush, right on through cocktails, dinner, coffee, and dessert. I've done that a handful of times. Usually, what I do is get a seat at the bar with a friend or my sister to order steak frites and two or three Manhattans for supper.

Lucien Bahaj closed his second restaurant, The Pink Pony, in 2013, citing his ill health, and in recent years spent much of his time in Florida. He handed control of all restaurant operations to his son, Zac, who has become a fixture in the New York art world, cultivating a youthful crown that keep the place packed until midnight every night, servers wheeling out perfectly crisp fries well past normal dinner hours. And while Lucien Bahaj is gone, his namesake restaurant isn’t going anywhere.

LOGSDAIL: Lucien seemed like an immortal figure that would just be there forever. It’s hard to imagine the nexus of the East Village universe existing without his daily presence, though his vision will live on.

MORRIS: Lucien would always hold my hand as we talked; A solidarity of artists. I thought of him that way. The restaurant was a controlled experiment in my mind.

ROSELEE GOLDBERG, FOUNDER, PERFORMA: Just two weeks ago, Lucien and I were sitting on the bench at Table Six, the early evening sun streaming through the window, our heads bent towards one another in conversation. I mostly listen, nod, smile, and we both look straight ahead. Always alert, assessing situations, signaling instructions. Sitting with Lucien is a lesson in hospitality, in maintaining standards, shaping conversations, or starting them at least.

ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, AUTHOR: Memories of the great New York hang-outs, not being acquired at your desk, but at a table or the bar, tend to be a comforting blur, a sense of time spent right in the right company. Some memories though accidents of timing and/or casting become permanent embeds—and so it has been for me at Lucien’s.

ALEX ZAPAK, ARTIST: Lucien deserves the title as a 'patron of the arts' far more than any billionaire donating to the Met. He went on to create and curate what I believe is one of the last great informal art salons.

MORRIS: Lucien was always curious and asked a lot of questions no matter to who it was. The questions were always intelligent and with a twinkle in his eye, cherishing and devouring the stories with an indexical smile.

GANGITANO: A true host, Lucien observed everything, attended everyone, and manifested the horizontal plane that made downtown New York City downtown New York City. Love of art, books, artists, writers, film, poetry fueled his enterprise, and space was always made for our forebears as well as the next generation, seating us very close together, as if to actualize Ricard’s painted words on the wall of the Pink Pony: “Please hold me the forgotten way.”

BERREAU: He was a listener and extremely generous in his conversation. He brought the art of gathering to downtown. He won the heart of an entire downtown New York generation.

GOLDBERG: Lucien made a place for people to gather. Writers, artists, conversationalists, many of us every week, others intermittently, but always with unfathomable pleasure. His grace and originality is the mainspring of his carefully constructed world. Zac absorbed Lucien in his full glory, but follows his lead in his own inimitable way. How beautiful that he and Phyllis have a third Bahaj in place, loved as dearly as is his father. Thank you, Lucien.

Here is a poem written by Gerard Malanga:

Lucien, Lucien!

You’re gone without a goodbye always a hello

and bear-hug,

waiting on my steak-frites,

a sauvignon blanc,

amidst your ambiance you’ve made world-famous

and made for me a home away from home

and for that kiss of yours, the eternal greeting.

The love we’ve had for each other

through food & drink, the light & dark

and something deeper,

coming from the heart.

The camaraderie of the years I’ve stopped counting.

The sunlight arcing its way through your antique windows.

The golden hour,

the dusky dusk,

poems written on table cloths,

on the cracking peeling walls.

The chilled wines opened like your heart.

Your glowing smile,

your glowing timelessness.