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Cirque de Sirio: as the Opulent New York Bistro Turns 20, King Sirio Tells All -- Why Le Cirque is Still the Big Top, and Why it's There to Stay

"Don't promise anyone anything," Sirio Maccioni is saying with a note of concern. That might sound like a credo on successful restaurateuring, but he is admonishing a member of Le Cirque's staff to handle the day's lunch crowd delicately. This was one...

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"Don't promise anyone anything," Sirio Maccioni is saying with a note of concern. That might sound like a credo on successful restaurateuring, but he is admonishing a member of Le Cirque's staff to handle the day's lunch crowd delicately. This was one of the two days this month when, as part of the restaurant's 20th anniversary, Le Cirque offered the same lunch menu as when it first opened -- prices and all. That means you could get a terrine of vegetables, gigot d'agneau and clafoutis de fruit, all for $12.75.

More than 200 people (among them Alice Mason, Edmond and Lily Safra, Mark Hampton, Beverly Sills and David Dinkins) have reservations -- too many, sighs Sirio. The restaurant seats about 100. If seating that legion for lunch is going to be a tightrope act, Sirio and his staff anticipate turning cartwheels to handle the crowd of 1,400 who RSVP'd to Wednesday night's extravaganza at Le Cirque and the adjoining lobby of the Mayfair Hotel. At a restaurant famous for pleasing presidents and kings, just any flowers won't do, nor will any old security guard. The master seemed nervous. "The guard has to know how to talk to people," says Sirio to a manager. "And wear a jacket."

Sirio Maccioni has more an overcrowded gala on his mind. These days he isn't comfortable with Le Cirque's image as an expensive, exclusive spot.

"This is not a pretentious restaurant, this is a pleasant restaurant," he says, offering the prix fixe lunch menu as an example. "When I began this place, it was to be an excellent neighborhood bistro. If you want foie gras and Chateau Lafitte you can have that, or if you want simple, unpretentious food you can have that too. I don't like trendy restaurants."

He doesn't like trendy restaurateurs either.

"I like the opera, I like a good book, but when I come here, I come here to sell soup. You don't have to be a genius to be a restaurateur -- if you were intelligent, you wouldn't be a restaurateur. Today, it's fashionable for a restaurateur to have five or six restaurants instead of one. I think they are great entrepreneurs. I think that nowadays people understand mediocrity more than quality. No one comes to New York and asks what's good -- they just ask what's new." Sirio is fed up with those customers who feel that eating at Le Cirque is some kind of sin.
"Fifteen years ago, people were hiring public relations people to tell the press that they were having lunch at Le Cirque. Now, these people come in and say, 'Sirio, please, don't tell anyone I'm here.' I think it's time again to be positive."

A phone call from Mayor Giuliani's secretary interrupts, and Sirio throws up his hands. "If the mayor wants to come, he can come," he says, reluctantly taking the call. "I like the mayor," Sirio says afterward. "Not because I like his politics. His father is from Montecatini, like my father. I never judge on politics -- Richard Nixon was here for dinner on Friday, and he was such a nice man! Now, I wasn't too fond of what he did, but I believe that we all do things wrong sometime. Half of Italy is in jail!"

Nothing provokes Sirio's ire more than criticism for being overpriced.

"Last night, I went to a so-called restaurant on Second Avenue where I had an overcooked bowl of pasta for $19, two pieces of veal for $22, and there was not a flower, no person in a jacket. I spend $50,000 a year on flowers -- do you think I do that for me? I do it for everybody who comes here."

Sirio has a word or two for people who think they don't get enough attention.

"I am here, my sons are here...are we supposed to improvise la commedia divina for everyone who comes to lunch? Of course not. How does someone who owns five restaurants give everyone personal attention? I am here six days a week, 14 hours a day."

Sirio is the first to admit that he needs more time off, and his three sons, Marco, Mario and Mauro, will soon be helping out more, in addition to opening their own restaurant on West 55th Street.

"It will basically be the polar opposite of this place," says Mario. "Whereas this is more of a dinner place, ours will be more for lunch. We found a space in a clean, modern building and it's being designed by Adam Tihany. We wanted it to be colorful and exciting, no dress code, for a younger crowd."
Few young restaurateurs are better equipped for success.

"They know every president, every king," sighs their father. "They have much more opportunity than I did."

Still, his Le Cirque is "20 years young," as the announcement has it, and Sirio isn't afraid of going out of fashion.

"I try to create a beautiful place at a reasonable price," he says, "like Le Bernardin, Lutece, La Grenouille...there are people who go to France and say, 'This is paradise.' Well, we have brought paradise to New York."
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