Scenes from Flamingo East. Photo: Courtesy Flamingo East

For New York’s anniversary, we are celebrating the history of the city’s restaurants with a series of posts throughout the month. Read all of our “Who Ate Where” stories here.

In January 1999, I was 23 and living in a sixth-floor walk-up on Pitt Street (then the most aptly named street in lower Manhattan). To pay the rent, I waited tables four nights a week at Flamingo East on Second Avenue and East 13th Street. The restaurant had made a splash when it opened a decade earlier (and even was name-dropped in American Psycho). Much of the hype was thanks to its lanky, handsome, and surprisingly gentle owner, Darrell Maupin, who had risen through the ranks of the Odeon (as a waiter), Indochine (maître d’), and Canal Bar (manager). Many customers assumed the name was a winking homage to Flamingo, the legendary gay 1970s disco in Soho. In truth, Darrell had merely kept the name of the tacky previous tenant, which helped with the liquor license.

To enter, you wended through a giant mesh net to reach a low-ceilinged ground-floor dining room. The aesthetic was moody, futuristic Art Deco, lit like a tropical aquarium. The floor was a checkerboard, the banquettes gray leather, and purple lights lit the concrete columns. Upstairs, on what must have once been the parlor floor, was a cocktail bar with high ceilings embellished with the original molding of angels and cherubs. It was actually a mini dance club masquerading as a bar owing to New York’s strict cabaret laws. (No dancing, although by the restaurant’s last order, the ceiling pounded with the force of a full-blown dance party upstairs.) The menu reflected the era’s obsession with Asian fusion — spring rolls and fried-calamari appetizers battling more classic French entrées like duck confit. (The chef, Jacqueline Frazer, had been the first female executive sous-chef at New York’s St. Regis but had also weathered a tenure as Leona Helmsley’s personal chef.) The food was delicious, perhaps even excellent (what did I know, I was 23). Still, I got the impression that Darrell thought of the whole establishment as a renegade art project: Street artist Curtis Cuffie would often turn up for the five o’clock staff dinner years after exhibiting some of his sculptures in the upstairs lounge. The year I moved to the city, in 1996, a promoter named Fancy and an ill-fated feather-haired DJ named Penelope Tuesdae threw a dance party on Sunday nights called 999999s. Three years later, as I was waiting tables, Kiki & Herb performed their cabaret act upstairs. Popular gay nights like Chip Duckett’s Pop Rocks! and Gant Johnson’s Salon Wednesdays filled out the week. In the end, the success of Flamingo East as a club sucked the air out of the restaurant, which often served as a waiting room for the likes of Kate Moss (the night I served her, she only ordered water) and Marc Jacobs.

Darrell shouldn’t have hired me. I had zero experience working in high-end restaurants. The previous summer, I had served at a 24-hour Israeli dive on St. Marks Place, mostly serving keyed-up club kids plates of tabouli during the graveyard shift (the bathroom had red lighting to prevent junkies from finding a vein when shooting up and consequently passing out on the toilet with the door locked). I did not know how to select the best wine or, for that matter, open it without clamping it between my thighs and yanking violently on the cork. But he had a creed: If a person came in and had something special about them but didn’t know it, he would hire them. And so the staff was a tight band of weirdos: a bald, skeletal Alexander McQueen model; a talented theater actor who would go on to make his fortune as Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” guy. The rest of the waiters were like me, poor, too in love with New York for our own good, unsure of what we’d be doing in three months, hardly caring, happy to please.

By summer, I was gone, burned out on restaurant work. New York was changing rapidly. It was the last year before the new millennium, and the next wave of “It” restaurants was opening in former warehouses in West Chelsea. Everyone wanted cavernous spaces, open kitchens, massive crowds, Hollywood celebrities. Flamingo East closed in 2000 when Darrell was bought out by an entrepreneur who wanted to rejigger the space as a posh piano bar. Darrell had also experienced a burnout, at least on the shores of lower Manhattan. He taught English in the Bronx before moving to Mombasa, Kenya, to teach there. A few years later, he opened a successful nightclub in Tanzania before eventually returning to New York. There was a whole slew of reasons he finally let the Flamingo loose, but I like to think Darrell had been a showman of the old downtown tradition: Do it until the fun stops.

See All