In my college days when I used to get to the City a lot I spent most of my time in the East Village. The friends I stayed with were theater types and we never wandered far from the off-off-Broadway precincts where they worked and went to school. Which was fine by me. There was a whole world there that I never came close to completely exploring. I don't think I ever made it much closer to New Jersey than Washington Square Park in those days, let alone all the way to the West Village.
So when, in answer to my demand that someone name a place where we could get coffee and dessert and sit and talk in relative peace and quiet, a modest, unassuming voice said, "Florent," I had no idea where or what Florent was and in accepting the suggestion, for all I knew, I was about to navigate us into a leather bar or an Italian social club or another, pretentious, trendoid hot spot like the place we'd just left.
And looking down into the shoebox of darkness that's Ganesvoort at 11 o'clock at night was not reassuring. There looked to be nothing alive and awake down there except for a lone slim-figured female in a party dress with a puffed out skirt, wobbling drunkenly on her high heels into the deeper darkness of an overpass half a block on. I was half-inclined to give up on Florent then and there but I decided we'd better follow the girl at least until she was out from under the overpass. Besides thinking we might need to rush to her rescue from hands reaching out from the shadows, I was hoping she would lead us to Florent.
We didn't, and she didn't, but the sharper-eyed member of our party spotted lighted windows shining between the parked cars and trucks on our right. The drunken girl turned a corner into the light on Washington Street and we crossed the street to see what was what behind those windows.
The steel lettering over the awning that spanned the storefront spelled out R & L Restaurant, but there was a small pink neon sign in the window. florent.
Now at this point in my narrative I should be beginning my own description of Florent. I could do it, although all I have to work from in my notebooks is:
Ancient Chinese busboys.
Very tall, very thin, very light-skinned, very handsome, very gay black waiter with a shaved head, wearing Hawaiian shirt and rimless glasses.
Fortunately, Donald Westlake did all the work for me. Serendipity strikes! Last night I read this in Drowned Hopes:
At three in the morning, the only action on two-block-long Ganesvoort Street, in the middle of the wholesale meat section of Manhattan, south of Fourteenth Street in the far West Village, is Florent, a good twenty-four-hour-a-day French bistro operating in an old polished-chrome-and-long-counter diner. The diner's short end is toward the street, so the counter and tables run straight back under the vivid lights, with hard surfaces that bounce and echo the noise of cheerful conversation. While all around this one building the meat packers and wholesale butchers are closed and silent and dark, the bone trucks all empty and hosed down for the night, and the metal gates closed over the loading docks, the cars and limousines still wait clustered in front of the warm bright lights of the bistro, which seems at all times to be filled with animated talking laughing people who are just delighted to be awake now.
Westlake wrote that in the late 1980s, but nothing much has changed. There were no limos out front, that's about the only difference. And Westlake didn't mention the blueberry pie, which was terrific.
But his last point is still Florent's best feature, the place was full of animated talking laughing people delighted to be awake right then.
Including and especially me.