My dad lived a couple of blocks from Elaine's for most of its storied existence. When I was a kid, always on the lookout for a new place to have lunch in his neighborhood, he'd pooh-pooh it. "It's a clip joint!" he'd say with sincere outrage. "And the food is lousy." Then he'd scornfully add, "All the hotshots go there." In my youthful ignorance, I had no idea that those "hotshots" could include, on any given night, everyone from Woody Allen to Jackie Onassis to Frank Sinatra. And writers, of course, always writers. Anybody who was anybody in the New York literary scene made the pilgrimage to figuratively (and sometimes literally, no doubt) kiss the ring of Elaine Kaufman, the outsized personality who made Elaine's into Elaine's.
As a young adult, I went there a few times. Indeed, it was overpriced. And the food was pretty bad. But of course the food wasn't the point. One went to Elaine's to stand next to a weaving David Halberstam in the men's room, whistling off-key while he took a leak, to try not to stare to obviously at Norman Mailer while he ate and drank and gesticulated (both of which I did), to spend an evening laughing and trading stories with Mick Jagger (which, OK, I never did), and of course to watch Elaine herself hold court with her people, both famous and unknown.
Elaine's without Elaine Kaufman was like the Sistine Chapel without the ceiling; when she died in 2010, it was only a matter of time before it died as well. Six months later, the place was history. But the scene she spawned was too big to die with her. Shortly after her death, a group of Elaine's regulars started the Table 4 Writers Foundation, named after Elaine's regular table, to continue her tradition of encouraging young creative types in general and writers in particular. "We couldn't recreate the restaurant, obviously, for obvious reasons, but we could continue the networking that had taken place," says foundation chairwoman Jenine Lepera Izzi.
It's a little different than the old days, of course; Kaufman nurtured writers by letting them run up tabs at her restaurant, while the foundation is giving out $2,500 grants to five lucky and talented recipients. And its second annual Awards Gala is taking place this Thursday at the swanky New York Athletic Club on Central Park South instead of the corner of 88th and 2nd, where Elaine's stood. But the spirit of generosity embodied by Kaufman will be the same. And a lot of the old regulars will be there as well, including Richard Dreyfuss, who's receiving the Elaine Legacy Award, and Chazz Palminteri, the recipient of the Table 4 Lifetime Achievement Award.
As for Elaine's itself, the space has been reborn as The Writing Room, a literary-themed restaurant with plenty of reminders of Elaine's glory days, as well as food that writers and non-literary types alike will hopefully enjoy rather than endure. The ghost of George Plimpton hasn't been spotted there yet, but it seems like it's just a matter of time.
For more information on the Table 4 Writers Foundation or to purchase tickets for the Awards Gala on March 27, visit www.table4.org.