Artist Clayton Patterson on the man behind Lucien bistro, where everyone is a superstar.
I can only imagine what it was like to be a part of Gertrude Stein’s famous salons, but, for me, sharing a plate at Lucien Bahaj’s table had to be a comparable public experience. You never knew who you might meet or what creator—famous, infamous, or just an inspiring player—might walk through the door and join the conversation: from A-listers like Lady Gaga, Tilda Swinton, A$AP Rocky, Ryan Gosling, and Lenny Kravitz, to countless avant-garde cultural figures like Jonas Mekas, Dash Snow, Gary Indiana, Eric N. Mack, Kerby Jean Raymond. Many of these visits are immortalized through the photographs that cover the restaurant’s walls.
Lucien—who passed away on July 29—saw flowing conversation as a vital ingredient, and one he could conjure simply by combining the right voices. When the magic happened, creative ventures would just naturally fall into place. One time, Al Orensanz had asked me to help his brother Angel secure a screening at Anthology Film Archives. Jonas [Mekas], a regular, entered and sat down at Lucien’s table, and I mentioned the request. Jonas said, ‘Call the Anthology and tell them what and when and it is done.’ Poof. Magic.
Lucien was born in Morocco in 1945, and grew up in the South of France. By working at luxurious hotels and restaurants, he learned the etiquette, dress, and social mannerisms of their elite clientele. He refined his social skills in New York, becoming a player in the city’s ’70s and ’80’s nightlife scene by working at places like Indochine. It was always his New York dream to open a French-style restaurant, one that served quality food with sophisticated service, in his own idealized image. He opened Lucien French bistro at 14 1st Avenue in 1998, and The Pink Pony, a more youth-oriented café that became a Lower East Side fixture, in 2001. Lucien’s dream was made possible with the help of Phyllis, his beautiful wife who was born in Little Italy and had the requisite business skills as well as the strength needed to survive in the tough New York restaurant market.
Lucien’s eatery was his art form and his performance space. Every day, he worked to perfect his art; tasting the food and wines, changing the spices and the mixtures, trying out different seating arrangements, and curating a selection of avant-garde reading material. To give the impression of an old-school establishment that had survived the test of time, the walls were given a distressed paint job, on top of which were hand-scripted poems painted by Rene Ricard. If Lucien wasn’t sitting inside, he would often be found by the entrance, always the gracious host who made sure his customers felt welcome.
With his signature hats and well-chosen casual clothes clothes, Lucien typically appeared relaxed and friendly, but make no mistake, he could quickly turn into a roaring lion, using words and street skills to maneuver trouble out the door—and trouble would leave knowing this was the right thing to do. He was a demanding boss, expecting the best out of his workers. It was not a job, it was a privilege to work there. If you survived, you would have acquired the skills to work anywhere. One of Lucien’s greatest joys in life was his son Zac—who has grown into a handsome man with the learned etiquette and special magic required to make Lucien hum along without his father. Zac, unlike Lucien, has also picked up some of Phyllis’s business savvy.
Lucien did—over time and with a lot of work—develop an elite clientele, but he was never arrogant. He would serve free meals to artists who were down on their luck. It was up to Phyllis to do the economics. It was Lucien’s job to find the right crowd, the combination of people who, as a whole, created that certain hum of pleasure and excitement—making everyone who walked through the door of feel alive and special in New York City. The Pink Pony, with louder music and faster food, created the same palpable feeling that anything was possible. You never knew what rare film may be screening in the establishment’s back room—an Anton Perich flick that hadn’t been seen since the days of Andy Warhol’s Factory, or a Taylor Mead-captured video performance that was normally locked in the MoMA vault. Or maybe it was Alex ‘The Countess’ Zapak working out the details of her new revolutionary punk band.
The area where Lucien opened Pink Pony—between Delancey and Houston, near where I live—was a dark, dangerous, drug-dealing zone, and Lucien brought in a bright, glowing, positive light. He created a ship that could carry a traveler to an intellectual wonderland filled with inspiring thoughts, ideas, and people. Besides fabulous food, he gave me joy and friendship. I learned so much from being around Lucien. He made me and so many others feel welcome and equal. He was one of a kind; a true New Yorker, a true LESer, and a true friend. I treasure all the memories he gave me and the photographs he allowed me to capture.
Clayton Patterson is a photographer, artist, and filmmaker who was the inspiration for Mark Cohen in Rent and the subject of the documentary ‘Captured.’