In 1963, a hearty Greenwich Village restaurateur named Elaine Kaufman pulled up stakes, headed north and set up camp in a former Austro-Hungarian bar on the Upper East Side.
The restaurant that she created on Second Avenue and that bore her name became a world-famous destination for writers, actors, sports figures and an eclectic mix of others.
The magic of Elaine’s — celebrated in song, film and print — began with Elaine, a Manhattan native raised in Queens and the Bronx who had a voracious appetite for reading and adventure. A complicated personality, Elaine could be coquettish and cantankerous, caring and crusty, loving and stern — and generous. Her domain, with its pictures of customers, framed book jackets, dark walls and wonderfully dim lighting, evolved as a locale for stimulating conversation, unequaled people-watching and table-hopping, crowded book parties and just plain fun. Elaine was the catalyst. She created the atmosphere, and she knew whom she wanted in her circle. “I just introduce people to each other when it seems right,” she once told The New York Observer. “It’s about me paying attention.”
With her Yankees World Series earrings, colorful custom-made dresses and owlish glasses, Elaine was a ubiquitous presence at her establishment for more than 47 years. Known for her rapid-fire one-liners, she enjoyed listening to interesting people — and she encouraged others to do the same. “You might learn something,” she’d say. Regulars depended on Elaine’s. As Gay Talese wrote in The New York Times in 1993 to mark the restaurant’s 30th anniversary, “Among other things, Elaine’s is a therapy center, a halfway house for husbands between wives, a late-night talk show without cameras and microphones or commercial interruptions, a place that caters to the nocturnal needs and nourishments of many New Yorkers who, as evening approaches, are not sure with whom they wish to dine, or with whom they wish to sleep after they dine, or even if they wish to sleep.” Described by The Times as a “salty den mother” who became a symbol of the city, Elaine died on Dec. 3, 2010, at the age of 81. Less than six months later, the restaurant closed.
Elaine’s spirit lives on. She created a community.