The first half of this documentary on restaurateur Sirio Maccioni has a home-movie quality that may cause some viewers to wonder if the story will ever evolve beyond a congratulatory tone that borders on that of an infomercial. But “Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven” — a portrait of a man who will not budge when it comes to executing his vision — finds its center in the second half, with Maccioni’s efforts to hold onto the reputation he developed in the 1970s, when Le Cirque was the most important restaurant in New York. The story is not particularly dramatic, and the appeal of this doc may well be limited to fans of New York and restaurant history.
“Le Cirque” is a story about stars. Initially, the stars are the celebrities and socialites who make the eatery a haven for the well-heeled. Toward the conclusion, when a new edition of the eatery has opened, the stars are the coveted ones that accompany reviews in the New York Times. A positive review in the Times accompanied by three stars is a mark of redemption in this story of an Italian immigrant whose empire is based on French classics.
At a time when the public’s fascination with eateries centers on kitchens, food purveyors and sources, “Le Cirque” is a reminder of a bygone era, when the front of the house ruled the roost and the owner was the draw. Maccioni made greeting guests into an art form, which allowed him to keep the doors open once the restaurant became known mostly for overpriced, poorly prepared traditional French food.
The docu opens with clips from Le Cirque’s heyday in the 1980s, featuring Maccioni on the TV shows of David Susskind and Regis Philbin, posing with chef Daniel Bouloud as they get four stars from the Times. Richard Nixon is at Le Cirque in the Palace Hotel in its prime; Henry Kissinger is there a month before it closes, with Maccioni soliciting advice on where to relocate.
Maccioni stays in the restaurant game to provide for his three sons, Mario, Marco and Mauro. Docs rarely come with a cast like this one, in which each person fits a specific — and limited — role. Mario controls Le Cirque’s expansion in places such as Las Vegas; dapper Mauro shadows dad’s every move; and middle child Marco accepts his role as a glorified waiter. Mom lives for the moments when the whole family is together.
Director Andrew Rossi assembles the story as if building a puzzle in quadrants, suggesting each section is just as important as the next. The story does not turn dramatic until conflicts arise over the new Le Cirque, and even those are hardly life-shattering. Coat-and-tie or no dress code? Haute cuisine or comfort food? The name of the bar? Since every problem appears to be solved by throwing money at it, there’s not much true conflict.
And when the joint finally opens — with an overbooked party in the rain — there’s little sense that any lessons have been learned, a point borne out by a two-star review in the Times. Eighteen months and a new chef later, the Maccionis receive that coveted third star, and the patriarch rides off — not dramatically, not necessarily at peace — on his bicycle in Italy.