Elaine Kaufman: Restaurateur whose eponymous restaurant was the favoured meeting place for New York's high society

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The Independent Online

The 1979 Billy Joel song caught it exactly: "They were all impressed with your Halston dress / and the people you knew at Elaine's."

Elaine Kaufman was the quintessential New Yorker. Elaine's, her Upper East Side restaurant, was the centre of the universe for her and many of her customers, not so much an eatery as her salon where, almost incidentally, you got a bill before you left to go home. Woody Allen filmed a scene of Manhattan there, and before her death on 3 December she had made a cameo appearance in the new film Morning Glory, with Rachel MacAdams, Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton.

In a 2006 Vanity Fair profile of Elaine, AE Hotchner (Hemingway's biographer and author of the 40th anniversary tribute volume Everyone Comes to Elaine's) listed some of her regular guests: Joe DiMaggio, Lucille Ball, Warren Beatty, Walt Frazier, Ken Noland, Bobby Short, Marlon Brando, Woody Allen, Ingrid Bergman, George Steinbrenner, Andy Warhol, Lillian Hellman, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, and Noël Coward. He relates how when Imelda Marcos came to dinner, six armed men stationed themselves atop nearby buildings. She enjoyed herself, Elaine said, "because Andy Warhol was there, and she owned some of his stuff."

On another occasion Albert Finney, rehearsing his dance routine for Annie, "lined up all my waiters and told them if they didn't dance with him they were 'poofters'." Jackie Kennedy had her first night out after her mourning period at Elaine's. Dancing to the jukebox music with her were Leonard Bernstein, Richard Avedon, George Plimpton, Susan Sontag, Adolph Green and Betty Comden.

Born at 140th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where her Jewish immigrant father had a dry-goods store (as distinct from hardware and groceries), she moved with the family to Queens when the Depression hit. Elaine, for whom obesity was a chronic problem, was underweight as a child, and had a struggle with her mother about food. After a stay in hospital, she gave in and ate whatever her mother put in front of her, "to avoid being put back in the hospital." It was a pattern that was to repeat itself, when, in the 1980s, weighing 356lb, she entered a weight control unit at St Luke's and lost 210lb. But she gained it all back rapidly when she married an abusive Liverpudlian, and ate to please him. Years of psychoanalysis clarified, but did not cure, her eating problems: "It all became related to acceptance."

Though a voracious reader, and obviously intelligent, Elaine was never much good at schoolwork, and did not even consider going to university. Instead she worked at a variety of jobs, including selling cosmetics at the Astor Pharmacy, stamps at Gimbels, being a hat-check girl, and doing market research legwork, until she met an Italian immigrant, Alfredo Viazzi. When they began living together, he convinced her she would be a good waitress; and, indeed, she found she enjoyed describing food so as to make it interesting to the customer, assessing her guests' moods (it "came naturally to me"), and the subsequent banter. Alfredo finally got a divorce from his wife back in Italy, but Elaine's analyst talked her out of marrying him. Together they bought the restaurant where they worked, but it ended in a fight, in which, she said, "I smashed every glass and plate in the place."

She began to look for a place of her own, and settled on a run-down Austro-Hungarian bar in a working-class neighbourhood in Yorkville, at 88th Street and Second Avenue. She found a partner, Donald Ward, who matched the $5,000 she put up (with a loan from her much older sister, Edith), and Elaine's opened in 1963.

Hotchner described her as "the last of the great saloonkeepers," a type well known in New York, from Texas Guinan in the 20s, through Sherman Billingsley at the Stork Club, Vincent Sardi and Joe Allen. "Elaine's saloon, which began as a refuge for struggling writers," Hotchner wrote, "has a menu that makes food critics blanch, décor that will never get into Architectural Digest, prices that rival those of the Four Seasons, waiters as frantic as traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and an autocratic reservation system based on whimsy and privilege." Alan King said that the place was "decorated like a stolen car."

Elaine herself often sat precariously on a stool at the edge of her 25-foot mahogany bar, from where she presided over the table arrangements. New customers, or those she didn't like the look of, were liable to be sent to "Siberia" at the back or in the adjacent room, though there were plenty of empty tables on "the line", the row of tables that followed the right wall of the main room, all visible from the entrance. These were kept for valued regulars, whether they had booked or not. And if you were favoured, Elaine would actually sit at your table.

The inner room is called the Paul Desmond Room, for the jazz alto saxophonist of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, a legendary wit who died in 1977. It was used for private parties, and non A-listers who were banished there. My wife and I often dined with our great friends in New York, who had been introduced to Elaine by Paul Desmond, so our table was a good one on the line, and Elaine invariably sat with us, sometimes to the consternation of envious diners at other tables who, hearing our non-native accents, asked "Who they hell are they?"

On one such occasion, as my wife opened her birthday presents, which included a set of wooden spoons from me, a man at the next table heckled: "I'd divorce him if I were you." Elaine's frown shut him up for the rest of the evening. Our host, who believes that life is too short to drink non-classed growth claret, ran up considerable monthly bills at Elaine's; the distinction of the wine list was attributed to Woody Allen's tastes.

In fact the food at Elaine's was much better than the published restaurant guides allowed. The celebrated food writer, Barbara Kafka, says the place "serves the best veal chop in New York." It is a huge piece of meat, not an anaemic white, but properly aged and as flavourful as it is robust. The pasta is always good, as are the salads and generous desserts. Generosity was the hallmark of Elaine's food, which was unaffected by fashion or trends. On the other hand, though the neighbourhood was not posh, an imported bottle of beer at the bar cost an impressive $7, when that was serious money.

Elaine's was really a sort of club. She extended credit to her favourite writers, as she understood their insecure finances. Her gang included Gay Talese, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo and the important magazine editor Clay Felker. The film, theatre and television people came because they wanted to meet the literary types, and they in turn attracted sports people (Elaine was said to have three New York Yankees World Series souvenir rings), politicians and the inevitable gossip columnists. Elaine's was the setting for an annual Oscar-night party.

Of course celebrities made all the noise: "Everyone stood up and applauded," she remembers, as Luciano Pavarotti entered the restaurant; Mick Jagger caused a stir, as did Rudolf Nureyev; and Willie Nelson "kissed all the women at the bar." She once told a first-time customer who asked the way to the Gents: "Take a right at Michael Caine." Artists Robert Motherwell and his then wife Helen Frankenthaler were regulars, and Elaine Stritch spent a summer as a bartender. There were famous fights, including an arm-wrestling competition featuring Norman Mailer – which went very wrong, and resulted in the novelist writing an unflattering letter to his hostess. She scribbled "boring, boring, boring" across it and returned it. Mailer vowed never to come again to Elaine's, but was back a day or two later.

Though Elaine's was a celebrity hang-out, she was always more partial to writers, whose framed book jackets adorned the walls. Barbara Kafka insists that "the point of Elaine was her intelligence and good taste. She attracted people with a ready wit, and Elaine's was one of the few places in New York where journalists were treasured. And her clothes were beautiful."

Property deals made her a wealthy woman. As the New York Times reported: "I've lived just about the most perfect life," Kaufman said in 1998. "I've had the best time. If I wanted to do something, I did it. Designers designed my clothes and did my apartment. I had house seats for the theater. I was invited to screenings and book parties. I've had fun. What else can you ask in life?"

Elaine Edna Kaufman, restaurateur: born Manhattan 10 February 1929;married 1980 Henry Ball (divorced 1984, died 2001); designated in 2003 a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy; died Manhattan 3 December 2010.