Christy Turlington’s assistant and Kate Moss. Courtesy of Roy Liebenthal.

Christy Turlington’s assistant and Kate Moss. Courtesy of Roy Liebenthal.

Where Kate met John­ny: an oral his­to­ry of Café Tabac

A deep dive into Roy Liebenthal’s East Village restaurant that defined ’90s New York, from the regulars who made it rule.

The grav­i­ta­tion­al suck that Café Tabac had on New York’s glit­terati in the ear­ly-to-mid 90s was such that it hoovered The Trin­i­ty of super­mod­els – Lin­da Evan­ge­lista, Christy Turling­ton and Nao­mi Camp­bell – through its doors almost every night. It’s the place where you would be guar­an­teed to see them squeezed around the restaurant-bar’s small blue tables, apa­thet­i­cal­ly pick­ing over pedes­tri­an food or mug­ging for fash­ion pho­tog­ra­ph­er Sante D’Orazio’s cam­era, and lat­er head­ing upstairs to the secret pool room for naugh­ti­er digestifs.

Café Tabac, the East Vil­lage joint on East 9th Street, was leg­end-mak­ing for many rea­sons. It was the con­se­crat­ed spot where Kate Moss was first intro­duced to John­ny Depp by colum­nist and peo­ple con­nec­tor George Wayne; where Leonar­do DiCaprio met for­mer fling Brid­get Hall before hump­ing and dump­ing her; and where Warhol col­lec­tor Peter Brant met his future wife, mod­el Stephanie Seymour.

Madon­na, anoth­er reg­u­lar, would answer phones and hang up coats when Maître d’ Tim Moore was orches­trat­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic seat­ing arrange­ments like a fash­ion show’s front row. Bono would DJ. Pent­house pets would shim­my top­less on tables after four too many tequi­la sodas. Don­ald Trump came and went. Tabac was where jour­nal­ists would take bud­ding rap­pers, like Heavy D, to pro­vide colour for their pro­files, just as gangs­ta rap was gut-punch­ing its way onto main­stream radio.

Tabac was a dead-split of bar and restau­rant, pool lounge and speakeasy, super­mod­el club­house and celebri­ty water­ing hole. It was dubbed the birth­place of les­bian chic” thanks to its sap­ph­ic Sun­day nights fre­quent­ed by Patri­cia Field, k.d. lang, San­dra Bern­hard and Lea DeLar­ia – the only real safe space for these women to avoid the leers of men and enjoy one another’s company.

Most­ly, how­ev­er, Café Tabac was a restau­rant. Start­ed by 28-year-old Click mod­el and restau­ra­teur Roy Lieben­thal along with his busi­ness part­ner Ernest San­taniel­lo in 1992, when the East Vil­lage was still paved with injec­tion nee­dles, it closed in 1997. Its peak arguably last­ed for only two years, sand­wiched between the refrac­to­ry hey­day of Casa La Femme and the up-and-jaun­ty chic of Bow­ery Bar. In an era where New York’s nightlife land­scape was edg­ing from super­club dance­floors towards pri­vate back rooms, Lieben­thal had cor­nered a desir­able intimacy.

Café Tabac was it, a cross-sec­tion of 90s New York, its own­er an unlike­ly savant of East Vil­lage hip. This is how some of its fix­tures – own­er Roy Lieben­thal, jour­nal­ist George Wayne, pub­li­cist Kel­ly Cutrone, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Sante D’Orazio, and gos­sip colum­nist AJ Ben­za – remem­ber it…

Over the last 25 years, so many peo­ple have told me so many sto­ries and I always won­der, like, Wow, did that real­ly ever hap­pen?’ […] Bono was singing one night with Paul Simon. They did a quick lit­tle ser­e­nade.” – Roy Liebenthal

Roy Lieben­thal, Own­er: A friend of mine who I was part­ners with, a gen­tle­man by the name of Ernest San­taniel­lo, had pre­vi­ous­ly had a space at the loca­tion. The two of us were vir­tu­al­ly unem­ployed and we just fig­ured we would open up a bar/​restaurant. He had built the bar, but there was nev­er any food. And then we added the sec­ond floor to it.

George Wayne, Jour­nal­ist: I remem­ber walk­ing into Café Tabac for the very first time. It was still under con­struc­tion and my friend, the for­mer Click Mod­el Roy Lieben­thal, want­ed GW to have one of the very first looks at the stage. I walked up the stairs, looked at the room and I turned to him and I said imme­di­ate­ly: You’re going to have a huge hit on your hands.” And I’ve always been pre­scient, I like to think. I was proven right. Café Tabac offi­cial­ly opened on Jan­u­ary 22nd, 1992. But I could nev­er have imag­ined that Café Tabac, when I saw the space, would turn out to be such an incred­i­ble suc­cess and how inte­gral it was. The role it played in New York City nightlife in the 1990s – it was just amazing.

Madonna and Roy Liebenthal at Café Tabac in East Village

Madonna and owner Roy Liebenthal

AJ Ben­za, Gos­sip Colum­nist: Every­body was there. When you ask me who was there, it’s eas­i­er to say who wasn’t.

Roy Lieben­thal: Over the last 25 years, so many peo­ple have told me so many sto­ries and I always won­der, Wow, did that real­ly ever hap­pen?’ I remem­ber nights of Dol­ly Par­ton and Calvin Klein being there. Diane von Fursten­berg, Bar­ry Diller.

Back then I was pret­ty friend­ly with Madon­na. She def­i­nite­ly came to the restau­rant a lot. That was a huge rea­son that the restau­rant was so well known. And it was at the height of her fame. The one thing I remem­ber is that she was incred­i­bly dis­ci­plined. I nev­er remem­ber her drink­ing much or any­thing like that. 

George Wayne: Madon­na used to be there all the time. She came in with her boyfriend and then she’d show up with Alek Keshishi­an, who did [Madon­na: Truth or Dare]. She always had a posse. Debi [Mazar] was there too. 

Kel­ly Cutrone, Pub­li­cist: It was prob­a­bly the most leg­endary night in the his­to­ry of Café Tabac. Madon­na and I [threw] this par­ty with John Enos III, Calvin Klein, Kel­ly Klein, Liza Min­nel­li, Robert Lea­cock – who was the direc­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy on Truth or Dare – and Alek [Keshishi­an]. The guest list was sick. Peo­ple were just snort­ing coke off the table, drink­ing cham­pagne and eat­ing french fries, which was pret­ty much what I did every time I went to Café Tabac.

Sante D’Orazio, Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Word got around [once it opened] and then you would find the likes of Madon­na show­ing up, Robert De Niro and his crew of peo­ple, Valenti­no, Gian­car­lo Gia­mat­ti, Bob Cola­cel­lo. When you knew you were going to run into those peo­ple you obvi­ous­ly enjoyed going there. It was so small that every­body was basi­cal­ly elbow to elbow. It became quite intimate.

I remem­ber Valenti­no and Gian­car­lo Gia­mat­ti com­ing in and those guys at that time wouldn’t give you the time of day. They were so snob­by. And then when they called me to their table, Gian­car­lo gave me his cam­era and asked me to take pic­tures of the peo­ple at my table. And I was like, What?” I was with Christy, Nao­mi, Stephanie [Sey­mour], Kara [Young] and then we had De Niro and Den­nis Hop­per. I was like Sure,” and I took this cam­era and I went down to the bath­room and I took six frames of my dick. A week lat­er Roy [Lieben­thal] called me up, said, Gian­car­lo called me up and he said, You know what that son of a bitch did?!’”

Kate walks in with Nao­mi, I remem­ber one night, and John­ny Depp was sit­ting at the back of the restau­rant hav­ing din­ner with a few friends […] I just grabbed her hand and took her back there. I said, Kate, this is John­ny. John­ny this is Kate.’” – George Wayne

George Wayne, Jour­nal­ist: On August 28, 1992, Ellen DeGeneres showed up in the pool room knock­ing back bil­liards and doing shots with Joe­ly Fish­er on Labor Day week­end that year. Any­body, any celebri­ty who came to New York City, that was the place they went to let their hair down. 

Roy Lieben­thal: Bono was singing one night with Paul Simon. They did a quick lit­tle serenade.

George Wayne: Bono was always there. Bono loved it. He and Roy got on so well and they’d walk in [like they were in] the first class sec­tion of Vir­gin Atlantic. They’d go behind the bar and pour their own drinks. 

Roy Lieben­thal: Bil­ly Joel [walked] into the bar at Café Tabac, did a shot and walked out. That’s it. He was in a pair of slacks, a but­ton down. He didn’t even know where he walked in, but he ordered a shot and left. I do remem­ber the pres­i­dent [Don­ald Trump] being at Café Tabac…

Kel­ly Cutrone: On one par­tic­u­lar night, [soci­ety pho­tog­ra­ph­er] Patrick McMul­lan was black­out drunk and [my for­mer hus­band] Ron­nie and I were involved in prob­a­bly one of the loud­est down­town divorces. I had a restrain­ing order against him. And [Ron­nie] designed the menu for Café Tabac. I was there and Patrick McMul­lan, in a black­out, said, I real­ly want you to meet this guy, I think you’ll like him.” And he intro­duced me to my ex-hus­band! [Laughs] I don’t think there were cell phones then or they were just com­ing out, because I remem­ber David Lee Roth was the first per­son I ever knew that had a cell phone. I got to a phone and I called the NYPD and had Ron­nie picked up out of the restau­rant for being in con­flict with the terms of the restrain­ing order. So he had to leave.

Roy Lieben­thal: One night [Tabac’s Maître D’] Tim came upstairs and he’s like, There’s a gen­tle­man by the name of Wayne Kotin­sky sit­ting down­stairs and everybody’s mak­ing a big deal over him.” I was like, Tim, are you kid­ding me?” And Tim was like, He’s some kind of a hock­ey fel­low.” And I’m like, Tim, you’ve got to be kid­ding me.” And I real­ized it was Wayne Gretzky.

Once I was able to go to Tabac and have sex with [Pent­house pet] Sam Phillips, I felt like no one can stop me now.” – AJ Benza

Kel­ly Cutrone: When you go to the door, to the left there was a bar. It was pret­ty non­de­script. I think it was wood, for the most part. Maybe green bar stools. And then you walked up a very nar­row stair­way and you’d turn around the cor­ner and go past where the cash droplet would be. And then there were some wood­en tables there. 

AJ Ben­za: Down­stairs you could hang out and have din­ner, of course, but to get to go upstairs is a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. There wasn’t only a vel­vet rope on the street, there was a vel­vet rope and then a vel­vet cur­tain and then anoth­er vel­vet rope to go upstairs. It was very hip and very intim­i­dat­ing. It didn’t mat­ter that peo­ple with mon­ey showed up, didn’t mat­ter how dressed up they were. There was a rope, a vel­vet cur­tain and anoth­er rope, a stair­case and then a guy on top of the stair­case – it was a fuck­ing bank vault. 

Sante D’Orazio: You couldn’t real­ly get into the upstairs part. The down­stairs had a reg­u­lar bar and I don’t know even think there were 20 tables. To get upstairs, you had to be part of an inti­mate crew of peo­ple and there was some­body at the stair­well to let you up. I would prob­a­bly be there at least four nights a week. It was sort of like a hang out club.

George Wayne: What real­ly drove Café Tabac to have that genius ele­ment, which I don’t even think [Roy] thought about before he opened it, was the fact that this was the first lounge type restau­rant. Before that it was all big clubs. The scene was chang­ing and I think that the VIPs want­ed to have some­where a lit­tle more spe­cial, a lit­tle more homey, a lit­tle more cosy, where they could hang around with each oth­er and be themselves. 

Sante D’Orazio: There was no dance­floor, so it was all between tables – peo­ple were danc­ing all over the place. And then after din­ner, on top of the tables. So it real­ly got wild and fun. There were very few places you can let your guard down and do that, espe­cial­ly with the likes of those people.

AJ Ben­za: Their food might have been won­der­ful too, but I can’t tell you a sin­gle thing I ever ate and remem­bered fondly. 

Sante D’Orazio: I don’t even remem­ber the food, to be hon­est with you. It almost didn’t matter.

Kel­ly Cutrone: Nobody went to Café Tabac for the food. I can promise you that. There isn’t one per­son that was like a food­ie. As a mat­ter of fact, the goal was to go there, get a table, eat as lit­tle as pos­si­ble, get as many drugs as pos­si­ble, and have the best time.

George Wayne: That’s the good­ness of the restau­rant, but nobody went for the food.

Roy Lieben­thal: I always thought the food was pret­ty good. It was good enough for me. I nev­er was very inter­est­ed in food or wine. The cul­ture that was around Tabac was more about fun. 

Elle Macpherson at Café Tabac in East Village New York

Elle Macpherson

Roy Lieben­thal: I had always heard that [Tabac] was where Kate Moss met John­ny Depp.

George Wayne: I did intro­duce Kate Moss to John­ny Depp at Café Tabac, and she will acknowl­edge that. 

AJ Ben­za: George [Wayne] was quite an influ­encer back then. I can see John­ny meet­ing Kate. 

Roy Lieben­thal: I would imag­ine that, giv­en George’s chutz­pah. It wouldn’t sur­prise me if he went up to both of their tables. 

George Wayne: So, Kate walks in with Nao­mi. They walked into this one [part of] the room and John­ny Depp was sit­ting at the back of the restau­rant hav­ing din­ner with a few friends. I grabbed Kate’s hand and I said, Come. I’m tak­ing you right now. I want you to meet John­ny.” I just grabbed her hand and took her back there. I said, Kate, this is John­ny. John­ny, this is Kate.” And that was the end of it. I didn’t think they would go on to destroy five-star hotel rooms across the globe for the next two years. But that’s what hap­pened. I just want­ed to, you know, cause a lit­tle dra­ma. I said, why not?

Christy Turlington and Roy Liebenthal at Café Tabac in East Village New York

Christy Turlington and Roy Liebenthal

On the wall of Tabac was a blown up pho­to­graph, in black and white, of the mod­el Stephanie Sey­mour lock­ing tongues with Kara Young. Tak­en by Sante D’Orazio, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er and friend of mod­els, cap­tured an inti­mate moment and the gen­er­al atmos­phere of Tabac in one click. The same pho­to­graph, too, is what is said to have attract­ed arts patron and Inter­view mag­a­zine own­er Peter Brant (Seymour’s future hus­band) to her in the first place, as George Wayne recalls. No one saw them meet, but they were seen togeth­er from there­on out. 

Mod­els were every­where. On top of tables, in the bath­room, piss­ing behind the bar. They were what made Café Tabac the hottest spot to be in the ear­ly 1990s. And super­mod­els, like Nao­mi Camp­bell and Cindy Craw­ford, were rub­bing shoul­ders with the rest of us (and all the oth­er very famous actors, artists, and fig­ures orbit­ing around Tabac). 

Lieben­thal is what attract­ed the mod­els to Tabac in the first place. From Nao­mi to Madon­na, whis­pers of Liebenthal’s dat­ing life were just as fas­ci­nat­ing as the sto­ries that came out of Tabac. With­out these icon­ic faces from mag­a­zines and the screen danc­ing in-between and on top of the tables at Tabac, it would have been any oth­er bar. 

Kel­ly Cutrone: Every­body went there. Every major mod­el in the world was in that place. They all liked Roy.

AJ Ben­za: Roy pulled in the mod­el crowd and in New York City, once you pull in the mod­el crowd and the beau­ti­ful peo­ple come, the mon­ey follows. 

It was a dif­fer­ent time. When Lin­da Evan­ge­lista and Christy Turling­ton and Nao­mi Camp­bell walked into a room, that was called The Trin­i­ty.” Your night­club or your restau­rant was made; you were secure, you were nev­er going to wor­ry about get­ting a crowd again because those girls could open and close a place in a second.

Sante D’Orazio: Nao­mi, Stephanie and Kara Young. We’d basi­cal­ly be par­ty­ing there and I had my cam­era, so they all kind of hammed it up for the cam­era. All sorts of non­sense would go on, but fun non­sense. Hav­ing drinks. Being fun. Per­son­al, inti­mate. Nobody had their guard up. And those girls were so close that they could basi­cal­ly start goof­ing around that way. 

I remem­ber George Wayne and Nao­mi hav­ing a food fight. That was crazy. Valentino’s sit­ting at the next table get­ting hit with something. 

George Wayne: For some rea­son, Nao­mi and I always had a love-hate rela­tion­ship. I called her a fake Jamaican on Decem­ber 14th, 1993. I said, You weren’t even born in Jamaica. Your moth­er was, but you’re not Jamaican.” Next thing I know, she threw her water bot­tle at me, she threw water in my face and I emp­tied a flute of cham­pagne all over of her weave. She chased me through the crowd­ed restau­rant. Every­one was gag­ging. Nao­mi and I always fought like cats and dogs, but I love her. She’s like my sis­ter, but she hat­ed the fact that I called her a fake Jamaican.

Sante D’Orazio: I remem­ber her being soak­ing wet and just laugh­ing about it all. 

George Wayne: I will nev­er for­get the night at Café Tabac, April 20th, 1994, when Christy Turling­ton walked in with Bono Vox. They got so sloshed and were drink­ing Irish whiskey. But the next thing I know, Christy was behind the bar at one point, squat­ted, and took a pee. 

Roy Lieben­thal: I’ve heard that sto­ry… That I don’t believe. 

Sante D’Orazio: [Laughs] Yeah. That would def­i­nite­ly hap­pen. I remem­ber [Christy] just danc­ing one time – danc­ing, danc­ing, danc­ing. She turns her head. Threw up. And then con­tin­ued danc­ing. Stuff like that would eas­i­ly happen.

Kel­ly Cutrone: Every­thing that George says is true. He has the mem­o­ry of an elephant.

George Wayne: Brid­get Hall, of course, was my favorite. Anoth­er young fab­u­lous mod­el. She met Leonar­do DiCaprio at Café Tabac. She told me her­self. She said, He popped my cher­ry.” They went to the Roy­al­ton Hotel, where he was staying. 

I’ll always remem­ber the cat­fight that Nao­mi and I had […] I called her a fake Jamaican that night. I said, You weren’t even born in Jamaica. Your moth­er was, but you’re not Jamaican.’ Next thing I know, she threw her water bot­tle at me, she threw water in my face and I emp­tied a flute of cham­pagne all over of her weave.” – George Wayne

Bono at Café Tabac in East Village New York

”Bono was always there. Bono loved it. He and Roy got on so well and they’d walk in [like they were in] the first class section of Virgin Atlantic. They’d go behind the bar and pour their own drinks.” – George Wayne

Roy Lieben­thal: Every­thing that hap­pened at Café Tabac was a com­plete accident. 

George Wayne: The glo­ry years were from 1992 to 1994. That was the gold­en age.

AJ Ben­za: It became the spot. They caught light­ning in a bot­tle. And then as quick­ly as it blows up, it kind of dis­si­pates and the next spot is ordained. The fun­ny thing is, it was guys like me, gos­sip colum­nists, that get to ordain the next spot. 

Sante D’Orazio: All of a sud­den a new place opens up and the old place takes a back seat and everybody’s going to the new place. Every two years there was a new place. These things only last a cou­ple of years most of the time. Before Tabac there was Area, then M.K. [a din­ner club that opened in 1988]. Then after Tabac came the Bow­ery Bar. It shift­ed around. No one place would last more than three years.

George Wayne: That was the begin­ning of the end, when every­one stole the idea of the for­mu­la of the small inti­mate VIP-ish kind of salon thing. 

Roy Lieben­thal: I’ll tell you why it closed – because peo­ple stopped com­ing. [Laughs].

Near­ly a decade after Café Tabac, Lieben­thal lost some­thing much more impor­tant – his Maître D’ Tim Moore. In 2004, at Pop Burg­er, the duo’s next restau­rant ven­ture, Moore was killed by anoth­er employ­ee. His death was a shock to those who knew him. Moore was kind, a peo­ple per­son, and the warmth of Tabac as many reflect on his own legacy.

When Tabac first opened and Lieben­thal was still green to the hos­pi­tal­i­ty indus­try, Moore asked him, Do you mind if I take con­trol of this and that?” He ran the restau­rant every night after, espe­cial­ly the Sun­day les­bian nights. Moore added an authen­tic­i­ty and a dynam­ic to the restau­rant” that no one else could, said Lieben­thal. What was made clear after the clos­ing of Tabac and death of Tim Moore was that there would have been no Tabac with­out him. 

George Wayne: Tim was always about the brand and the busi­ness and schmooz­ing and mak­ing sure the divas and these huge per­son­al­i­ties on a night­ly basis were catered to. He was about the work and keep­ing staff going, get­ting that food out. Bar­bra Streisand shows up with her big old mink coat and insist­ed that she didn’t want to check it in the coat check room. So you have to take off this price­less coat and put it in the office and make sure that it was watched over. That was Tim. 

AJ Ben­za: The les­bian crowd was not some­thing that I could speak to tremen­dous­ly. The gay crowd was huge. That’s one of the rea­sons why Tim was so beloved there because he was like a den moth­er to peo­ple. He real­ly cared about peo­ple. Every­body was togeth­er at Tabac. Gay, straight, bi. I don’t give a fuck who you were. No one thought about it. No one got in each other’s face about it. Every­body was accept­ed. That’s what I found beau­ti­ful about Tabac.

Roy Lieben­thal: There is no Tabac with­out Tim. I love the guy so much. And after [his death] it was nev­er the same for me and my career.

There was every­thing. Every­thing. I think peo­ple fucked, nod­ded out, puked, laughed, kissed, danced, fell. You could be sure that one of those things would hap­pen to you if you were there.” – Kel­ly Cutrone

Tim Moore and Jay Davidson at Café Tabac in East Viillage New York

Tim Moore and Jay Davidson

Kel­ly Cutrone: There was every­thing. Every­thing. I think peo­ple fucked, nod­ded out, puked, laughed, kissed, danced, fell. You could be sure that one of those things would hap­pen to you if you were there. [Laughs] It was real­ly insid­er and it was a wild place. It was so much fun, there was so much love and so much spir­it and inter­est­ing peo­ple in those rooms.

The thing that made it great is it was authentic. 

AJ Ben­za: While Mudd Club was def­i­nite­ly some­thing that had a his­to­ry, noth­ing had the spark and the sud­den explo­sion of dynam­ic peo­ple like Tabac did. And plus, you got to see them up close. It wasn’t dark. It was a restau­rant setting. 

It was dynam­ic to see peo­ple so close like that and you could touch them. Stu­dio 54 had a 33-and-a-half month run. That’s it. That was its hey­day. All the sto­ries are com­ing out of that one span. Tabac was no dif­fer­ent, if it had two years of a good run, that’s phenomenal.

Sante D’Orazio: There was a lot of trust, also. That was real­ly key. When you have a small room and every­body is elbow to elbow and we all know each oth­er, you’re pro­tect­ed. And then the own­er and the man­ag­er are watch­ing over things too. Hope­ful­ly they were sober. It’s just that kind of inti­ma­cy and per­son­al thing that you just can’t get in a club today. 

George Wayne: A lot of peo­ple don’t under­stand Café Tabac because when you look back into the lore of nightlife his­to­ry in New York City, no one real­ly talks about Tabac. It was like light­ning strik­ing the gold pot and the gold pipes burst open and all the gold coins spill out. That’s what it was. 

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