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…
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.
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?!’”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.