The last proper restaurant meal I ate before the COVID-19 pandemic began ravaging the country, upending daily life as we know it, and killing tens of thousands of Americans was lunch at Thai Diner, a downtown breakfast counter that — true to its name — combines some of the best parts of the American diner experience with dishes, techniques, and ingredients from Thailand. In practice, the combination works tremendously well, and it’s safe to assume there has never been another restaurant quite like it. On the day I dropped by, the place was jammed, in part because its owners, Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, built a truly dedicated following with their first restaurant, Uncle Boons.
That following is so loyal, in fact, that it was a bit shocking when we got word yesterday that Uncle Boons will never reopen. It was also shocking when that news was followed a few hours later with the announcement that Gabriel Stulman will permanently close his restaurant Bar Sardine at the end of the month. And in Williamsburg, it appears the cocktail-and-oyster bar Maison Premiere is a goner, as well.
Well-liked bars and restaurants have been shuttering for months now, but as this pandemic drags on with no end in sight, the pace of these announcements feels like it is only accelerating, and the profile of the affected businesses continues to grow. Taken as a whole, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we are now watching the collapse of the entire New York City hospitality industry in real time.
The data that is available is, really, incredibly bleak: Nearly 200,000 food-service workers are jobless, and now face a future without the enhanced unemployment benefits upon which many depended. Eighty percent of restaurants could not cover their full rent back in June, and things have only gotten worse since then. Nobody can say exactly how many restaurants and bars will be forced to close permanently, of course, but every available prediction currently boils down to “most of them.”
If operators have landlords who are sympathetic to the reality of the situation, they might have a shot at hanging on. Increasingly, it is clear that many landlords are not. As Delores Tronco-DePierro, who has been forced to close her popular new West Village restaurant the Banty Rooster, told us, her proposal for a new, tenable rent structure was met with a landlord telling her she isn’t in the business of subsidizing tenants’ lease agreements. (The economic fallout is going to get worse — it just is — so where do landlords think their new, moneyed, rent-paying tenants will come from?)
And while it is abundantly clear that bars and restaurants need and deserve a bailout, it is ominous that one does not appear to be in the offing. Instead, the only new solutions being offered to full-service restaurants are the ability to sell alcohol to-go and expanded “outdoor dining.” What happens when the temperature cools off and people head back inside? What happens when winter arrives and, if the predictions are correct, the infection rate begins to surge even more?
Among all of the other news, concerns about restaurants can often feel slight. These businesses are, by design, distractions from the rest of the world, and in normal times there are always issues that feel more urgent. But New York City’s restaurants and bars comprise an industry that just recently employed more than 315,000 people. What happens when they’re all jobless, and the city’s storefronts remain vacant for years? These are not slight concerns.
Speaking to New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, the chef Greg Baxtrom, who has radically rethought his restaurant Olmsted over the past few months, says his only goal is to make it to next spring “without losing everything.” But what really happens in March or April? There will be a vaccine, maybe, and there might be something like a renewed sense of optimism, hopefully. But in order to get there, we will first have to make it through an exhausting, maddening winter. Without some kind of help, it is only going to get worse — much worse — before we can even begin to talk about how it gets better.