That’s the triumphant story of New York City restaurants this summer.
The Big Apple’s dining scene not only survived the coronavirus, it whipped its murderous, spiky tail — despite what the “experts” predicted.
Remember how “Top Chef” host Tom Colicchio forecast in March 2020 that 75 percent of all New York City restaurants would close?
Remember Dirt Candy chef-owner Amanda Cohen’s statement that “we’ll have to rebuild the city’s restaurant business from scratch?”
Surprise, New York Times, New Yorker, Eater.com and other organs that claimed nobody with a brain would ever eat indoors again: Almost every place is full right now — indoors and out.
Fifteen months of viral carnage and intermittent lockdowns did not result in everyone eating out of cans at home. Restaurants that were supposed to be dead meat are gleefully stomping all over the beaten bug’s face. Owners are hurting, employees are at the breaking point — but the scene and the magic endure.
In fact, analysts say that about 1,000 New York City eating places have closed since March of 2020 — a regrettable toll but a relative handful compared to the total number of Gotham restaurants, which is estimated to be anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000.
Meanwhile, new places are popping up all over the map. Have you heard about Dagon, Le Pavillon and Carne Mare? Or Gage & Tollner (“new” after a 20-year hiatus) and Victor in Brooklyn? Or Ruta Oaxaca Mexican in Queens, which had the cojones to open in the dead of “second-wave” January?
Yes, we lost some beloved favorites. The toll ranged from egg cream hangout Gem Spa to Thomas Keller’s uber-priced TAK Room. Some 320,000 workers lost their livelihoods.
But truly “iconic” places that perished were very few. Old John’s, a 70-year old Upper West Side diner, will reopen this month after “permanently” closing last winter. Bond 45 reopens next week. High-end Le Coucou will reopen in September. So will Gotham Bar & Grill, The Polo, Trattoria Dell’Arte, Delmonico’s, and scores more. Cohen’s Dirt Candy didn’t take so long: Despite her grim forecast, she reopened her vegetarian hot spot for outdoor service in July of 2020.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Critics warned that indoor dining would send everyone to emergency rooms. Ever-shifting rules for capacity and curfews drove owners to drink. In the name of COVID-19 “relief,” Washington lawmakers basically paid workers to stay home, leaving restaurants without people to cook and serve customers.
Some deep thinkers — motivated by irrational contagion fears or malevolent politics — seemed to want restaurants to die.
But in the end, the coronavirus, which killed 33,000-plus New Yorkers and shattered what remained of brick-and-mortar retail, laid only a glancing blow to the dining-out scene.
One not-so-dirty little secret is that some restaurants are raking in even more dough than before, thanks to outdoor seats for which they pay no additional rent. Upper East Side neighborhood bar Finnegans Wake, which once had two-dozen-odd indoor seats plus bar stools, set up scores more tables on the sidewalk and in the street overnight. High-end Marea on Central Park South sprouted an alfresco courtyard and sidewalk seating; all areas were packed inside and out on my last visit two weeks ago.
Extra revenue might not mean extra profit for owners struggling to pay off loans and landlords — but it sure beats an empty house.
How did so many places pull through? Thank government relief programs (for which Colicchio and the New York City Hospitality Alliance fought tenaciously); landlords who cut breaks on rent; owners’ love for their businesses; employees who bravely came to work before the virus was tamed; and New Yorkers’ insatiable need to eat and drink amidst others, even if it meant freezing their winter patooties off in a poorly-heated tent.
In the end, restaurants are a unique economic and social breed and, on a certain level, impervious to the travails of the larger economy. We need them less to eat than to be human, and New Yorkers never wanted or needed to feel human as much as we do now.
In March 2020, I wrote that, once the virus was tamed, “We’ll again share tables together from Belmont to Bensonhurst.” And, “maybe more of the old [restaurants] will make it through than we dare to dream.”
No more maybe: Most of them came through, bloodied but unbowed. Those who predicted far worse should eat their words — and stay home.