The wind whipping across 44th Street made the evening air feel like a soul-destroying zero degrees, but in the distance I thought I could make out some flames. Or, at the very least, some neon. It was 6:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve — set to be the second coldest in New York City history — and I was in a line that stretched half a block, waiting to get into Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant on what would be its final night in business.
The doors were supposed to open at 7 p.m., but entry was slow. The staff seemed unprepared to handle a crowd of this size, almost as if they didn’t expect this many people to actually show up. Down the block, I noticed the awning for Sardi’s, a Theater District institution that has become synonymous with Broadway, embodying what’s left of the city’s old-world charm. Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar, on the other hand, is the ultimate expression of Times Square’s 25-year-long Disneyfication. Just five years ago, the Blue Stein Group — owners of New York’s various Heartland Breweries — apparently saw this stretch as the perfect location to open the crown jewel of the Guy Fieri restaurant portfolio, which now includes outposts in Orlando, Playa del Carmen, and the Poconos. When the Manhattan restaurant opened in 2012, the message was clear: The barbarians had finally crashed the gates.
The restaurant was always ridiculous, of course, but not in the ways that its operators intended. The place was beset by chaos, both gastronomically and aesthetically. The fact that Fieri merely licensed his name, rather than oversaw its details, only escalated the parody of its cult of personality. The sinews of late-capitalist American bloat all converged onto this one particular place in this one particular neighborhood to represent everything that America would stand for. The Kushners even bought the building in 2015. And yet imagine the shock of learning, just last week, that Guy’s was kaput: The restaurant sported another ten years on its lease. It raked in roughly $16 million annually against $1.8 million in yearly rent. On paper, it was one of the most successful restaurants in America, even though it famously inspired one of history’s most savage critical reviews.
Perhaps the fact that Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar somehow couldn’t survive its political analog’s first year in office, in a building owned by the family of his son-in-law, lent a weird sort of pathos to the proceedings.
When I finally got to the front of the line, the staff informed me that I did not have the proper ticket for entry, despite the fact that I had never been given details on how to acquire one. They demanded that I return to the elements while I figure it out, and never has so pure a survival instinct kicked in. I stood my ground, and at some point, let them know that I already couldn’t feel my face. Eventually, they relented and let me in.
The base rate to even get in the door was $140 after fees. That bought access to an open bar and a buffet. VIP packages ran as high as $800 per person. Who would want to spend their New Year’s Eve in the company of Guy Fieri’s fever dream for that kind of money? Everyone, it seemed.
All three floors were packed to the gills; every VIP table was spoken for. I shared a drink with Erin and her husband, a young couple from northern Virginia. Why did they decide to attend? “We came here last night, and when they told us that they were closing after New Year’s Eve, we had to come back!” Erin declared. That was as excited an affirmation of a Fieri fan as I could find.
I had arrived hoping for the Fieri faithful. But the crowd gathered at this holy site for its final benediction was merely a cross section of an average Broadway crowd, with all of the awkwardness of a wedding reception. There were tourists both foreign and domestic. There were outer-borough locals and folks from upper Manhattan. There were couples and packs of families with young kids. There were bros from New Jersey and Long Island looking to get wild. Some were there because they liked Fieri, but most were there simply because it was the only open establishment that close to the ball drop, and aren’t we all supposed to ring in the new year in Times Square?
Nobody was having a bad time, per se, but the fun was as strained as it was inorganic. Strangers were forced to share VIP tables. The dance floor was raucous only out of obligation. A married woman from Michigan demanded that her new friends get out there and boogie with her. Men in fleece pullovers stood along the wall, beers in hand, watching the action and lightly bobbing their heads.
One young man danced alone like no one was watching.
Every once in a while, the 40-something DJ would cry out: “SCREEEEEEEEAM.” He ruined “Bodak Yellow” by mixing it with an absolutely ghastly trap beat. Yet when he insisted that all the single people put their hands in the air, I couldn’t find it in my heart to refuse him.
Because there was no regular meal service, we were all unable to experience the restaurant’s Big Flavors™. No Guy-talian Nachos, no Big Bite Caesar, and nary a cup of Dragon’s Breath Chili. There wasn’t a drop of Donkey Sauce in sight. Instead, the buffet provided some Motley Que Ribs, penne vodka, and what might be considered a cheese selection in only the most charitable of terms.
Eleven o’clock rolled around and the crowd began to thin. Kids needed to be put to bed. People wanted to beat the traffic before midnight. Everyone was tired after partying for four hours. As people left, a sense of unavoidable finality hung over Flavortown, whose population was rapidly dwindling. Nobody cared that Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar would soon be no more. New York’s well of Donkey Sauce had finally run dry.
We dutifully pushed toward our fate. I found myself debating gun rights with Erin, her husband, and a Chinese accountant as the plastic Champagne flutes were handed out, mere moments before the ball dropped. When midnight struck, no confetti was thrown inside of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar. Instead, a bartender tossed some cocktail napkins in the air.
The place cleared out in a hurry after that. Nobody seemed interested in extending the life of this once-proud landmark. By the time the clock struck one, it was all over. The bar manager bought everyone one last round while the remaining revelers obligingly collected their belongings and ventured back out into the subzero winds. The staff swept up the empty dance floor, preparing to switch off the lights one last time, and my mind strayed to “Ozymandias”:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.