After 17 Years, This 3-Star Chef’s Closing Her Restaurant Because It’s ‘Grow or Die’

“I don’t know how you make retirement on one restaurant.” Photo: Steve Sands/Getty Images

When Anita Lo opened Annisa in 2000, Bill Clinton was still president. Michelin inspectors hadn’t yet invaded New York. It would take four years for Per Se to open. New York’s minimum wage had just increased from $4.25 to $5.15 — the first time since 1991.

Amid these changes within these past 17 years, Lo has proven to be resilient — bouncing back after a literal fire and the loss of a longtime partner, and coping with sweeping industry shifts, like the rise of food blogs and social media, the increasingly competitive tasting-menu model, and a fixation on food trends. But Annisa, a quiet, comforting place where you’ll still find Lo making foie-gras soup dumplings in the kitchen, can’t survive rising costs. As she told the Times, her real-estate taxes, coupled with the new minimum-wage law, creates too large of a burden to bear, so she’ll close her beloved West Village restaurant in May. But it’s more than just a financial decision — Lo has literally worked herself to the bone. Here, she explains:

How have people reacted since you announced the news?
People are coming back, which is great. I think people are nostalgic and sad, but it’s like, where were you last year?

It must be frustrating. Bill Telepan expressed a similar sentiment. Customers said to him, “If I had known ….” But it’s not like you’re going to send out a newsletter saying, “Hey, I need help.” How do you bridge that gap?
Yeah. You don’t … People want the new. We’re definitely not the new anymore.

How long had you been thinking about closing, and what brought you to that final decision?
Well, I had a knee replacement two years ago, and I literally worked myself to the bone. There was just no more cartilage left, so it’s been difficult for me to be on the line, but really, when we eliminated tipping, we lost a lot of business, and it’s been consistent. I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and I’m still very passionate about the food and about our mission, but the day-to-day gets wearing when you don’t have a lot of cushion. And the cushion keeps getting taken away — the government keeps taking more and more and more — and it’s just not worth it anymore.

You mentioned the minimum-wage law in the Times story.
I did the numbers, and with the new minimum wage and stuff — which, don’t get me wrong, I totally believe in — I just think the government is out of touch with fine dining, and doesn’t understand back-of-the-house versus front-of-the-house wages. To change it this fast is just ridiculous. Like, I can’t. I had projections run, and we work on overtime back there, so if I cut out overtime, then I have to manage more people. I’m done with that. Once we did the numbers, it became pretty clear that it was time. I figured I could squeeze one last remaining bit out of this by announcing it early, and because we also would like to see our regulars back and say goodbye. The summer is slow, so it seemed like a good time.

The laws certainly have a one-size-fits-all approach to restaurants.
Yeah, which is just ridiculous. Like, I’m sorry — I’m on a committee that’s supposed to advise them, but they just can’t … nothing can get done fast enough. Those people have their hearts in the right place; it’s just the city has a lot to manage.

Did you ever consider shifting back to a tipping model?
I did. But I’m a chef. I’m back-of-the-house. It’s going from $5 to $10 [$10.50], you know? And we’re a small business. I don’t make that much money in a year, and when my bookkeeper did the math when minimum went from $5 to $7.50, that was over $50,000 a year extra for us. So, yeah. That speaks for itself.

It’ll be interesting to see how this will impact the New York restaurant landscape for years to come.
It’s depressing to me, actually. I think what’s great about the city — and I think it’s echoing what’s going on in this damn country — is the diversity of this place. Is it just going to be corporations? And there are some good corporations, like Danny Meyer’s. But who can afford to be here? Is everything going to be fast-casual? I don’t want to eat that way all the time. I think people will figure it out and make it happen some way or another, but I don’t know.

You were one of the first chefs to embrace fast-casual with Rickshaw Dumplings, but it never caught on. Did that experience turn you off from that model?
Yeah. I care deeply about food, and it’s just impossible to be in that business environment where it just becomes about — I mean the people cared more about money than food. And it’s really hard to make good food when you’ve outsourced it to a large factory, so yeah, as someone who obsesses over details, it just didn’t work. But, you know, if I had Sweetgreen, I’d be thrilled. Or even Chipotle. I think it’s a great model; it just wasn’t meant to be there.

The other thing we’re seeing in New York that every chef seems to want an empire. The Eleven Madison Park team, the Carbone guys — they’re opening big, ambitious restaurants so fast.
Well, it’s grow or die in this regulatory environment, and this real-estate environment. Honestly, I don’t know how you make it as a chef; I don’t know how you make retirement on one restaurant. You can’t blame any chef for doing this sort of thing, you know?

Certainly not. But I do think people value dining at a restaurant that’s so personal and intimate — the purest form of the chef-owner model. At least that’s an experience I value highly.
Yeah, yeah. Ruth Reichl was in here the other day, and she was like, “It’s just so nice to have somewhere you can talk.” And I said, “Come in again.”

I’m glad you gave people the time to do so. I feel guilty I haven’t been in more — I live in the neighborhood.
Well, there are so many places in New York.

So many!
We’re still always going to have great restaurants in this city; I don’t think we’re going to have the breadth and the variety that we’ve had. I think the government could do something to insure that we continue to be the culinary capital.

What do you think the government could do, specifically, in terms of legislation?
I don’t know why they’re getting over the tipping credit. That doesn’t make any sense? The front-of-the-house makes three-to-four times as much as the back-of-the-house, and I think you can write a law that takes that into account. And they could have been raising the minimum wage slowly over all this time, instead of letting it stagnate and then suddenly doubling it. It scares me in this environment right now, because I don’t want to come off as sounding like a Republican—

I don’t think Republicans want to come off sounding like Republicans right now.
Oh my god, yeah.

But we’re of course living in a time where food is more political — where you choose to spend your money, the support you give to immigrant-run businesses. It’s no longer just — look at the new cacio e pepe!
It’s sad that it’s happening this year, because we’ve always been about multiculturalism and diversity here. It’s the wrong time to close, but it’s just food at the end of the day.

No, it’s not. You symbolize so much more than that. The number of women you’ve mentored alone — that’s more than just food.
Thank you, thank you.

Using the word “legacy” feels wrong—
I’m not dying! Although I feel like I attended my own online funeral.

But how do you see your legacy, in terms of mentorship? Did you make a conscious decision to mentor women, or did it just happen naturally over the years?
My mom was a doctor, and she made a quarter of what my father made for the same job. At one point, she went to go buy a house and she was told that her husband had to buy it. Ridiculous. So I think throughout my life, I’ve always tried to speak up and tried to do the right thing around gender issues. It’s not just the restaurant; it’s my life. Also, I always wanted to have that mentor — that person who was just going to guide me. And I didn’t feel like I had that; I certainly didn’t have any female mentors in this industry, so it was important to me that I be a good mentor. And plus, I knew what it was like to work for almost nothing, and about the sacrifice you have to give. You owe it to your staff to help them.

What do you think are the hallmarks of being a strong mentor?
I think always trying to make it so people feel like they can talk to you. When somebody leaves, I always say, “I’ll always be here; don’t be afraid to reach out.” And people have reached out! The chef at Fung Tu was my intern, and he used to come by every once in awhile.

Over the past 17 years, the conversation about female chefs has certainly changed. Moving forward, is gender still something we should focus on and single out?
I get the whole argument about if you focus on the gender part of this, you’re kind of playing into the problem, but at the same time, if there still is that problem, you have to raise awareness. You have to constantly talk about it. There still is that problem; we’re by no means postgender. We’ve just elected this president that was bragging about molesting women.

I’m never sure if it’s something I should address explicitly. Many women don’t want to be asked, “What’s it like to be a female chef?” They just want to be a chef.
Well I think it’s awareness-raising. Have I been sick of answering that question? Absolutely. But at the same time, I think it’s important to highlight the struggles, so that hopefully, you know, the people that helped to create those struggles can correct it.

Can you pinpoint a golden time for Annisa, when business was booming?
We did pretty well when we first opened. And then we had 9/11, and it was just horrifying. We came back with Iron Chef. Then 2008 was frightening, and then we had the fire. When we reopened after the fire, as far as finance is considered, those were the golden years. Two years after we reopened. I’ve never seen it that busy. It was amazing after the fire; my entire staff came back to help me open after nine months.

Did the three-star Times review in 2014 give you a bump?
I think so. It must have. But it wasn’t huge, like with Iron Chef. I think it’s amazing, the power of television. It’s unfortunate, because the Times used to be impactful, but now there are just so many reviews out there. It used to be that you’d get that review and it was packed. The phones would start ringing off the hook.

You’ve said you want a break after closing in May. What are your desires — personally, professionally?
I really don’t know. This has been really all-consuming for me. I think I really need to just take some time off actually and try to figure out what is going to get me — I really do need to find something that I’m passionate about. I still want to continue to write, but I’m not going to become a writer, I’m pretty sure. I wouldn’t mind having another column, or continue to write cookbooks. Friends of mine have a culinary tour company, and I’m going to be hosting a trip with them. My chef Mary [Attea] is also my partner in life, and she’s younger than I am, so we might open her restaurant. But that’ll take awhile to do. It took us three years to open Annisa.

You’re the sole owner of Annisa. I think people don’t realize how rare that is — to take on the entire financial burden.
When I opened Bar Q, I told my investor, “Look, this is a bad investment. I just have to tell you.” Nine out of ten restaurants fail within the first year. You know, and nine out of ten of those that make it fail within the third year, or something like that. But also if it’s what has chosen you, it’s a wonderful thing. But you can only do this if you have to, because it’s your passion and your obsession.

Anita Lo’s Closing Annisa Because It’s ‘Grow or Die’