Will We Still Recognize New York City When It Reopens?

Gem Spa is among many New York business that won’t reopen. Photo: Bill Tompkins/Getty Images

Have you gotten tired of “when this is all over” yet? If I manage to keep each commitment I’ve made while in quarantine, I’m due to eat my weight in blintzes at B&H Dairy, make a pilgrimage to D.C. icon Ben’s Chili Bowl, catch up with three separate groups of people over dim sum, and join a buddy on a barbecue road trip through the South. Surely we’ll never cancel plans last-minute again.

“When this is all over” makes me think of V-J Day: ticker-tape parades in Times Square, jubilant sailors smooching nurses in the middle of the street. The reality of our eventual coronavirus reopening will look nothing like this celebration (and not just because that iconic sailor smooch wasn’t actually consensual — everything is horrible!). It will be incremental, fractured, skittish. Early guidelines have already signaled that when it’s finally safe to go to restaurants again, the health measures that responsible restaurants enact will occlude, or at best disrupt, the simple pleasure of eating out. So what will I really do when this is all over? The same thing I find myself doing every time I visit a neighborhood outside my home base: take note of the restaurants that have died since my last visit. I’m not looking forward to it.

Every New Yorker understands this process, a personalized census of our favorite delis and dive bars. “Now It’s a Fucking Fro-Yo Place” became “now it’s a juice bar.” When the juice bars inevitably fail, a bank or pharmacy is always ready to take its place. The replacements change. The slow-but-sure death of food businesses we love stays the same.

COVID-19 is a disease, but it’s also a catalyst, one that in New York is hastening every social and economic pressure that in the past decade has made the restaurant business model increasingly unviable. It’s whittled down already-slim margins to practically nothing while giving commercial landlords new opportunities for power grabs. It’s disproportionately ravaged communities that were already marginalized — the immigrants and people of color that power every part of the American food chain, especially restaurant kitchens. And it’s widened the lacuna of success between well-funded corporate restaurant groups and mom-and-pop businesses. When Danny Meyer and Waffle House admit they’re screwed, what hope is there for your neighborhood burrito place?

The volume of the impending closures from this catalyst is unthinkable. Back in the beginning of April, the investment bank UBS forecast that 20 percent of American restaurants will permanently close because of the pandemic. That percentage will likely be greater in high-rent cities like New York, and will only grow as secondary and tertiary consequences of the coronavirus make an impact on perennially fragile restaurant budgets for years to come.

Like many human victims of the pandemic, most of these businesses will die with no funeral or obituary. The only way we’ll know they’re gone is when we find their bodies in the wild, the empty spaces where they used to be. We’re all census takers now, tasked with recording for ourselves the places that didn’t make it.

I can’t recall a memorable period of my life in New York that doesn’t involve a restaurant. In a city starved for personal space, restaurants and bars are where we live out our public lives. This is the prismatic magic of restaurants, their ability to create a million kinds of space to hold our moods and memories. I remember when Manhattan reopened after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. My first meal out was at the bar of Harold Dieterle’s Kin Shop in Chelsea on their first night of service after reopening. It was V-J Day inside, the dining room awash in unfettered joy and relief and exasperation. I can still taste the toasted rice powder of Dieterle’s duck larb slowly dissolving on my tongue, and every time I think of it, it triggers the collective wave of relief from the crowd, and the smile on Dieterle’s face on the line when he looked out into the dining room.

Kin Shop closed three years later. The rent was too damn high. Every time I walk by the storefront where it used to be, the rice powder returns to my mouth.

I’m trying to grieve in advance, to gird myself for this monthslong personal project of assessing the damage to my mental map of New York. Maybe this is it, I think to myself at night. This is the thing that makes owners realize that it’s just not worth it to run a restaurant here anymore. It’s not like business was looking up before the pandemic hit, and when this is all over, it’ll only be harder.

Life, of course, will move on, and the restaurant industry will find a way; short of, say, the Army Corps of Engineers, there’s no group of people better suited to making the most of impossible situations. But the wound in our public life won’t close any time soon, and I can’t help but suspect that every fresh discovery of a place that died along the way will feel like picking over a scab so that wound bleeds anew.

Will We Still Recognize New York City When It Reopens?