I have always navigated New York City by its restaurants, mostly because I have no sense of direction. How can I possibly know how far away I am from anything else? I’m three blocks away from Balthazar, which is two blocks from Lahore Deli. I am walking toward Morgenstern’s. I am walking away from Spicy Village.
Every restaurant holds promise when you pass it, except the ones you already know to be bad. But bad restaurants are useful in their own way: They get relegated to your personal map of places to avoid. Favorite restaurants are, of course, beloved landmarks in your New York City landscape, and even when they close — they always close — they stay suspended there; the corner of Fifth Avenue and 3rd Street in Park Slope will always be a vegan sandwich shop to me, even after it sits empty for three years and then becomes a CBD store.
There are 25,000 restaurants in this city, and I have not been to most of them. For years, I’ve kept a list on my phone of restaurants to try, organized by neighborhood, and I have not been to most of those, either. But every restaurant I have not been to — approximately 24,502 of them — is a possibility, which is the whole point of living here: “You always feel,” E.B. White wrote in 1949, “that either by shifting your location by ten blocks or reducing your fortune by five dollars, you can experience rejuvenation.” That is no longer true, but only because of inflation — rejuvenation now costs $54.91.
Restaurants close all the time. Good restaurants and mediocre restaurants and famous restaurants all close, and the city barrels on. There will be new restaurants, some of which will become famous, and even that won’t protect them. Rents go up, people leave, the money doesn’t work out, and New York absorbs the losses; losing is, in fact, part of the experience here. How else could there always be something new?
But the pace of losing, lately, has accelerated. We don’t know yet how many restaurants will be razed by the pandemic. Anecdotally, the answer seems to be: a lot. Every few days, another restaurant closes, and every few days, I think, Oh, I never went.
I never went to Glady’s. I never went to Gem Spa, in part because I did not understand for many years that it was not, in fact, a spa. I got as far as the door of Momofuku Nishi once, but then, for reasons I can no longer remember, I didn’t actually go in. I never went to Augustine or Aureole or Pegu Club, and I certainly never went to Gotham Bar & Grill. A lot of the restaurants on this running list of closures are places I’d never heard of, but maybe I would have loved them. Who knows? (I also might have hated them. It is important not to get sentimental, and a lot of restaurants are bad.)
It was Uncle Boons that hit me when it shut down in August. I was so sad about it, viscerally sad, as though we’d had a relationship and the loss was personally mine. But it was an unearned sadness: I’d never been. I’d meant to go ever since it opened in 2013 — I clearly remember Pete Wells’s two-star review in the Times — but then seven years went by, and now it’s too late.
What restaurants you do and do not go to seems mostly like an accident. You go because it was there, or because someone else wanted to go, or because you happened to read a list that made a place sound good. A date took you. A boss took you. You knew someone who worked there. You went because it was open or because it was raining, and those become your restaurants, or at least that’s how they became mine.
There were a lot of places I didn’t go, but I liked that the potential to go always existed. So much of the magic of the city is not about what you actually do, but what, under the right unspecified circumstances, you could do. There is a world in which I might have been a regular at Egg, a fluke that could have made me a lifetime staple at Fedora. Every closed restaurant you didn’t go to offered you a version of yourself that will now never exist.
Some of my actual favorites have closed too. Sacred Chow is gone now, and never again will I have to assure people that yes, the sign is a meditating cow, but no, I’m serious, it’s good. I had an extreme fondness for Sammy’s Noodle Shop for no particular reason; Greene Grape Annex had been my default meeting spot for years. Somehow, those losses are easier to mourn because there is something tangible to miss. It is harder to mourn a fiction that didn’t happen.
This will end, eventually, and there will be new restaurants — there already are new restaurants — and I will look forward to inevitably not going to many of them. What matters is the possibility that I might.