365 Days After Shutting Down, What Has New York’s Restaurant World Learned?

And will we put this knowledge to use?

Tom’s Restaurant, in Prospect Heights, on March 16, 2020, the day that NYC restaurants were ordered to shut down. Photo: Victor J. Blue/Getty Images
Tom’s Restaurant, in Prospect Heights, on March 16, 2020, the day that NYC restaurants were ordered to shut down. Photo: Victor J. Blue/Getty Images

The night of March 15, 2020, was arguably the most consequential in the history of New York’s restaurants. Mayor de Blasio’s office announced that, in fewer than 48 hours, all of the city’s dining rooms would be closed. He called it a “wartime mentality” response to the then-nascent coronavirus pandemic. By the following day, Governor Cuomo accelerated the timeline, ordering hospitality businesses closed that night. Already, some high-profile operators had shut voluntarily, but the citywide mandate meant that, immediately, New York City’s 20,000-plus restaurants could no longer welcome diners inside, allowed only to offer food to be eaten elsewhere, for … a week? A couple months?

One excruciating year later, we are still seeing the effects of that announcement. Even with the current 35 percent capacity restrictions — jumping to 50 percent in just over a week — and with vaccination rates ramping up, New York City’s bars and restaurants are necessarily operating under the same wartime mentality. The landscape, though, is far different: By now, we know what it’s like to watch cherished businesses close in rapid-fire succession. We’ve come to understand what we lose — individually and collectively — without shared meals. And we’ve probably come to appreciate some of the ad hoc innovations that have popped up during pandemic-era dining: sprawling outdoor setups, restaurants that double as general stores, to-go orders of warm raclette and icy martinis, all sorts of new pizza.

Over these 12 months, we also gained something that was perhaps even more unexpected than the arrival of sidewalk yurts: When restaurants and bars closed, hundreds of thousands of workers were suddenly without jobs. With nothing left to lose, many were free to discuss their experiences, laying bare behind-the-scenes details that are often only understood by the public in the vaguest of ways: “It’s a tough business.”

What did we learn? We learned that chefs can run rotten kitchens even as they preach the virtues of kindness to the public. That, even during a global health crisis, owners will flagrantly jeopardize workers’ safety if it means more money. That diners still see servers as objects in their periphery, and that the toll of catering to every entitled customer can become unmanageable. That being labeled “essential” is not the honor it sounds like. We learned that, even in death, the crucial contributions of a talented-but-unknown career cook can go unrecognized by the famous chef whose name is on the restaurant.

We learned, in short, that there is too much suffering, at every level. The overworked dish crews who are forced to close restaurants at night before opening them the next morning, often with no sleep in between. The line cooks and servers who silently endure verbal attacks from racist customers and abusive managers. The owners whose very livelihoods are at risk because of the cruel financial realities of this past year unable to find meaningful government support when it mattered most, even as those same leaders demanded that dining rooms remain dark.

Now, there are signs of real hope — glimmers of light at the end of a wretched tunnel. Billions of dollars of actual relief money set aside for the hospitality industry, and a population of diners and workers who are, as the vaccine rolls out, increasingly resistant to the virus that has so far killed more than 500,000 Americans.

It is exciting to see the city and restaurants we love come back to life. But the pandemic exposed every one of the industry’s problems with a clarity that is now impossible to ignore. It also demonstrated that there is no one group who bears the bulk of responsibility. The system itself is damaged, and getting back to the way things were will not be real progress. Workers need more respect and more protection. Owners need more support. And customers need more empathy.

We all want to go back to bars and restaurants, but it now feels like the time to talk about how our relationships with, and expectations of, these businesses can improve. The last thing we need, after all of this, is more unnecessary suffering.

What Has NYC’s Restaurant World Learned Since the Shutdown?