I never realized before the onset of the pandemic how much I have lived my life through restaurants, until so many beloved establishments were gone. I live in in a one-bedroom apartment and do not have a second home somewhere. The restaurants have been my second home and where I celebrated birthday and holidays with friends. Among all the loss and sadness this year is the disappearance of so many places that have been part of my life for the decades I have lived in New York City. The following is my homage to just a few of the restaurants that were shuttered in 2020.
The Monkey Bar is one of the places lost, where I spent New Year’s Eve a decade ago with two of my best friends who I tried to bring together as a matchmaker because they reminded me of each other. We sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a small red booth before a mural featuring Fred Astaire and ordered champagne. They are both strong personalities and were probably too much alike. They took an immediate distaste to each other and there was tension suspended in the air above us. I learned to never play the role of matchmaker again and to keep certain friends apart.
Club 21 carried the aura of a place that would never close. I had a few meals there with industry colleagues in the 1980s and 1990s that are unmemorable. Club 21 was not “my place.” I felt like an outsider on the few occasions that I visited it. But it is discomforting to realize that even such a well-funded establishment could not withstand being shut down by the pandemic.
Back in 1980, when I was a struggling graduate student at New York University, I found a room to let through the university’s housing office with a young editor who worked at a national magazine. We met at the Cuppingroom Café in Soho where I ordered my first cappuccino which was the beginning of my lifelong caffeine addiction. It represented everything I loved about downtown Manhattan and became my go-to brunch place for decades. Its brick walls and local art held the promise of always being there when you needed someplace to go. And now after all these years and all those cups of coffee, it is gone.
I was introduced to the Aqua Grill by a friend who was a major foodie and would tell me that she would literally dream of its oysters. We spent many evenings there sitting at a table near its golden walls perusing the fish menu and talking of our lives. She was so traumatized by the events of September 11th that she moved out of the city shortly afterwards. I never returned because it just didn’t feel the same without her running exposition on the quality of the oysters. But it was always comforting to know it was still there, until it wasn’t.
When it comes down to it there are places that I frequented for special occasions, like the Gotham Bar and Grill, which closed during the pandemic after 36 years, and places where I went every day for a simple omelet and coffee. I grew up in New Jersey diners and embraced New York’s version with all my heart and soul. The city’s diners were in jeopardy even before the pandemic. But some of the best have not survived.
I spent most Saturday afternoons sitting in the window of the Good Stuff Diner on 14th street. Its oversized menu was expansive and although I felt obligated to flip page by page, I always ended up on the breakfast page. Sometimes, I would experiment with a frittata, but usually I would order a cheese omelet and toasted bagel with coffee. The same people were there each week sitting at their usual table or booth, and there was an acknowledgement that although we didn’t speak to each other, we were a community of diverse people making it in New York. I only wish I had learned more about them. And, as the name said, it was good stuff.
My primary go-to place has been a restaurant across the street from me in my neighborhood of Chelsea that I will not name out of fear that I might jinx its return. It survived the prolonged shut-down in New York. When it was allowed to reopen for outdoor dining, I was there often, sitting at a wobbly table on the sidewalk in literally the gutter. The restaurant shut down a few weeks ago when the weather turned cold and the city banned indoor dining for the second time. There is a sign on its door that says, “Don’t despair. We will be back” and I am praying that is the case and it can withstand the economic consequences of a second wave of coronavirus.
It’s been a devastating year for the restaurant industry with even the old stalwarts going under. When I walk the streets of my neighborhood so many establishments are closed, and some entire blocks are empty. Along with all the illness and disease and suffering and death, there are so many dreams that have been lost from this pandemic. And us New Yorkers who live in small spaces and do not have homes in the country somewhere, without our beloved restaurants we will have no place to go.