The pandemic has not “changed everything” — despite outdoor seating, no-contact menus, and earlier eating hours — as many foretold it would. The ignored, underappreciated, mind-boggling – and happy — truth about the city’s restaurants is how little has altered. There are distinctions, surely, but there is no new, game-changing model.
Tens of thousands of virus-related deaths, two hard lockdowns, an exodus of residents, and the destruction of tourism and business travel have left the local restaurant industry bloodied, sure. But it’s rarely been a knockout and New Yorkers’ appetite for eating out and making merry lives stronger than ever.
Except for the obvious, possibly perpetual, alfresco phenomenon, the eatery scene’s contours exceptionally match those of 2019. This is cause to celebrate because, for all the mistakes, Gotham’s gustatory satisfaction overall can’t be covered by any city in the world. Nor can the economic benefits the business gives to all involved in it.
For starters, our kingpin, big-empire owners are the same ones as before — among them, Stephen Starr, Danny Meyer, Simon Oren, Major Food Group (The Grill, Dirty French), Andrew Carmellini’s NoHo Hospitality Group (Locanda Verde, the new Carne Mare) and Stillman Restaurant Group.
Our top toques — such as Eric Ripert, Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, David Chang and Daniel Humm — came through the nightmare mostly intact and rule the roost anew.
Our once favorite cuisine classes stay the picks: steakhouses, Italian, modern-American, Japanese and French. The cuisines that were receiving the heaviest stress before March 2020 — Korean and Israeli — continue to grow in demand with big openings such as Dagon on the Upper West Side and Jua in the Flatiron.
The outer-boroughs sprawl of lower-priced, esoteric offshoots of global cuisines, as lovingly chronicled by Eater.com and other sites, rolls on. We have birria-style tacos in Long Island City and Greenpoint, Hainanese chicken in downtown Flushing, Tibetan momo in Jackson Heights, Thai drinking snacks in Bushwick, and, in the “only in New York” league, Caribbean-tinted ramen in the Bronx’s Little Italy.
Despite concern about the end of fine dining, luxury is doing well, from the new Saga, where a meal 63 stories above Wall Street starts at $285, to the now vegan Eleven Madison Park to Boulud’s Midtown hot spot Le Pavillon.
Yes, hundreds of places stopped for good, and we’ll miss Aquagrill, Esca, Chinatown’s Jing Fong, Brooklyn Heights’ Queen, 21 Club, and many others.
But new places by the score are bravely taking the plunge to replace them. Since indoor dining was restored in February, debuts have included posh-Indian Sona, ultra-lux Le Pavillon, revived Southern-American classic Gage & Tollner, Japanese-influenced Cantonese Cha Kee, omakase-heaven Saishin (on the Gansevoort Hotel rooftop, no less), Peruvian-themed Contento, Turkish-tinted Greek Iris, and just-launched, Southeast-Asian fantasy Wau.
There’s irrepressible energy at every price point. Elegant London import Hawksmoor on Park Avenue South spearheads a wave of steakhouse opportunities. Banh Vietnamese Shop House on the Upper West Side graduated from outdoor pop-up to sit-down dining room. Mo’s General in Williamsburg is the latest entry in the “new and original” pizza field.
And there’s much more on the extent: a major Italian-influenced area, Ci Siamo, in the Manhattan West complex — Danny Meyer’s first fine-dining restaurant in three years. The third edition on Midtown Sixth Avenue of Avra, the shining star of the Greek seafood boom. A new restaurant, Dowlings, at the Carlyle Hotel. A new dining room at Restaurant Daniel.
Does all this sound like a sad, mortally injured restaurant industry reeling into the future? Hardly.
In fact, the great difference between 2019 and today affects owners more than customers: the well-reported labor shortage. It’s the central reason why so many restaurants that opened for dinner months ago have yet to prepare for lunch. There just aren’t enough cooks and servers to cover both shifts.