Now that some chefs' visibility and status rival that of screen stars, it's a small wonder a certain breed of New Yorkers scrutinize the rise and fall of popular restaurants—and those at their helm—the same way we dissect the ups and downs of celebrity careers and personal lives. The tumultuous business of feeding New Yorkers hungry for the next best thing is a precarious and demanding task—one way or another, our appetite for intrigue too must be fed.
Because in NYC, you are less what you eat, but where you eat. A coveted table can sustain a culinary name-dropper for weeks. At the moment, a reservation at The Lion (which boasts a special VIP table with its own private bathroom) is the one most likely to get Conde Nast junior staffers jumping through hoops. But the access-compromised can feast on sour grapes through in-the-know bloggers and their trusted tipsters. Eater leads the pack in virtual ambulance chasing—its regular columns "Shutter" and "Deathwatch" eagerly break the news of failed restaurants and circle the suffering. Its latest "Cursed Restaurant Spaces" roundup—which I hope is updated again soon—features an interactive map of high-turnover restaurant spaces that seem doomed to fail, for no discernable reason other than black magic.
Some locations from the list that were (understandably) placed on Eater deathwatch have defied expectations: Almond, which opened last year at the 'cursed' 12 E 22nd, is thriving, and the Sixth Ward is still hanging in there on Orchard Street. In response to an anonymous comment from the September 2008 article ("anything on West 10th Street in the West Village!") I headed over there, looking for signs of vindictive spirits. And yes, there has been a good deal of turnover on the West 10th stretch: Le Gamin is gone, making way for Charles; and the dreaded gastropub (The Highlands) has taken over where P*Ong fizzled out. Eater predicted that Bar Blanc would by now be a bar dark, after seeing Merge, Marco, and The Place on West 10th come and go and in quick succession. While it's still officially open, Bar Blanc has scaled back its prices, changed chefs, and rebranded itself as Bar Blanc Bistro. It also appears to have reduced its operating hours—it was closed during prime time dinner hours at least one night this week, and many calls have gone unanswered. Could it be next?
One defensive Brooklyn-based reader took the inclusion of Barrio on the list of cursed spaces rather personally, as defensive Brooklyn-based readers are wont to do. Indeed, Eater jumped the gun in predicting the demise of the Park Slope eatery, which seems so far to be the exception to the rule of the previous troubled space. But the opposite corner of Seventh Avenue and 3rd Street saw yet another restaurant fail this year: The Miracle Grill buckled under massive debt, re-animating a discussion about the curse of the corner. In a Brooklyn Paper article, a waiter at Barrio accuses a 20-year-old fire of haunting the intersection. Commenter "Jim from Park Slope" disagrees:
The whole idea of a "cursed" location is just plain silly. This is a high traffic location in the middle of a fairly wealthy, dense urban area. The only reason Miracle Grill, or the other restaurants in this space, have closed is because they could not make enough money to support the cost of operating there. Either the rent being charged is too high, or the food has stunk, or both. Only a moron would believe that a "curse" was put on this location.Maybe he's right. But it's so much more exciting to imagine something scandalous behind the scenes of a sudden demise than to accept it at face value: when it comes to failed restaurants, we prefer the sordid tale to the simple explanation. I'm guilty of rubber-necked sensationalizing myself in the case of Brick Oven Gallery in Williamsburg, which abruptly closed in July 2008 after repeated temporary shut-downs by the irksome Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. A second incarnation—Kenny's Trattoria—opened last year just a few doors down, complete with brick oven and spacious, romantically lit back garden. But while Kenny is the consummate cheerful host, all is not well on the corner of Withers and North 9th.
Most nights find him sitting alone at a front patio table, looking somewhere between forlorn and eager when a pedestrian passes by (and in most cases, keeps walking). On a recent visit, I saw that Kenny's regular perch offers a bird's eye view of the Brooklyn Star, the formerly bustling hipster outpost that took over B.O.G.'s space. In a tragicomic twist, I noticed also that Kenny was wearing an old Brick Oven Gallery T-shirt while staring vacantly into the hollow night. In February of this year, a fire destroyed much of Brooklyn Star's kitchen, and it has been closed for reconstruction ever since. But chef/owner Joaquin Baca assured me that Brooklyn Star will reopen anywhere between three and eight weeks from now. He also insisted that the fire was due to faulty equipment, not foul play (or a curse).
Kitchen fires certainly were the rage in the last two years. Comida, a Mexican cantina on the beleaguered corner of Columbus and 82nd, went up in flames in July 2009, only four months after it opened. Almost a year later, the space remains shuttered, with makeshift real estate rental signs taped to the windows and doors (several calls to the posted number were unreturned, and a Google search of the rental agency turns up nothing).
461 Columbus Ave has seen more than its fair share of openings and closings—Charlie Palmer's Kitchen 82, T.J. O'Brien, and Jonathan Waxman's (who is hanging in the final rounds of Top Chef Masters) ill-advised Madeline Mae. Speaking of top chefs, Masters' season one finalist Anita Lo has seen two of her restaurants fry: An errant cigarette ignited Bar Q, and despite a remodeling, it never recovered—closing for good less than a year later. On July 4, 2009 her esteemed Annisa was devastated by a kitchen fire, but with the help of a feng-shui consultant, it's back in business—much to the chagrin of haters who accused her of torching it herself. This past February, a fire consumed Ryan Maguire's Ale House in Lower Manhattan, and the tightly packed Village Paper Party Store exploded all over Greenwich Avenue, shutting down neighboring Kingswood for a spell. (Kingswood quickly bounced back, but for Village Paper, the party is permanently over).
This much is true: The post-boom years have not been good to New York City eateries, new or old. And some locations and chefs continue to get hit harder than others. While it's tempting to blame particularly dramatic or persistent culinary tragedies on occult intervention, perhaps we ought to save some room for garden-variety bad luck. And arson.