He was focused on New York City, where the damage has been especially severe. A few months ago, the New York State comptroller estimated that as many as half of the roughly 24,000 restaurants that operated in the city at the start of 2020 would be out of business soon into 2021. “New York is the perfect storm,” the chef and restaurateur Camilla Marcus told me: It has a winter that inhibits outdoor dining, limited space for that in the first place, punishing rents that strain restaurants’ budgets and interiors that need to be packed tight with customers for the numbers to work.
Marcus had to close her nearly three-year-old restaurant, West-bourne, in downtown Manhattan in September and is a founder of ROAR (Relief Opportunities for All Restaurants), which lobbies and raises relief funds for unemployed restaurant workers. In contrast to airlines, the restaurant industry has received no targeted federal bailout — even though it has traditionally, by some estimates, employed more than 10 times as many people. “I’m not an economist,” Marcus said, “but how that doesn’t deserve an industry-specific relief package is beyond me.” Me, too. The House passed such legislation two and a half months ago, but the Senate didn’t follow suit.
I worry that many Americans downgrade the fates of restaurants, regarding them as conveniences and indulgences — shouldn’t we all be cooking more, anyway? — instead of the job creators and economic forces that they are.
“People don’t understand how large a ripple effect on the economy one 30-seat restaurant can have,” said Gabriel Stulman, who has had to close two of his nine Manhattan restaurants. What dies along with a restaurant is money that went to a landlord, to food producers, to food deliverers, to linen suppliers, to appliance repair workers. “For most people in our industry, 90 cents of every dollar that we make goes back into the economy in one form or another,” Stulman told me.
That’s the financial arithmetic. What about the social and emotional math? Restaurants often anchor the neighborhoods that they’re in and attract additional businesses. They’re engines of urban renewal. They’re cultural ambassadors, introducing the spirit and traditions of a given country or ethnic group to customers whose souls as well as their bellies grow bigger for it.
I’m no impartial judge. I spent more than five years, from 2004 to 2009, as The Times’s restaurant critic, so I know many of the creative, hard-working, humble people whose existences have been upended. They have responded more with grace and determination than with self-pity or rage, quickly and cleverly adapting their operations as best they can. Some restaurants now sell groceries. Some used shrubs and trellises to fashion veritable Edens on the sidewalk.
But no amount of ingenuity could save other restaurants. Uncle Boons, one of my favorite Thai spots, didn’t make it. I’ll miss its crab fried rice, but more than that I’ll miss introducing it to friends and relatives and gazing at their contented expressions as we nourished ourselves in so many ways at once.