Our deeply troubled city saw two uplifting developments this week. Le Rock, a French-style brasserie, launched at a long-dark Rockefeller Center site, and deli legend Russ & Daughters reopened its cafe on the Lower East Side after a two-year shutdown. Welcome to our great eating-out renaissance that defies every dire forecast amid an unforgiving economic climate.
If you say, “Whoa, they’re just restaurants!,” then you’re out to lunch.
Restaurants are the front line in the Big Apple’s struggle to arrest its slow slog into irreversible decay. They’re the city’s lifeblood.
As crime and squalor spread, the joy of dining out is just the thing to mend our tattered social fabric and rekindle libidos that were put on lockdown. They’re the pulse that beats without interruption beneath the gloomy data about violence on the streets, trouble in our schools and a general exodus from the city.
No other business has bounced back from COVID the way restaurants have. Offices are still just 41% physically occupied. The city’s premier hotel, The Four Seasons on East 57th Street, has yet to reopen. Empty storefronts — remember Barneys? — show there’s no leasing surge yet, no matter what retail brokers claim.
On March 28, 2020, when ambulance sirens wailed 24/7 and 8.5 million New Yorkers were in quarantine, I wrote that our restaurants would survive and recover. This was “not magical thinking,” I insisted, but a sure thing once the coronavirus was brought to heel.
I was more on target than I dared to dream. The evidence is plain to see for anyone who gets out of the house. Some of our greatest kitchen talents — including Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Andrew Carmellini — have launched new places. There are also more women chefs in top jobs than ever before, including Melissa Rodriguez at Al Coro and Madeline Sperling at Zou Zou.
From the Lower East Side to Inwood, the lights are going on once again in long-dead locations. Although credible data on the restaurant business is notoriously scarce, you don’t need night-vision goggles to see that places are crowded, sometimes more than they should be, after dark.
All this, despite challenges that could have killed the dining scene. An inexplicable retreat from the labor pool left most restaurants desperately understaffed. Many owners can’t hire enough people to serve lunch. Remorseless inflation drove up the cost of everything from paper napkins to caviar, forcing owners to charge up to $50 for a small halibut cut that was $35 two years ago. Amazingly, the higher prices have yet to chase customers away.
But here’s the most remarkable thing: our restaurants are as good as they ever were. What’s more, New York’s vaunted kitchen creativity came through the crisis undiminished.
Having covered the scene for more than two decades, I can say without a qualm that the eateries on offer have never been more varied and diverse. Fears that owners and chefs might fall back on meat-and-potatoes and too-familiar pasta proved ludicrous.
This year’s openings offer everything: Israeli-style grilling at Laserwolf; eclectic and fiery Indian at Dhamaka; unfamiliar Taiwanese at Wenwen; and mold-breaking Moroccan tagines at Dar Yemma in Astoria.
A few weeks ago, I sat on the Houston Street sidewalk outside the new, modern-coastal Bar Tulix — which Michelin plans to include in its next guidebook — feasting on palate-thrilling salmon Veracruz.
I ate outdoors because every seat was taken in the noisy indoor dining room. I might have wondered: how did such a fine place with such an original menu pop up out of nowhere, on the site of what was previously a burger joint?
But I knew the answer. Owner, John McDonald, of Lure Fishbar fame, knew that New Yorkers hadn’t lost their appetite for new tastes. They’d actually grown more adventurous during the worst crisis the city ever knew.
Goodbye, “magical thinking.” Our new dining scene is plain magic.