Why 2012 Was A Terrible Year For Restaurants

We should care when old restaurants die, even the ones we'd stopped going to

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Sitthixay Ditthavong / AP

Staff at Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago are seen preparing for dinner on Aug. 28, 2012. Trotter closed his iconic restaurant after 25 years.

As 2013 gets underway, I can’t stop thinking about what I lost in 2012. In particular, I keep thinking about the fate of Bill’s Gay Nineties.

Bill’s Gay Nineties was a very old, very awesome New York piano bar. The food consisted of shrimp cocktails and steak on toast points, stuff like that. Bill’s closed down last year, and has now been replaced with a retro concept, also called Bill’s, with a kind of art-directed décor meant to suggest the thing it displaced. That kind of processed nostalgia is a hustle and a hoax; it posits a nonexistent past for the purpose of creating a fraudulent present. But restaurants can become landmarks, and it wasn’t just Bill’s Gay Nineties that was lost. 2012 brought a blizzard of closures, including Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia. I’m betting that there is some place old and wonderful in your town that went under this year, too.

It’s been a rough stretch for restaurants. While gastrocrats continue to support supper high-end tweezer-food palaces, the middle-of-the-road places have been hit hard by the recession. According to the market research company NPD Group, restaurant visits in the U.S. fell from 62.7 billion in 2008 to 60.6 billion in 2011. In an atmosphere like that, third and fourth generation businesses are particularly vulnerable.

Part of it is just age and decay. And part of it is that the restaurant business has become insanely, unsustainably competitive, especially in big cities: novelty is everything, and it’s rare that even the most critically lauded of places can sustain themselves for more than a few years. (Just this past year, three big players in the great barbecue boom of 2006 all went under within a few months of each other.) The restaurant business is volatile and risky  in the best of times, but new market pressures such as crazy rent, difficult credit, and the unpredictable forces of Yelp and blogs have put a lot of places on the brink much faster than they would have before. And of course there are all the unborn restaurants that never got started, just because the startup costs are so high for most small-time operators.

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Of course, like a lot of spoiled diners, I tend not to regret, or sometimes even notice, the disappearance of restaurants that were quasars of buzz and hype just a handful of years earlier. There’s always a fresher ingenue, a hotter concept, a crazier shtick, and a certain kind of restaurant naturally has a limited lifespan. That’s fine. Those kinds of restaurants have become a kind of show business, an ephemeral amusement for the young and prosperous, a form of night life. And I have no problem with that.

But when the Bill Gay Nineties of the world start getting cast aside to make room for faux clones, then I begin to get nervous.  When this happens to long-lived bars and diners and restaurants –places that loom large in our day-to-day public life – we really stand in danger of losing who we are. Imagine a country where every Irish bar a “Tipsy McStaggers”-type concept, where the 75-year-old diner you went to in high school had been replaced by a “Fifties diner” complete with neon Elvis and Marilyn Monroe images. Personally, I’d rather live in the Yukon. But that’s just me.

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I don’t have a solution for this problem. Old restaurants tend to be fixed in their ways, and frequently have customers as old as themselves. The market is cruel, and tends to leave its dead by the side of the road. But somehow I think that if we would just try a little harder, and value our dining-out traditions a little more, they would be a little less likely to die and re-emerge in revenant versions like Bill’s. But then, I never went to Bill’s Gay Nineties as much as I should have either.

5 comments
dunstable
dunstable

First of all, Le Bec Fin reopened in JUNE, over six months ago.  Secondly, Charlie Trotter went out on his own terms.  It's not like the restaurant was going under.  Third, that is an exceptionally poor application of statistics.  He took a broad number that pretty obviously included every single restaurant in the United States, from Le Bernardin to Le Burger King, then somehow concluded that this was related to the alleged failure of mid-level restaurants.  If you took every cover at every "middle-of-the-road" restaurant in America, multiplied that by 365, would you even get 1% of 2.1 billion?  I bet not.  

There's nothing wrong with the author's nostaltic sentiment, but he seems to have decided that 2012 was a bad year solely on the basis of this one restaurant's closure.  I mean, I guess that's fine, but it does not necessarily have anything to do with America's dining scene as a whole.

Chopinand
Chopinand

Dear Josh,

Thanks for a brilliant piece of insight. 

I love restaurants of "yesteryear" too because they hold a piece of nostalgia that goes beyond the food itself. I want the piece of sizzling fillet on that black cast iron plate in the shape of a bull with the unmistakable starchy gravox sauce that I can dip my soggy chips into. I do cry for them and thankfully, when I revisit Kuala Lumpur where I grew up, these awesome steaks are still being dished out, albeit in busy street side hawkers when they were once served in comfy steak houses and restaurants in the 70s.

The food world has moved on and these days, they are dictated by those who are mobile, relatively flushed with cash but short of time. I try to catch a few "nouveau" meals every now and then and sometimes, I am pleasantly surprised for its new ideas and treatment of ingredients which have hitherto been anything short of classic and "old world" if you may.

In short, money and capital in general is driving our culinary adventures these days rather than traditional and well-loved kitchen techniques. But I suspect those who are able to find a balance between good food, value for money, sustainability of our food resources, customer service and all those things that go into the gamut of what constitute a good restaurant, know where to look. 

Restaurants that do not embrace at least a big part of any of these variables within the complex equation of what makes them work in the first place, are probably doomed in the long run.

Happy eating!



mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

We don't eat out a lot, but that's mostly because of economics. My wife loves to eat out, but I'm happy to BBQ a steak and some shrimp and have a drink at home with some friends. Part of my issue, besides the economics, is that to get a really good, healthy meal is almost impossible at a restaurant without spending a fortune. And on the rare occasions I do spend a fortune, why is it so hard to get real melted butter with my lobster? And adding a little garlic salt to the butter makes lobster amazing! But why is that so hard?

I very rarely have bad service, so that isn't an issue for me. It mostly just boils down to food quality and economics.

daveshichman
daveshichman

"and the unpredictable forces of Yelp and blogs have put a lot of places on the brink much faster than they would have before"

I really do not understand this logic, at least about yelp.  Fantastic restaurants in NYC have fantastic YELP reviews, sure not all, but Yelp is a aggregator, if a place has 100 reviews, 95% are 5 star and 5% are 1 star, you can ignore the 1 stars, you cannot please everyone.  Good restaurants should not be afraid of customer reviews, which is why so many have the yelp sticker on their door.  If a bad place closes in a few month instead of a year because of bad yelp reviews, by and large that is what the deserved.  

DavidWondrich
DavidWondrich like.author.displayName 1 Like

Thank you for this, Josh. Bill Hardy, who founded Bill's Gay Nineties over 80 years ago, near the end of Prohibition, ran it as a sort of Noah's Ark for the remains of the grand old, pre-Prohibition saloon. His bar was the last saloon standing, a place where New York's past was still current, still alive. For a great many years, it was wildly popular. Then it sagged for a while, but ironically in the years before it was destroyed it was popular again. To see it replaced by a trendy wallet-vacuum destined to be closed in two or three years is truly heartbreaking.