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.