Every year, a significant number of new restaurants open and almost as many close their doors for good. It is, that spark of “I have a great idea for a restaurant” that drives many people towards the leap into entrepreneurship – a leap that too many are unprepared for. Nevertheless we have always been blessed with choice when it comes to finding a place to eat. On occasion, a restaurant opens, the owners have the right idea, everyone in the operation rallies around core principles that find a home in consumer minds and hearts, and the place enjoys success for a long period of time. These are the places where memories are built and where customers become friends, and friendships last from generation to generation.
This past year has been excruciatingly brutal on restaurants that simply haven’t been able to weather this relentless storm of pandemic related restrictions and consumer concerns. The typical 30% or more failure rate has crept up to 50% and even the most established generational restaurants have locked their doors for the final time.
It pains me to see any restaurant close. I know how much time, energy, money, and heart goes into that first day when a proud operator and/or chef looks up at the front door sign that proclaims they are open for business. I know how much personal experience is expressed in the menu that is oftentimes comprised of family recipes and a chefs “best effort”. I know how many sleepless nights went into the decision to lease a space, writing a check for the kitchen equipment, filing for an LLC, hiring those first employees, receiving that first order from vendors, and wondering if there will be enough money to pay the bills each week. I know how heartbreaking it is when the dining room is nearly empty, and how invigorating it is when it is full. The decision to close, to tell your loyal employees that it is over, to file for chapter eleven, to clean out the coolers and shut off the lights for the final time is something that cuts deep – this is maybe one of the worst feelings imaginable.
To some it is a sense of failure while to others it represents the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. Some walk away never to contemplate ownership again, while others immediately begin to formulate the next “great idea”. In all cases, it is not something that was contemplated on that first day of opening – it is always a last resort.
To this end, I think that it is proper to recognize all who take the leap, who give it their best, who pour their heart and soul into an idea – even if the end means a lock on the door. Here are just a few remarkable restaurants that have closed this past year – many simply because the pandemic was the last straw – something that they just could not overcome – we will miss them:
 BLACKBIRD: A superb Chicago restaurant known for its innovation and passion. Donnie Madia and Chef Paul Kanan did an extraordinary job of bringing a relatively small restaurant into the Chicago limelight. Ultimately it was this small size that made it impossible to survive with the limits to capacity that the pandemic brought.
 K-PAUL’S: There were times when people would wrap around the block and wait hours for a chance to sit and break bread at Paul Prudhomme’s landmark restaurant that defined the Cajun/Creole obsession that people had for this New Orleans mecca. Even after his death, the restaurant carried on – until it just couldn’t.
 AUREOLE: For a few decades there were a handful of incredible restaurants in New York City, just a handful out of the more than 25,000 in the Big Apple that truly defined the food revolution. Chef Charlie Palmer’s Aureole was one of those operations. Incredibly creative, extraordinarily delicious food accompanied by an out of this world wine list helped to put this operation on the map as one that stood out for decades. Now the space is for rent.
 BLUE SMOKE: Quite possibly one of the most noteworthy, successful restaurateurs in America – Danny Meyer and his Union Square Restaurant group seemed to own New York City for quite some time. Blue Smoke was his foray into the Barbeque genre, and it was a star. Even the brightest stars can fade, and so Blue Smoke is no more. Still, there is little question that Meyer’s restaurants will shine again once Covid is behind us.
 THE COPACABANA: A number of owners, a variety of locations, but always recognized as the premier “club” in the Big Apple. This was the place in the city for the hip and the fun loving, for those in the know, and those who wanted that to be so. No owner had more influence on this landmarks prominence from generation to generation than Peter Dorn. He overcame many obstacles as locations were changed for various reasons from “off the park” to Hell’s Kitchen – this was the place to party. Now it is a memory.
 GOTHAM BAR AND GRILL: I had a number of extraordinary meals at Gotham – a place known for innovation, the operation that coined “vertical cuisine”, a place of elegance and lightheartedness, a place for consistent excellence for more than 25 years under the guidance of Chef Alfred Portale (originally from Buffalo, New York), and a restaurant that for quite some time was one of the top grossing operations in the city. Portale left a few years ago, but it was his standards that put the operation on the map. I will really miss this restaurant.
 THE 21 CLUB: A speakeasy in 1922 during Prohibition – Jack Kriendler and Charlie Burns made this a place that was synonymous with the New York dining scene. Hemingway was a regular, and the mob was known to hang out and even plan a hit on individuals not in their favor. It was part of the New York landscape for almost 100 years.
 FARALLON: This was a restaurant whose décor was a combination of beauty and strangeness, but its food was undeniably superb. The octopus ceiling lights may have been what reporters wrote about, but it’s the food and service at this San Francisco restaurant that everyone will miss.
 PATINA: This was Chef/owner Joachin Splichal’s first entrance into the fine dining scene of Los Angeles. Often written about, frequently compared to, and always respected – this operation grew into a small empire of restaurants within the Patina Group that would eventually include restaurants on both coasts. Now it is a memory.
 CITY TAVERN: This important restaurant opened its doors in 1773. Many of the most influential people in American history spent time in this grand operation from Paul Revere to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams – the halls of City Tavern are filled with history. In 1777 the 1st 4th of July celebration in our country was held at City Tavern – the most American of celebrations. Chef Walter Staib was given approval to operate the business in the now National Park that is host to America’s past and he held this position with great pride until 2020 presented the business with a challenge that it could not overcome.
 MORTONS CHICAGO and LAWRY’S PRIME RIB: Houses of beef would be the most appropriate title for these operations. Steaks, chops, and prime rib carved tableside. Although other locations remain – these were destinations.
 EVEREST: Richard Melman – owner of Lettuce Entertain You – the thematic restaurant group centered in Chicago, opened Everest as his entrance into the high-end fine dining market. Beautiful, masculine, impeccable old world service, and a menu that reflected the grand style of cuisine – now a moment in time.
 MESA GRILL – LAS VEGAS: Bobby Flay was the guy for quite some time. His blending of American cuisine and Southwestern won him acclaim at the New York City Mesa Grill and his sister operation Vegas took it to the next level. When Vegas succumbed to the pandemic, the volumes needed to sustain many of the incredible restaurants there were forced to re-evaluate. Mesa is a victim.
This is just a sample of the tens of thousands of restaurants that have closed over the past year. Many in your neighborhood have likely fallen through no real fault of their own. Where do these operators turn to for answers? The normal: “what could I have done differently” is no longer valid. Those in the business will try to ask these questions as recovery looms closer, but the answers will be few and far between. One thing is clear – restaurants will rise again but with battle scars that will take years to heal.
Support your local restaurants when you are able, thank those restaurant owners and chefs for what they provide, and relish the memories that cafes, bistros, taverns, and restaurants have provided in your past.
“Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And think of all the great things we would do
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way”
- Mary Hopkins – 1968
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Lee C Ogletree said:
awesome read . I believe we will rise again better and stronger.