Beyond What’s Served: What NYC Dining Culture means for the City
From facilitating social and cultural transformations in the nineteenth century to today’s search for normalcy in a pandemic; New York City restaurants serve timeless reflection of Gotham’s ceaseless burgeoning.
At 10 am, some non-English speaking immigrants from Queens and some artists-musicians from Brooklyn rally to board subways; the former anticipates dancing to their native song while performing menial tasks in the kitchen, while the latter prepares to whirl into asking reservation status, indoor or outdoor preference, and proof of vaccination as prerequisites of their table-to-table fine dining cha-cha. A gastronomic adventure awaits as they flip inside — and now, outside tables too — to catch the vibrant hues of midday and allure on-the-go New Yorkers for a palatable pause. Granted, if their restaurant persisted the torments of a nearly two-year pandemic.
A stroll around Lower East Side would give you two sides of the coin: restaurants with closed signs on their doors while others orchestrating the rattles of knives and forks against dishes non-stop. Just in 7 months of the pandemic, New York’s restaurants are far worse than the national average of restaurant closures. Out of 8,333 shuttered restaurants in the state, more than half comes from the city alone, largely contributing to the food and service industry’s running nationwide total of $280bn in lost revenue.
A Building Block of a Roaring City
Past the economic value, however, waves of COVID-19 pandemic steals something greater from the city. “Restaurants arose to fill a need in the rapidly growing city,” the late urban historian Cindy Lobel writes about New York City restaurants’ evolution, “and as they did, they urbanized elements of daily life.” Eating houses, as it was previously known, was first set to provide quick, cheap meals to on-the-run businessmen who would transact or have rational debates over their meals–-a crucial role in fashioning the metropolitan, public culture of New York. Hence, as the COVID-19 hushed the city, a surge of closures bawled.
Specialized restaurants cater to different groups of New Yorkers — costlier entrees are at the heart of midtown and Filipino Lechon can be found where a lot of Filipinos are (mid-Queens) — the city has evolved in letting different classes, gender, and race have a common space and the socializing experience of eating among strangers.
Before, it was unfitting for ‘respectable’ women to dilly-dally in taverns and coffee shops that catered only men who, subsequently, were allowed their regular information exchange. When entrepreneurs saw the pattern of hotels, movie theaters, and department stores to be fashionable places for women, eating establishments in New York stepped up to serve this other half — particularly, Delmonico’s pioneered the city’s restaurant service of having a French chef, white linen tablecloths, and printed menus. And as it captured bourgeois respectability, middle-class and elite women began to frequent the semi-public space.
By the mid-1800s, the city had already gained its world’s best culinary destination badge, ‘‘To a stranger, New York must seem to be perpetually engaged in eating. Go where you will between the hours of 8 in the morning and 6 in the evening, and you are reminded that man is a cooking animal… One wonders, how even this great City can support so many eating houses” journalist Junius Browne described in 1869.
Reimagining “Out to Eat”?
Today, the industry is fighting to keep entwined with the city’s bonanzas in sickness and in health. Mayor Bill de Blasio launched the Open Restaurants initiative, allowing a simplified application for roadside dining of more than 12,000 restaurants last June 2020. Some adopted cautious limitations instead: so-called ghost kitchens restaurants proliferated, delivery-only extraordinaires like chili fried chicken place, Pecking House, by a chef who used to cook in Madison Ave now one-man operates including making the deliveries around Queens, and Tomokase’s sushi platters prepared and served by private chefs in their customers’ home–both provided new models to think about. Others preferred brief hibernation — literal metabolic depressions during the winter days — like Lafayette St’s Indochine and Red Hook’s Fort Defiance, while several embraced the cold: Industry Kitchen’s greenhouses with overlooking to the East River, and Dr Clark’s outdoor Japanese Kotatsu tables with built-in electric heaters and blankets that envelops their guests’ legs.
Avid diners ponder which pandemic-born liturgies would stick to the overall NYC dining experience, but their authenticity poses no question as it captured the city’s style of uplifting commerce using creative constraints. And out of collective love for Mannahatta, New Yorkers would nevertheless preserve the spirit of the epicurean web of steakhouses, oyster cellars, dim sum bars, ice cream parlors, and hearty plant-based destinations: they would wash hands, wear masks, and get jabs, so that one day they could, safely, create edible memories again.