New York has become the city that never eats

2 May 2022

4:00 PM

2 May 2022

4:00 PM

Is there anything more extraordinary than dining in New York City? Whetheryou’re sitting down for the Michelin star experience of a lifetime at LeBernardin or squeezing in at the counter of Vanessa’s Dumpling House on theLower East Side ($1 a pop), the New York restaurant combines atmosphere withquality food in a way that few other cities around the world can match.

Every cuisine is on offer, 24 hours a day: and if you’re willing to do alittle research beforehand, you can all but guarantee yourself a meal worthevery penny. Under normal circumstances, cuisine competition between London andNew York isn’t really a contest at all. Of course, London has its staples. Andoptions have dramatically expanded in recent years; but from old classics —like the American Bar nestled in the Savoy Hotel — to new barbeque joints (likeSMOKESTAK, out east past Shoreditch), many of its dining highlights have been inspiredby — or lifted from — New York.

But if the Big Smoke’s restaurants have vastly improved in recent decades,they’ve still got nothing on the Big Apple’s — or, at least, they didn’t. UntilCovid-19 came along.

Every major city saw its restaurant industry collapse during the pandemic.Dining out, particularly indoors, was, in both London and New York, one of thelast things to return. While neither city’s dining scene has recovered fully,London’s comeback has been far quicker.

According to data from OpenTable leading up to the end of March, restaurant reservations inLondon sat 13 per cent below their pre-pandemic levels. In New York,reservations are nearly 40 per cent below the 2019 baseline.

Just as it’s impossible to ignore how full and bustling London’s hospitalityscene feels once again, it’s impossible not to notice how much quieter New Yorkfeels. The Omicron surge didn’t help things: New York City dwellers rushedout of the city in droves, dropping the city’s number of seated diners down to70 per cent below pre-pandemic levels.

But even on a visit in mid-February, the buzz (and the people) were stillmissing. From bistros around Grand Central Station to dimly-lit Frenchrestaurants in Brooklyn, the tables were empty and the ambiance slightly eerie.It’s a strange feeling, to miss the strangers that used to be crammed intotables and booths next to you. But their absence is acutely felt. Compare thisto London, where people are back to spilling out of the pub into the streets.

Where tables are sparse, it’s not due to lack of customer demand, but a lackof staff. The labour crunch is a shared problem in both cities, created by theshutdown of economies and the outflow of service industry workers that has putfurther strain on the hospitality sector. For customers, this means longerwait times and slower service, but for restaurant owners, it means findingthe extra cash for wage boosts to entice workers back: in New York especially,these costs threaten to make or break establishments. According to Eater NewYork, an online dining guide for the city, some 1,000 restaurants have alreadyfolded in New York since the pandemic first hit, with estimates that theunofficial figure will run far higher.

The staggering difference between London’s bounce-back and New York’sfreefall can, in part, be explained by how the respective governments respondedto the plight of hospitality at the height of the pandemic. Neither New YorkState or the federal government offered anything like Britain’s furloughscheme, which allowed restaurants in the UK to hibernate their employees andspring back as soon as restrictions were lifted.

But perhaps the biggest difference wasn’t what either city’s officials didat the start of the crisis, but the decisions that came after.

When vaccine passports were being debated last summer in Britain, groupslike UK Hospitality came out against them, citing not just the bureaucratichurdles restaurant owners would need to jump — like implementing checks at thedoor — but how vaccine certification might usher in a change in consumer behaviour,turning people off the restaurant scene altogether.

In London, the debate was won, and vaccine passports were never brought infor dining. But New York became the case study of what happens when you dointroduce them — and how badly wrong it can go.

Proof of vaccination for dining inside was brought in last summer andbecame more onerous as months went on. By Christmas this year, all childrenover the age of five needed at least one Covid vaccine dose to be allowedinside at a restaurant. Fines were threatened if restaurants didn’t comply, sochecks were taken seriously. Not thinking twice about it, I brought my proof ofvaccine along to a downtown restaurant right before New Year’s, but was askedto show a photo ID as well as my certificate. Having left it back at the hotel,I managed to get away with it — just — by matching my credit card details to myproof of vaccination.

After a string of lawsuit threats and restaurant closures, Mayor Eric Adamsscrapped New York’s scheme at the beginning of March, a great relief to thethousands of restaurants just trying to survive. With the Omicron wave havingsettled, and onerous restrictions lifting, its residents are hoping thecity can enjoy a new lease on life. ‘My Covid-worried friends made a reservationfor us to sit inside our favourite Italian joint,’ one New Yorker tells me. ‘It’llbe the first time in over two years.’

When I last wandered around the city I tried to stop by one of my favouritespots, Bar Sardine, in the West Village: not much on the outside, but some ofthe best cocktails and tostadas around. To my horror, but not surprise, it hadclosed. One of the many restaurant casualties of the past few years.

Still, I’m not ready to hand the food title over to London just yet. Asrestrictions lift, and life finally returns to normal, the best parts of NewYork City are bound to return. And they must: it’s the city that never sleeps,not the city that doesn’t eat.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s May 2022 World edition.

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