Is Gotham Falling?

A few weeks ago a friend forwarded me an article about the historic New York City restaurant Café des Artistes closing. Today, I read that another famous restaurant Tavern on the Green has filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I found the news of both failures shocking, as they were true NYC landmarks. Both of these restaurants were on the high end of the spectrum in price -- even by Manhattan standards. The earlier article explained that many such fancy restaurants are having trouble.

Back in July, I wrote a piece about things going terribly wrong for Manhattan business, but in that case I was talking about pricey retail shops. This time it's restaurants. Is this another sign of the bad economic times or just a trend in varying restaurant tastes?

It's easy to blame these closures on the bad economy. There's little doubt that it's playing a major role. As I said in my July piece, between Wall Street and corporate law firms experiencing layoffs and decreased compensation levels, luxury spending has taken a hit.

These restaurant closures are particularly significant, however, because they aren't just failed celebrity spots or fly-by-night fad restaurants. They've been around and highly successful for decades. Here's a bit about Tavern, from the NY Times article:

For years, the restaurant, near West 67th Street, has been one of the highest-grossing independently owned restaurants in the United States.

Its license will be taken over by a new owner, so it will not fail to exist entirely. Still, its being forced to file bankruptcy is telling. Here's a blurb from the NY Daily News article on Café des Artistes, explaining other restaurant problems:

The closing of the 92-year-old restaurant comes just days after the upper East Side brasserie La Goulue went out of business after 36 years.

The recession has forced so many New York restaurants into bankruptcy and closure that New York food blog started a feature called "The Shutter" to document the massacre.

Some 512 restaurants closed this past year, according to market research company NPD Group's recently released restaurant census ReCount.

Clearly, these notable spots have weathered many recessions. The recession in the early 1980s was particularly deep; we still haven't seen unemployment levels reach that point. This shows just how hard New York City is being hit. I fear that many of its lost jobs, and particularly the lofty salaries they provided, will not be coming back any time soon, if ever.

Yet, could such restaurant failures just be a feature of a change in diner behavior? Maybe pricey eateries are out of vogue. I think that's part of it. In a city like New York, trendy new restaurants open up every month. Wealthy diners could be substituting their old favorites for exciting new spots. Still, restaurants like Tavern are so ingrained in the fabric of New York, that it's hard to imagine that trendy restaurants could so easily drive them out of business. That's why, even if diner behavior has changed, I believe the greater influence must be the bad economy.

I wonder if New York City will ever be the same once the smoke from this recession clears. I officially vacated my old apartment a few blocks from both Tavern on the Green and Café des Artistes at the end of August, so these two restaurant failures literally hit close to home. But I already had been detecting a change. Each time I returned last spring and summer, the city seemed a little darker, a little dirtier and far less alive. Restaurants seemed emptier than I remembered, and I witnessed more vacant storefronts than I had ever seen before. Could the city be falling back into its pre-Giuliani ways, or is this just a temporary phase to subside once the economy rebounds? We'll have to wait and see.