Dining

Why NYC Restaurants Are Struggling

From classics to neighborhood spots, it's not just the rent that's the problem
The Four Seasons Hotel
The Bar at The Four Seasons | Photo: Courtesy of Wright

New York’s restaurant scene has been going through a rough time lately. The original incarnation of The Four Seasons and Union Square Cafe are both done; talented chefs who flocked to the city are leaving to open restaurants in Minnesota, St. Louis, L.A. and elsewhere; and once-bustling areas like Brooklyn’s Smith Street have numerous vacancies with landlords holding out for tenants like MAC makeup and J.Crew.

And then there’s the menu shift. Chefs are trading their daring and inventive postrecession menus for ones with wider profit margins and more guaranteed sales, which explains the endless amounts of burrata, cacio e pepe and chicken for two you’ve been seeing.

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Longtime food writer Andrea Strong looks at the current challenges facing restaurant owners in the city, where blame has primarily spread to chefs and landlords. Case in point: The owner of The Campbell Apartment was willing to pay double his rent, but then was told that shelling out $800,000 a year for his space in Grand Central Terminal simply wasn’t enough. But Bill Telepan, who owned the late, great Telepan on the Upper West Side, digs a little deeper:

Rents are certainly high, but I think there are other factors going into it. Our rent was sizable, but it was manageable. I had a few more years on my lease, but what forced me to close was a combination of things—taxes, payrolls and higher labor costs. They all have an effect on the smaller chef-owner restaurants. All these factors were making me raise prices. You can’t be a special-occasion restaurant when you want to serve community on a regular basis.

Echoing the fear of many New York diners, Strong writes: “It seems we are dangerously near a tipping point, where we risk losing the texture and beauty of this city’s brilliant restaurant fabric to a big-box blanket of TD Banks, Duane Reades and Bareburgers.”

There are still others who believe that we will approach a better time soon. Karma McDermott of Hospitality House explains, “Rents do go up and down in cycles, and at this point we are at the high end of a cycle. This is the top.”

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