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[A typical scene at Sweetipie in the West Village.]
[A typical scene at Sweetipie in the West Village.]

The Death of the Shitshow

Are we living in a post-shitshow New York City?

According to the editorial calendar, today is the first day of Shitshow Week, a great and longheld Eater tradition wherein editors and guests pillory restaurants that have completely gone off the rails. That means restaurants with baffling concepts, even worse execution, embarrassing service, sub-par food, peripatetic chefs, absentee celeb partners, and (always) stupid desserts. Hall of famers like ShangNinjaKobe Club, and Sweetiepie set the bar against which all other shitshows are judged.

But we’ve canceled Shitshow Week. At some point over the last year, the shitshow died.

In 2015, it's easy to have a bad meal at a New York restaurant. Some serve terrible food. Some (many!) are intolerably loud. Some are overpriced. Food halls and fairs can be hellish to the non-tourist New Yorker. Roof bars are, by definition, nightmares. But it's almost impossible to have the kind of off-the-rails experience where frustration turns into amusement and you simply have to marvel at the spectacle that is playing out in front of your very eyes.

Shang.  Photo by Lockhart Steele.

For many years, this city kept turning out turkeys of this caliber left and right. They were operated by big names likes of Jeffrey Chodorow, Susur Lee, and Todd English. All the drinks were either too sweet or too spicy. The plants were dying, the enamel on the tables was starting to crack, and you were guaranteed to find something out of the ordinary in the bathroom. [For a refresher on how one restaurant can encompass all of these traits and oh so many more, please see the curious case of At Vermilion.]

These establishments wouldn't have existed if not for the frothy theme restaurants of the late 90s and early 2000s. Places like Spice Market and Buddakan provided a heady mix of cinematic decor, nightlife sizzle, and better-than-average party food. Bankers, Euros, and the single dudes and ladies of this city flocked to them. In the middle of the decade, many people tried to create their own versions of this perfect storm, to varying degrees of success.

merkato 55

Merkato 55.  Photo by Amanda Kludt.

Around 2009, right after the economic collapse that killed expense accounts and changed the spending habits of many hard-working New Yorkers, diners gravitated toward smaller establishments with interesting menus and moderate prices. In 2010, the hottest restaurants in town were cool, independently owned and operated neighborhood places like Torrisi Italian Specialties, Kin Shop, Roberta's, Prime Meats, and M. Wells Diner.

Post-collapse, the major shitshows like Shang and Kobe Club represented the exact opposite of what many diners wanted on their nights out, and with each passing year, the number of 200+ seat Asian-fusion lounge/restaurants dwindled. A few big box head-scratchers like Pranna and At Vermilion opened after the bust, but they were already in the process of being built when the bottom fell out.

The menu at At Vermilion.  Photo by Amanda Kludt.

Instead of changing to match the tastes of the day — a gamble at best, especially considering the cost of overhauling a big restaurant — many of these classic shitshows simply threw in the towel. At the dawn of the new decade, investors stopped pumping money into gargantuan clubstaurants, opting instead for lower-risk ventures. Jeffrey Chodorow — the man who gave New York more shitshows than anyone else in the history of dining — now funnels money into small, interesting projects like Red Farm and All'onda.

New Yorkers may have craved scene and sizzle at the beginning of the aughts, but by the end of the decade, they wanted, above all else, good food — and not just tasty things to eat, but easily accessible culinary experiences. This is the era of regional everything, single menu-item mania, and full-immersion food halls. The cult of hospitality also grew in the years following the financial meltdown, and now all the big restaurant groups — especially mega operators like Major Food, Mercer Street Hospitality, and Noho Hospitality — nail the service along with the food at all of their establishments around the city.

Levant East.  Photo by Amanda Kludt.

In 2015, good food and adequate service are par for the course all across New York, and restaurants will have a difficult time getting the support they need to survive without those two things. Knowing this, the clubstaurants of the city have improved since the heyday of the Grand Shitshow as well. Spending hundreds of dollars at flashy, multi-level party spots like Catch, Zuma, or Beauty & Essex might not be your cup of tea, but these are all tight operations with decent service and crowd-pleasing food. Even the reincarnation of Asia de Cuba in the old Butter space is not a shitshow, if you can believe it. The way things are trending, El Chod might not open another shitshow ever again.

You can still find a few shitshows out in the wild if you know where to look — At Vermilion, Mr. Chow Tribeca, and Ninja are inexplicably still open — but nobody is releasing new ones anymore. Like the 8-track or the floppy disk, the shitshow, as a format, is phased out.

On this site, we'll continue to cover the annoyances of modern dining — stay tuned for the annual Airing of Grievances later today — but there will be no Shitshow Week until we can find hard evidence that this most unusual breed of restaurant is back from the dead, perhaps in a permutation we never expected. If you have any leads on Zombie shitshows, please drop us a line.  And in the meantime, reflect on this, the image that encapsulates the Shitshow Golden Age more than any other:

The baked Alaska at Kobe Club.  Photo by Ben Leventhal.

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