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Your Fancy Pants Tasting Menu Spot Isn’t Welcoming Enough

Critic Ryan Sutton laments the rise of walled-off restaurants

In Nighthawks, Edward Hopper’s 1942 oil on canvas masterpiece, the fluorescent lights of an after-hours diner illuminate an empty Greenwich Village street. A seamless pane of glass wraps around the establishment, offering a panoramic pre-Google Street view of the patrons inside.


Two guests, a redhead in a pink dress and a businessman with a cigarette, sit at the counter. A few stools away sits a solo patron, his back facing the viewer. He appears to be silent. Most understand the work to be a commentary on urban isolation and alienation, but Nighthawks, I’ll suggest, rather tells a story about how a cafe and its inhabitants bring life and light to a dim, depopulated corner of the city. It’s a timeless meditation on lonely individuals finding comfort over mugs of hot coffee and perhaps cheap food. When it’s night in New York, the restaurant is our beacon.

Now imagine if the insides of that diner were shuttered off by curtains or blinds.

It wouldn’t be an Edward Hopper painting anymore. It would, however, be an accurate depiction of too many ambitious New York restaurants, venues that distance themselves from the outside world through drapes, curtains, blinds, brick walls, and doormen.

Establishments where a bottle of wine can cost more than a bicycle and where a meal can cost more than a monthly rent check don't necessarily serve the same purpose as a diner, nor will they ever serve as many people. But if the city’s endlessly proliferating bastions of haute gastronomy and cocktailery ever intend on attracting a slightly more diverse clientele, they’ll need to make themselves actually look like welcoming beacons, like places of hospitality.


Consider Nakazawa in the West Village. It’s an expensive omakase sushi spot that, upon opening in 2013, managed to fit right into a neighborhood more known for its casual walk-in restaurants. The front window was key. From outside it afforded views of the stark white sushi counter, the black stools, the managers in dark suits and the impeccably-dressed patrons eating live scallops with their bare hands. Passing by the Commerce Street spot at night resulted in a tableau that was no less stunning than the front windows at Bloomingdales. Edible objects of desire and the people consuming them were bathed in the type of lighting one might expect for a Fendi handbag on display.

The window at Nakazawa was a visual gift to the community.

That window has since been frosted over.

The new glass, which hides all but the heads and shoulders of chefs and wine stewards close to the sidewalk, was installed a year ago with the debut of Nakazawa’s new a la carte lounge. Owner Alessandro Borgognone said the changeover was designed to offer his guests "a bit more privacy."

His decision isn’t without precedent. Most high-end sushi spot in New York — Masa, Onodera, Kuruma, Azabu, Shuko, Ichimura 2.0 use some sort of design device to prevent passers-by from witnessing any of all the sake and saba glory (Zo and Gari are welcome exceptions in this regard).

Yes, sushi is a subtle art that demands focus on the part of the diner. The complex nuances of a slice of perch can be missed if the diner is not laser focused on each bite, which is why some of the priciest sushi spots are virtual temples, free of loud music (or any music), visual distractions, or open-air formats that let the scents of the halal cart parked outside waft in. But there’s something decidedly classist about how the best sushi spots — along with the fanciest French, American, and Italian spots, steakhouses and high-end cocktail bars — do everything possible to ensure that the rest of us can’t see what’s going on inside.

Is there a particularly aggressive cell of cheap rose peddlers I don’t know about? Do the owners think people will gather outside the windows and brandish "River City Marching Band" placards, like they do in front of the Today Show? Do blind vampire bats go splat against the glass in a bloody pulp prompting the guests inside scream in horror?

Or perhaps, more realistically, is this all simply a question of shielding celebrities and financiers from the paparazzi — and the rest of the world?

Offering guests more privacy sounds nice. But what we’re talking about isn’t so much catering to the deep-seated needs of many; we're talking about kowtowing to the desires of a privileged minority — people who can afford to dine at expensive restaurants so they can avoid the wayward glances of those who can’t.


None of this is to say that every restaurant needs to be a glass cube like the Renzo Piano-designed Santina, a coastal human terrarium in the Meatpacking District. We don’t always go to the movies to have our world reflected back at us in a twisted Werner Herzog documentary. We go to see cars fly in The Fast and the Furious. Restaurants are the same. Sometimes we want an al fresco margarita and guacamole at Dos Caminos. And sometimes we want culinary escapism in never-ending 1980’s party that is Mr. Chow (or the subterranean fantasyland that is Tao).

Carbone

This dichotomy is understandable-ish. Cheaper streetside venues that court walk-ins naturally have more open windows and patios, while tonier reservations-only venues or pricey clubstaurants — which like to control the dining environment as much as they like to control what’s on the plate — tend to be more closed off. But is it not uncomfortable how restaurants catering to escapism or privacy seem to follow the big money? This is all the more troubling in a year when exorbitant tasting-menu and omakase spots continue to flood our city’s dining scene, which means more of our sidewalks are now flanked by restaurants that are not just financially inaccessible to pedestrians (or the surrounding communities) but visually impenetrable to the larger world. They're not so much restaurants as walls with doors, with the people who visit them transformed into silhouettes behind curtains.

Retail space, which restaurants occupy, is not public space, but it abuts our public spaces. It constitutes so much what of we see as we walk down a city street. You'll agree it’s a shame when super-tall apartment complexes rising along Central Park obscure our view of the blue sky, right? But is it not just as sad when the most celebrated restaurant operators, instead of making the city a visually richer place to live, and instead of showing passers-by a culture of haute gastronomy they’ve maybe never experienced – transform more and more of ground-level New York into opaque spaces that are only accessible to those with the confidence and cash to walk through the door?


Perhaps you think I’m nitpicking with all this window business but you’d be surprised how many novice diners are put off by venues that look imposing. Frosted windows are literally the opposite of hospitality. In fact, they are a near-universal sign of exclusion. "Okay, we’re open for business, better close the door, shutter the blinds, and batten down the hatches."

Can it be a coincidence that all but one of the city's six restaurants with three Michelin stars ensure that no passers-by can catch a glimpse of patrons inside, actually eating food? (the lone outlier: Le Bernardin).

And can it be a coincidence that Danny Meyer, the king of hospitality, has windows with compelling views into every single one of his New York establishments? They're even at the two Michelin-starred Modern, where anyone roaming around the museum’s public sculpture garden can peer into restaurant’s tony dining room.

A coincidence, it is not, because Meyer knows inclusivity is as much a matter of perception as it is reality. While fancy restaurants have found new ways to be transparent – online wine lists, overhead shots of every single dish that has ever come out of the kitchen courtesy of, barf, Instagram influencers – none of this cures the unwelcome sensation in your stomach when you walk by a windowless concrete edifice and there’s no menu hanging out front. No walk-in lounge or menu for bar diners can truly negate the feeling you’re not welcome when a restaurant you pass by is indistinguishable from a curtained off townhouse, or when a faux-speakeasy evokes Yale’s Skull & Bones edifice.

This sad reality is all the more true because fancy food, unlike Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dresses or Omega Watches, is the rare consumer good that isn’t touted like a trophy in display cases outside the venue in which it’s sold. This explains why even a luxury car dealership can feel like more vibrant addition to the neighborhood than a tasting-menu restaurant.

Take the Ferrari showroom on Park Avenue. It's nominally a place where prospective owners select the interior fabrics on their future jerkmobiles. But in practice, it's a toy store for adults. And everyone knows the most important aspect of any toy store is the window against which you press your face. Walk by and you’ll see a polychromatic array of automobiles and patrons circling them like museum pieces. The raison d'etre of the showroom isn't hawking $250,000 supercars; it's giving away free daydreams to anyone who passes by.

A few blocks away from the showroom is Le Cirque, one of the city's most storied restaurants. There is a window to press your face against, but behind that window is a fully-drawn curtain, which means those walking by have no view of the soaring, whimsical dining pen, of chef Tom Valenti's refined, pricey French fare, or of Henry Kissinger eating lunch. Le Cirque is simply a restaurant in the ground floor of the Bloomberg building. Not exactly the stuff of daydreams, is it?

All this opacity works against restaurants, against pedestrians, and even against the larger group of patrons inside. That’s the other side to the Nakazawa window story: looking outside at the neighborhood gave the meal a sense of place. It wasn’t just another sushi restaurant, it was a West Village sushi restaurant, and you felt it every time you glanced at Citibikers pedaling by. So I hope this gripe I have about New York restaurants changes. Otherwise the next Edward Hopper is going to paint some epic oil on canvas work of people walking by a bunch of boarded-up fancy spots on dark corners in the Village.

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