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.
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.
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).
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.
"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.