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What I’ve Learned About NYC Dining in the Last Five Years

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On her last day, Eater NY editor Serena Dai reflects on how the city’s restaurant scene has changed

Sunrise in New York City Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Before I started at Eater, I didn’t really know who Danny Meyer was. He came up a lot. So like with any other name that popped up in Slack rooms and pitch emails — Daniel Humm, David Chang, Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, Thomas Keller — I did what any reporter new to a beat would do: I Googled him, and read as many stories about him as I could. These were the people who were important in our world, I thought. These were the movers and shakers who I needed to become acquainted with in order to understand New York City’s dining world.

That was October 2015, and while I wasn’t wrong, my understanding of the city’s scene has changed significantly in the last five years. The city’s dining scene has also changed a lot. Today, on my last day at Eater NY before I head to San Francisco, I leave knowing that it will change even more: The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted every area of our lives, and restaurants in particular are dramatically shifting.

Many of the changes, and many of the things I hope will change more, are not happening solely because of the pandemic. Even in 2015, dining culture had started going through a necessary transformation, driven in part by activism around the poor treatment of restaurant workers through the fair wage campaign.

That year, Meyer revealed his plan to eliminate tipping at all his restaurants, a decision made in anticipation of higher minimum wage laws. Humm and Will Guidara, who gained prominence together at tasting menu restaurant Eleven Madison Park, announced they would be getting into the fast-casual game, something that many other fine dining chefs also did in hopes of a higher volume business. By January 2016, buzz was building around delivery-only restaurants like food service Maple, a concept backed by pedigreed chefs like Chang who sought revenue streams with lower costs for labor and rent. In fact, many restaurants started doing more delivery; owners quickly started speaking out against how third-party companies were taking advantage of their small businesses.

In other words, some of the biggest issues of the pandemic — squeezed business models, importance of delivery, workers’ rights — have been brewing for a while, with failures and splits along the way. The reckoning across industries is putting these questions at the forefront, pouring gasoline where there had already been a flame.

In some ways, the pioneers of the last generation paved the way for their own demise. Seasonally changing menus, ethical sourcing, and trends toward prioritizing local ingredients reframed what it meant to be a savvy food consumer. White tablecloths and French wine mattered less; eggs from cage-free chickens, paired with an unstuffy environs, mattered more. If a diner cares about what’s on their plate, is it so much of a stretch to want the people cooking it to make a living wage? There was of course also the #MeToo movement, when women in hospitality exposed bad behavior that took down chefs and restaurateurs like Mario Batali and Ken Friedman, who were previously considered untouchable. If the beef needs to be grassfed, is it too much to ask that the server not be groped by her employer as she brings the burger to the table?

As you’ve perhaps noticed, I’ve only so far mentioned men. Most of the people who I frantically Googled that first year, thinking that they were the most important people to know, were white men who cooked European cuisines.

But over time, I learned that I could not figure out everything about our city’s scene by Googling old food media stories, that I could not only rely on the industry’s preexisting idea of what or who was important to our readers. I learned that I needed to broaden my scope, to open my ears, and to take chances on stories that might not initially seem like a sure thing. I learned that there were plenty of people who ran restaurants with avid fan bases whose names rarely got mentioned in the press. Sometimes, I would hear about a restaurant closing and, when searching for past stories to judge whether our audience would be interested, I would not find a single piece on it from any publication. Yet, people on social media would be decrying its demise; we’d run a story, and it would do numbers. Any time that happened, I would try and analyze: How could we have served this audience with information about their favorite restaurants earlier?

Once at a meal with a publicist, we talked about who gets covered and who does not. She said that there are certain non-European restaurants that are “important” to cover, but assumed that they didn’t get any traffic. I told her she was wrong. There are always some stories that feel important but don’t get audience traction, but there are far more that do. I mentioned some examples: We wrote about a new wave of Taiwanese restaurants like Win Son and 886 because they interested us, but we quickly found that our audience was also hungry for stories about Taiwanese restaurants. So we started paying more attention. We covered the opening of Malaysian cafe Kopitiam’s new location because Kyo Pang’s desserts excited us, but we continued to follow up because readers showed demand.

This city is so big that there are arguably hundreds of dining scenes pocketed within the larger one that we share. There are the restaurants for the rich and famous, there are restaurants for the growing Chinese diaspora, there are neighborhood cafes that double as queer community hotspots, and there are brunch spots that act as lively, joyful spaces for Black people. These are all restaurants that shape how New Yorkers dine, and they all represent ways to understand New York’s restaurant world.

Perhaps this is overly optimistic of me, but I think that New York food obsessives — the ones who choose the restaurants their friends go to, the ones who always have a recommendation, the ones who spend their free time picking places to eat — do care more about issues such as labor and diversity and equity. They care about restaurants as places in their city, and not just as vehicles to obtain delicious food. People like Meyer and Chang and Keller, though still influential and worth covering, were the preeminent empire builders of the last generation, but many of them are now playing catch up after coming up in the celebrity chef era, a time when the general dining public didn’t care as much about systemic issues. The up-and-comers shaping the next decade of dining in New York, though, understand that they need do more than run a restaurant, and that they can’t rely on the chef-as-god mentality of their predecessors. They need to be part of their communities, whatever that looks like.

Incidentally, the pandemic has favored restaurants that already have local fan bases, and that have been able to quickly change their business model to listen to what those fans need in a time when the way we eat has been completely upended. They offer groceries, or meal kits, or picnic baskets. They are transparent about pricing, they’ve served food to Black Lives Matter protestors, or they’ve become food pantries for unemployed workers.

The coming months will be tough for every restaurant, and I know that many of my favorite restaurants will probably close. But I think the ones that have the best chance of survival will be the ones who have learned what I have: Examine preexisting ideas of what’s important, take some chances, and then listen closely to the people you purport to serve.

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