Bann, the only Korean barbecue spot in Hell’s Kitchen, closed on March 1. It managed to survive the Great Recession, Hurricane Sandy, and the first year of a global pandemic that has killed over 535,000 people across the U.S. The 15-year-old venue was a beloved and often bustling restaurant on Worldwide Plaza, a leafy Midtown nook located above a giant subterranean theater complex. Guests would come in before curtain calls for Avenue Q or Jersey Boys, searing succulent galbi over tabletop grills. Later on, nearby residents and office workers would sip soju at the bar. Bann certainly didn’t occupy the limelight like an Atomix or a Cote in its later years; it simply functioned as a consistent, easygoing spot for locals and tourists alike. The lease was set to expire in 2029.
There was almost no one in Worldwide Plaza on the evening of Saturday, February 28, when theaters had been closed for nearly a year, and Bann felt more like a disorganized warehouse than a place to eat. The decade-plus-old restaurant was bleeding cash, manager Julie Choi later told me during a phone interview, and was preparing to shutter without any fanfare. When I passed through a (cracked) glass door to retrieve a pickup order of bulgogi and japchae, it was dark and empty. My takeaway fare sat in a plastic bag on a bar, next to scattered bottles of liquor. I walked back into the kitchen and found a single worker, executive chef Eli Martinez, a native of Honduras, who studied Korean cuisine in Seoul. He has spent over 30 years working with the group that owns Bann. He said his plan was to get some sleep and to move on.
The virus hasn’t exacted the same horrific human toll on Midtown West that it has on communities like Elmhurst, Brighton Beach, Flushing, or Hunts Point. But economically and culturally, the disappearance of office workers and theatergoers has leveled a serious depth charge against the Hell’s Kitchen restaurant community, turning a diverse and accessible neighborhood into a place that feels more cold, corporate, and laden with plywood. And inasmuch as the captive audience of Broadway remains gone for now — a crowd that made operating on certain blocks about as sure of a thing as running a beer stand at a ballgame — local restaurantgoers will continue to see some of their favorite restaurants and pubs close.
A restaurant’s shuttering is about more than customers losing a place to eat or employees losing a source of income. The closure of a single neighborhood restaurant can wreak deep cultural and social losses for the humans who spend time there, either as a place for culinary inspiration, a place to earn a living, or a proverbial third place between work and home. That loss can become all the more heartbreaking if the restaurant wasn’t immortalized by four reviews from two critics, or if it was the type of place that didn’t enjoy an afterlife on a Bourdain show rerun. Sometimes, restaurants simply evaporate into the ether. And as more venues shutter, those losses multiply and take a more complex, collective form. The city has seen its count of restaurants drop by over 1,000 since the pandemic began, a sobering reality that’s upending neighborhoods and reshaping everyday life across the five boroughs. Communities are losing entire classes of cuisine, and venues are closing before regulars get a chance to pay their final respects, before they can grieve over one last order of wings or banchan.
Ivan Ramen’s Slurp Shop at Gotham West Market, run by the world-renowned Ivan Orkin, closed November 1. It was the rare ramen shop to serve at least five or six distinct styles rather than focusing on, say, creamy tonkotsu or lean shoyu. For neighborhood residents who didn’t want to swing by a different space each time they wanted a different style of noodles, Slurp Shop was a one-stop shop. But I also have a simpler theory on why Slurp Shop — or any solid, affordable neighborhood spot — might matter to the surrounding community: because it was open and close by.
For many, finding a place for dinner isn’t about taking the subway to a different borough to sample Detroit-style pizza. It’s about walking around the block and dropping by the same old haunt that treats you well. It’s about — and this absolutely kills me — opening up an app like Seamless or DoorDash and searching what’s in one’s delivery zone. So even though Korean barbecue joints are booming throughout the city, when the only one in Hell’s Kitchen closes, that matters to a lot of people who just went there because it was, well, there. To scores of folks, a brewpub with 354 selections across town doesn’t have one one-hundredth the value of a great local Irish bar that carries your favorite beer and that employs a bartender who knows to put in your chili dog order the second you walk inside.
Culturally, the loss of a local venue is rendered all the more painful by the fact that its stories often don’t live outside the four walls of the institution, outside the minds of the people who inhabited the venue and gave it life. Even for a globally renowned, three-Michelin-starred restaurant whose chef has a cookware line and a best-selling autobiography with over 2,000 Amazon reviews, continued relevance can be difficult to maintain amid a closure. To wit: You can’t simply store a restaurant’s signature dish in a vault like you would a piece of art; you can’t encode the taste of aged duck into an mp4 file the way you would a live jazz performance. Even a highly produced and expensive Chef’s Table episode — there was one of those for Ivan Orkin — can’t come close to translating the flavors of a bowl of spicy chile ramen, only available to those who have geographic access to the given ramen bar.
So imagine how difficult it will be for society to come to terms with a venue’s legacy — and how tough it will be for the locals and workers to anchor their memories — when there’s no cookbook to reproduce the recipes, when there are no reviews to tout or assail, when there’s no LinkedIn profile page to track down the employees who have spent decades working there, when there’s no active Instagram accounting showing off all the memories, when there’s no food media farewell recounting the mood among the final dinners. That’s all to say that just as the importance of a famous culinarian like Orkin shouldn’t be overlooked, the loss of a place where cooking is simply deep-frying a bag of frozen calamari — and where the one line cook knows how to turn that squid into something ethereal in its own unique way — has the potential to be more deeply felt across a community.
The pandemic hasn’t necessarily been an extinction-level event for Hell’s Kitchen, but it has certainly gone a ways toward decimating wide swaths of the neighborhood’s independent restaurant scene. Outside of a Subway outpost, I can’t think of a single chain restaurant that has closed over the same time period. The biggest opening in the area this past year has been a Target. Where there used to be a Uighur takeout spot on Eighth Avenue in Midtown West there’s now a brand-new Popeye’s.
Walking through the Turnstyle food hall, where I used to have to fight for a seat, now feels like strolling through an abandoned, post-apocalyptic mall. If alfresco eating is bringing a sense of “eyes on the street” to many parts of the city — that Jane Jacobs style of urban vibrancy we never felt when most restaurant patrons were tucked inside dining rooms — the empty storefronts infecting nearly entire blocks and their parasitic “space available” signs do just the opposite. They make Midtown West a quieter and more lonely place. They remind us how good we had it. And many of them closed before we knew it.
Taladwat on Ninth Avenue, one of the city’s best Thai restaurants, closed last August. Co-owner Brian Ghaw cited the lack of a theater crowd as a chief factor in the shuttering. Bolivian Llama Party, where I used to get my morning saltenas, closed in January 2021. The excellent Venezuelan Arepa Factory next door closed early on during the pandemic, a move that was followed by neighboring food stalls Zai Lai, a Taiwanese spot, and Daa Dumplings, a Russian pelmeni vendor. Cakes n’ Shapes on 52nd Street closed after 33 years in October, as did Lansdowne Road near 43rd Street, an Irish bar that showed UFC fights. Ninth Avenue Saloon on 46th Street, one of the city’s oldest gay bars, closed in July. Bar Bacon, a very porky cocktail den near 55th Street, is all boarded up, and we lost Mentoku Ramen on Ninth Avenue too, which is bad news for anyone who loved their yuzu kosho ramen with potato whipped cream.
If a venue like WD~50 announced its shuttering months ahead of time, allowing regulars and first-timers to stream in for farewell meals, the mass pandemic closures were different. The sheer speed and number of the closings have prevented us from processing the fact that these restaurants are gone, and from unpacking what they meant to us. We rarely had the opportunity to swing by for one last drink or to pay respects to waiters and chefs we might never see again. The pandemic — and perhaps a greedy landlord or two — deprived us all from packing our beloved restaurants past capacity and singing our dirges while drunk and laying down crumpled-up bills on the bar for the soon-to-be-broke staffers and sobbing in person like at a proper funeral. Legions of restaurants never even woke up from their initial closures last March, while so many of those that gave it a go under tight operating restrictions never reopened in the way that most of us remember them — as bustling indoor dining rooms. Even if we had months of advance notice for every closure, there would simply be too many for the human mind to take stock of — or actually revisit. Whether we were working outside of the city or quarantining in it, whether we were unemployed and strapped for cash or grieving the death of a loved one that had to be experienced virtually, through a FaceTime call, the pandemic meant we couldn’t be there for these doomed restaurants.
Bann only publicly announced its closure on Instagram after it had boarded up. “My partner and I are gutted,” one commenter wrote. Another wrote that she visited Bann during its inaugural year in 2005 and patronized it dozens of times in the decade and a half since, including the night she got engaged, last February. It was her “last date night before the pandemic,” she added. For that Korean spot and countless other restaurants that played such vital roles in our lives, we never got a chance to say goodbye.