I remember where I was when the New York Times attempted to argue that New York was “turning into Los Angeles” due to a recent uptick in local weed dispensaries, sound baths, and other phenomena simultaneously unfolding in countless non-New York cities across the country and probably the world.
It was a Thursday, and I was in my bed, working but not functioning after having been out late the night before. Still, at least one brain cell had survived the onslaught, and it told me this: New York will never be Los Angeles. Because unlike out West, New Yorkers keep eating until 4 a.m. And often much later.
New York was, at one time, the city that never sleeps. Before the pandemic quieted restaurants, some of the city’s most thrilling meals occurred around and after 4 a.m., the hour that bars are required to make last call: in the crowded basement of Wo Hop in Chinatown, at the counter of Veselka next to a bowl of unfinished borscht and a wadded-up tip, or in the dining room of Great NY Noodletown, where hanging roast ducks glistened in the reflection of Ubers routed home.
No shade to Los Angeles. The produce is better, but restaurants serving it are rarer after 2 a.m.
Until recently, it seemed like these scenes and others like them were at risk of becoming casualties of the pandemic. Over the last three years, most late-night restaurants have scaled back their hours due to a handful of factors that have made it impossible to stay open around the clock without losing money: citywide staffing shortages, lower foot traffic, higher food costs, restrictions on indoor dining, and so on.
Many have yet to change them back, including the three aforementioned Manhattan restaurants, which now close before midnight on weekends.
But lately, plates have been clattering at unexpected hours, as a new crop of restaurants, mostly in lower Manhattan, serve food well past Los Angeles’s bedtime. Bandits, a two-year-old cocktail bar in Greenwich Village, serves Greek salads and steak au poivre until 4 a.m. from Thursday to Sunday. A few blocks over at Pubkey, Chicago dogs and New Jersey rippers are on the menu until 3 a.m. Munchiez, an off-shoot of the old-school Chinatown bakery Mei Lai Wah, keeps the lights until the same time on weekends.
Gen Korean BBQ House, a California-based chain that touched down in Union Square earlier this month, is among the latest to arrive. The restaurant has more than 30 locations across the country, and in Manhattan, it stays open until 4 a.m. every day. On a recent Saturday night after 2 a.m., there were around 40 people hovering over tabletop grills in its dining room, which has more than 40 communal tables.
The numbers don’t add up, but restaurant owners are testing the waters anyway, seeing if they can make 4 a.m. the new 6 p.m. — which, don’t forget, was the new 8 p.m. Sam Yan, the owner of Dim Sum Palace, a small dim sum chain that opened in Manhattan’s Chinatown in December, says the 200-seat restaurant seats around 30 to 40 customers between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m., most of which are local residents.
“During the pandemic, almost all restaurants in Chinatown closed before 11:00 p.m.,” Yan says. “When we finish work after a long day and go to Chinatown to relax, we cannot find any place to sit down with our friends.” The restaurant’s late-night hours are for locals, he says, and anyone else craving siu mai at 3 a.m., its last call for dim sum.
Dim Sum Palace is something of an anomaly in Manhattan Chinatown, a neighborhood that used to house some of the city’s best after-hours restaurants but these days mostly shuts down by midnight. Earlier this month, Vic Lee of local non-profit Welcome to Chinatown said that most owners in the area still aren’t ready to return to pre-pandemic hours.
“What does it look like to keep our stores open later? Is this going to pay off because the margins are already so thin?” Lee asks. “Winter is definitely not the time to be testing that out.”
Johnny Huynh, the owner of Glizzy’s, a late-night hot dog counter in Williamsburg, is optimistic that warmer weather could change the tide for the city’s late-night dining scene. His bathroom-sized restaurant serves food until 3 a.m., Thursday to Saturday, but he plans to stay open an hour later on those days in the spring. Eventually, he wants to be open until 4 a.m. seven days a week.
“People are walking around with hot dogs at 1 and 2 a.m. in mid-January,” Huynh says. Granted, they’re wearing parkas — another reason New York will never be Los Angeles.