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Dispatches From an American Epicenter

Two years in the lives of four restaurants trying to hang on after New York City became an early focal point of the coronavirus pandemic: a beloved 24-hour diner, an iconic banquet hall, a young neighborhood restaurant group, and a power-lunch titan

It was almost two years ago that New York City became the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. No aspect of life in America’s largest city was left untouched in its early days, but perhaps none was as drastically or visibly altered as its restaurant industry. The connective tissue of social life, a medium for culture, and an economic engine that provided more than 300,000 jobs — predominantly to immigrants and people of color — New York’s restaurants and the people behind them experienced the epitome of nearly every form of havoc wrought by the pandemic. Some 20 months later, the industry has largely recovered, but scars remain, and they run deep: Local institutions are gone, forever altering the texture of the city’s neighborhoods; droves of workers have left the industry behind; and many surviving restaurants remain buried under a mountain of debt.

We’re a long way from fully comprehending this moment. The pandemic is ongoing; another variant looms. There’s still no official count of the number of restaurants that closed, and there likely never will be. But through the eyes of four restaurants as they experienced the past two years — a beloved 24-hour diner, an iconic banquet hall, a young neighborhood restaurant group, and a power-lunch titan with a galaxy of stars from the New York Times and Michelin — we might at least have some perspective on it.


The Restaurants

Chopsticks reaching for dim sum

Jing Fong


For decades, this 25,000-square-foot banquet hall — the largest in Chinatown, with room for nearly 800 people — served dim sum out of carts by day and played host to countless weddings and celebrations by night.
The three owners of Uncle Thien Hospitality

An Choi / Di an Di


Tuan Bui, Kim Hoang, and Dennis Ngo are pioneers of the city's new-wave Vietnamese food scene: Their opening act, Lower East Side hotspot An Choi, turned 11 at the start of 2020, while three-year old Di An Di immediately established itself as a cool-kid neighborhood staple in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Scenes from Gotham Bar and Grill

Gotham Bar and Grill


A true institution, Gotham Bar and Grill set the standard for new American cooking and helped transform Union Square into a dining destination when it opened in 1984. It is one of just 10 restaurants to be awarded a Michelin star every year since the guide arrived in the city in 2006.
A pierogi being dipped into sour cream

Veselka


Founded in 1954 by post-WWII Ukrainian refugees, this 24-hour diner is the East Village classic where many an epic night has ended with a plate of pierogies as the sun came up.

The Shutdown

Jing Fong Empty

February 1 Weeks before the pandemic is a concern for the rest of the city, fear seizes Chinatown. The city's Chinese population, already cautious about respiratory illnesses due to their cyclical appearance in Asia, scales back its economic activity. Combined with xenophobia and dwindling tourism, restaurants suffer enormous losses: During one lunch service in February, Jing Fong's 794-person capacity dining room sees just 36 customers.
March 1 The first case of COVID-19 in New York City is identified.
Jing Fong Shutters

March 10 Restaurants remain fully open, but Jing Fong shuts down to weather the impending storm. "This could last two or three months," owner Truman Lam says as he cleans out the freezers. "It's definitely in the realm of possibility that we can't make it."
March 13 After spending weeks convincing people to continue going about life as usual, Mayor Bill de Blasio declares a state of emergency. Indoor dining is restricted to 50 percent capacity as hundreds of people begin testing positive for COVID-19.
Last Night at Gotham

March 14 The first two COVID-19 deaths are recorded in the New York City area.

At the end of 2019, Gotham Bar and Grill ushered in its next chapter with a rave review from New York Times critic Pete Wells hailing its first new chef in roughly 35 years. But with the pandemic bearing down and whispers of an indefinite restaurant shutdown, Gotham's octogenarian owner Jerome Kretchmer decides to throw in the towel. "We have been forced to make the very difficult decision to close Gotham after 36 wonderful years because the unforeseen situation created by the coronavirus has made operation of the restaurant untenable," the restaurant says in a statement.

A blowout party on the last night of service flouts the state's new capacity rules, with guests seated at every table and the bar area packed three people deep. One of the city's legendary eateries, Gotham becomes the first major restaurant casualty of the pandemic.
Activist Riley Goodside hols up a 'Cancel Brunch' sign in Greenpoint, Brooklyn

March 16 Di An Di, An Choi, and Veselka shutter alongside the city's other 23,650 restaurants as all "nonessential businesses" are ordered to close indefinitely. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of service workers are laid off.


The Pivot

Restaurants turned to takeout and delivery to survive in the early days of the pandemic.
Restaurants across the city react to the pandemic in every way they can: Some shutter, some push forward, and others pivot entirely.
March 17 With all nonessential businesses closed and the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths ticking higher by the day, the streets of New York City empty.

Restricted to takeout and delivery under the new regulations, restaurants begin MacGyvering new business models. Newly deemed "essential workers" — cooks, cashiers, and processing, warehouse, and delivery workers, many of them immigrants — bear the brunt of the risk involved with keeping the businesses and the city afloat.

But takeout and delivery aren't viable for banquet hall restaurants like Jing Fong — opening for any sort of service requires at least a dozen customers. "It's an atmosphere and volume game, otherwise it doesn't work," says Lam. The restaurant remains closed.
March 19 Veselka briefly reopens for takeout and delivery to exhaust its remaining perishables. Owner Jason Birchard develops a fever and a cough and loses his sense of taste and smell. There's no widely available COVID-19 test, but Birchard's doctor makes an assessment: "You have to assume that you have it." Birchard quarantines at home, and the restaurant once again shuts down.
March 27 The $2.2 trillion CARES Act passes. The key piece for restaurants is the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which allows businesses with under 500 employees to apply for a loan worth 2.5 times their monthly payroll; the loan is forgiven if at least 60 percent of the money is spent on labor. Veselka, Jing Fong, An Choi and Di An Di, all apply for a loan.
Di Di Delivery

April 7An Choi reopens to sell takeout cocktails, which are allowed by the State Liquor Authority for the first time. A small menu of banh mi, fried rice, and salad rolls are also offered to comply with regulations that food items must be sold alongside alcohol. But there are few takers in a deserted Lower East Side — gross sales average less than $500 a day, compared to more than $3000 each night pre-pandemic.

Meanwhile, the team at Di An Di pivots to a fast-casual Viet-Cajun concept primed for takeout and delivery. Di Di, which means "To Go," launches with a "secret menu" on Instagram alongside some of the traditional Di An Di offerings.

As restaurants cycle through various offerings and opening times to find a profitable sweet spot, Instagram becomes a lifeline and a de facto menu for countless spots. Catering to the inherently visual medium, the Di An Di team invests in fancy packaging. The restaurant had spent $5,000 on disposable paper and plastic goods during the entirety of 2019, when it was dine-in only. With Di Di, it regularly spends between $1,000 and $4,000 a week on packaging and accoutrements. "We aren't a cheap place, so if the customer is paying a lot, then we want them to be wowed," says head chef Dennis Ngo. "We want the packaging to reflect the Di An Di experience."
April 28 Veselka receives a $900,592 loan under the Paycheck Protection Program.

On the same day, Di An Di receives a $177,412 loan and An Choi is approved for a $62,341 PPP loan.
April 30 Jing Fong receives a $668,016 PPP loan.
Veselka owner Birchard with his head in his hand with scattered chairs behind him

May 1PPP money in hand and Birchard fully recovered, Veselka reopens, bringing back eight out of its 100 workers. The results are discouraging: On a busy pre-pandemic Saturday, Veselka would rake in around $40,000 in a 24-hour cycle. But with no dine-in service and a reduced 10-hour window to sling as many pierogies as possible, the restaurant grosses only $6,000, a revenue drop of 85 percent.
Gotham Boarded Up

June 4 A city that had grown accustomed to staying home and hitting pots and pans every night at 7 p.m. takes to the streets to protest systemic racism and flagrant abuses of police power in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Breonna Taylor. For many, the nightly marches are the first signs of city life after more than two months of lockdown.

But looting also occurs amid the protests, and in response many businesses board up their storefronts. Although Gotham shuttered at the start of the pandemic, behind the scenes, the restaurant's management team negotiates with the landlord to transfer the lease to a new operator — a process that would become further complicated if the space were to burn down. The restaurant, which has been deserted for months, is boarded up.

Summer in the City

New York City restaurants reopened for outdoor dining on June 22, 2020.
As temperatures rise and fears ease, restaurants and diners take to the streets, the sidewalks, and any available outdoor space that’ll have them.
June 22 The city's COVID-19 positivity rate drops to 2 percent, down from a high of over 50 percent in early April, triggering a clause in the state's reopening plan that allows New York City restaurants to serve diners outdoors. The Open Restaurants and Open Streets programs launch, allowing restaurants to take over sidewalks, parking spaces, even entire roadways. "We have to save this industry," de Blasio says during a press conference announcing the surprisingly expansive plans. "We're going to make sure that we save restaurants."

After three months of shutdown, thousands of restaurants re-architect their entire way of operating to keep their doors open and workers employed, sourcing plywood, patio furniture, and other outdoor paraphernalia to the point of creating supply shortages. Within weeks, thousands of sheds, tents, and other makeshift structures sprout from the streets.
Dim Sum being made at Jing Fong

June 30 Jing Fong reopens for takeout and delivery, its hand forced by the deadline on the PPP loan. The rules are confusing, and forgiveness of the entire amount is not a guarantee, but it requires businesses to spend the money on their payroll within 24 weeks of receipt.

Chance also plays a large part in who gets to survive: Those on a corner, or with wide sidewalks, are suddenly bestowed dozens of seats without being forced to go through the normally onerous process of obtaining outdoor dining permits. At Jing Fong, gone is the 794-seat banquet hall — its al fresco setup consists of just six seats, with two high tops for standing only. On some days, there are just 30 order tickets, compared to 600 pre-pandemic.
July 15 The expansion of outdoor seating works as intended: Many restaurants are now making enough money to tread water until the pandemic ends. At Veselka, patio seating now accommodates 55 seats, nearly double the 25 it had pre-pandemic. Combined with almost $1 million worth of PPP money, strong increases in takeout (up 75 percent), and Goldbelly national delivery, dozens of former staffers are able to return to work.
An Choi owner Tuan Bui sits inside his closed restaurant

July 26 An Choi, which was constantly packed pre-pandemic, is now limited to just three tables as it contends with a bike rack and a fire hydrant directly in front of the restaurant. With limited space, and the pandemic dragging on indefinitely, Bui and his partners decide to close the restaurant permanently. "It's a travesty," he says. "It's all about luck of the locations. This was just too much of an uphill battle."
Outdoor BBQ at Di an Di

August 15An Choi's loss is Di an Di's gain. Consolidating the company's resources into a single location results in a bustling neighborhood restaurant: The drop from 70 seats to just 12 forces the restaurant to experiment with an outdoor barbecue menu that costs $70 per person, compared to a $45 check average in the past. "Each seat is more valuable," says head chef Dennis Ngo. "This is a real estate transaction now."

Combined with Di Di's takeout orders, Di An Di's monthly sales are now up 20 percent compared to the same period in 2019.
Bret Csencsitz walking through empty Gotham

September 4 Longtime Gotham Bar and Grill general manager Bret Csencsitz buys the rights to the restaurant. Alongside his new business partner, environmentalist Kevin Conrad, Csencsitz begins planning the reopening. "Gotham has been an icon in New York for 35 years," Conrad says. "When this city turns the lights back on, we'll be ready."


Winter Is Coming

Restaurants prepare for the cold, Fall-Winter 2020.
The year-end surge of the coronavirus, combined with weather conditions that challenge even the sturdiest outdoor dining setup, sends restaurants and diners into hibernation.

September 30 After a three-month delay, restaurants are allowed to reopen for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity as New York City's seven-day rolling average of test positivity reaches a new low of 1.46 percent and the threat of colder weather bears down on the city. Di An Di's and Jing Fong's dining rooms remain shuttered out of an abundance of caution, but Veselka reopens with 25 indoor seats. "Every little bit helps," says Birchard.
October 1 New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli releases a report on the state of restaurants in the city, suggesting that up to half of all restaurants and bars could be forced to shutter by the end of the pandemic. According to the report, 87 percent of all restaurants say that they are unable to pay their full rent.
Worker serving indoors at Jing Fong

October 17After seeing the infection rates remain low three weeks after the reintroduction of indoor dining, Jing Fong reopens its expansive banquet hall. "We just wanted to make sure it was safe for everyone," restaurant spokesperson Claudia Leo says. "Especially since our chefs are a high-risk group."

The restaurant operates with just 84 seats out of the 196 it's allowed by state capacity guidelines. Customers barely trickle in; the city's various Chinese communities that would normally travel to Jing Fong from Queens, Sunset Park, and across Manhattan remain homebound, while tourists have only begun to return to the city.

Meanwhile, the specter of rent looms — negotiations with the landlord prove fruitless, and the bills have been piling up since March. "I don't want to work for two years just paying that off," says Lam. "If they ask me to pay all the money, I'd rather just shut down and start over."
December 14 Temperatures dip into the 30s, and the streets are once again empty. The city's COVID-19 test positivity creeps back up to 5.5 percent, with nearly 200 people hospitalized daily. Indoor dining is once again banned in New York City.

Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, becomes the first person in the United States to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Public health experts say that most Americans will be vaccinated by July — more than half a year away.
December 21 The number of new positive cases rockets to between 4,000 and 5,000 a day — a rate that resembles that last seen in the spring — as the city settles into the depths of winter. The closure of indoor dining and colder weather hits New York City restaurants hard.

Di An Di, which had never reopened its dining room, sees sales drop 50 percent in December after the arrival of cold weather slows its outdoor business. There's much ado about heat lamps and propane tanks in the press, but they cost thousands of dollars to acquire and operate. With profitability hanging by a thread, the Di An Di team takes a break for several weeks to reset. "We were exhausted, physically and emotionally," Bui says.
January 1 At the start of the new year, Gotham and An Choi have shuttered, Di An Di is temporarily closed, and Jing Fong is sometimes selling just 20 orders of dim sum a day. Team Veselka, even with Goldbelly, takeout, and a heated outdoor patio, is barely breaking even.


The Reopening

Restaurants reopening Spring/Summer 2021
The arrival of highly effective vaccines is the best thing to happen to the city’s restaurants in more than a year as diners return to old haunts — and a perhaps surprising number of new establishments that emerged during the pandemic.
February 12 Thousands are being vaccinated on a daily basis and the positivity rate begins to drop, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to once again reopen New York City's dining rooms. Restaurant closures are not tracked in any complete or accurate way, but employment numbers are closely watched, and they're staggering: More than 40 percent of pre-pandemic hospitality workers — roughly 140,700 out of 325,000 — have yet to return to work.

New restaurants pop up all over the city, many with new business models to boot. An additional round of the Paycheck Protection Program, which includes more substantial funding for restaurants, provides the necessary financial cushion for many to survive the roller coaster of closures, reopenings, and restrictions.
Di An Di owners receive the Moderna vaccine

March 4 The team at Di An Di gets vaccinated, just days after being approved for a second PPP loan worth $280,862. "When they announced the vaccines, we finally saw a path to reopening," says Kim Hoang, one of the owners of the restaurant group. But with less than 10 percent of the population vaccinated, the reopening date is still months away.
A deserted Jing Fong on the night of its closing

March 7Jing Fong's cavernous banquet hall closes for good after sustaining an 85 percent loss of revenue for 2020. Even with a steady stream of well-wishers arriving for their last meal at the restaurant, the restaurant never fills the 200 seats it is allowed under indoor dining restrictions. "It's a damn shame," says owner Truman Lam as he locks the door for the last time.

The landlord begins demolition on the space two days later.
March 11 The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Biden, includes $28.6 billion for restaurants, industry-specific aid that groups have been lobbying for since last March. "There's a light at the end of the tunnel and not a train," says NYC Hospitality Alliance executive director Andrew Rigie. "There's reason to be optimistic."
March 12 Veselka receives a second PPP loan worth $1.39 million. Birchard acquires the lease for the toy store next door, allowing him to add its 1,000 square feet of floor space to the restaurant in 2022. The satellite location in the lower level of Essex Market, which remained closed during the pandemic due to indoor capacity restrictions, plans to reopen and serve as an order fulfillment center in early 2022 while the home base on Second Avenue expands next year. "I'm not going anywhere," says Birchard. "I'm hopeful that once this is over that I'm going to come back even stronger."
Di An Di workers

March 19Vaccines are plentiful and New York City restaurants reopen at 50 percent capacity for the first time in more than a year, marking a major milestone. Some feel like the end of the pandemic is in sight.

At the same time, many restaurant staffers are hesitant about the vaccines, while former workers have spent the past year reevaluating their place in the industry. Finding enough people willing to work remains a problem for Di An Di and many other restaurants across the city. "This pivot back to full service dining has been challenging," says Bui, who foresees being unable to fully staff up for months.
Owner Truman Lam inside the construction site of the new Jing Fong

May 10Jing Fong announces that it will reboot itself at a new location at 202 Centre Street. "I think it's tiny," says Lam as he begins construction on the 120-seat restaurant, a far cry from the former 800-seat capacity of the legendary banquet hall. "The amount of business doesn't justify opening the same type of space."

But without the burden of the rent on a cavernous restaurant, Lam hopes that the new model — one with a greater focus on takeout and delivery — will be more sustainable.
May 19 New York City restaurants can reopen their dining rooms at full capacity.
May 31 All remaining curfew restrictions are lifted, which allows bars and restaurants in the city that never sleeps to operate into the night once again.
June 15 New York State's vaccination rate crosses the 70 percent mark — much earlier than some experts predicted — triggering an end to most remaining restrictions on businesses and gatherings. The number of new cases drops to its lowest levels since March 2020. The return of FOMO, packed dance parties, bustling dining rooms, and all-night concerts kicks off the "hot vax summer."
A fully packed dining room at Veselka

July 14 The delta variant, several times more transmissible than the original strain of the coronavirus, begins surging in New York. Many restaurants re-implement masking policies out of an abundance of caution. Despite the dampened mood, in-person dining continues thriving: The lines have returned at Veselka, even with its vastly expanded outdoor dining footprint.
Di An Di owners celebrate the full reopening of their dining room

July 25Di An Di reopens its dining room at 100 percent capacity. With the addition of its outdoor dining space, revenue exceeds pre-pandemic levels. "We survived," says Bui as he toasts his partners inside a completely packed restaurant on the first day of reopening. "But all that uncertainty was pretty scary."
August 19 The number of New Yorkers that have received at least one vaccine dose crosses the 75 percent mark. The curve of new COVID-19 cases begins to flatten and even dip, locally at least.
September 14 With the delta wave having swept across the country, New York becomes the first American city to implement a vaccination requirement for adults participating in virtually any indoor activity, which includes patronizing restaurants and bars. "The restaurants are full, the tourists are coming back," says de Blasio. "We couldn't have done it without the vaccine mandate."
Gotham on opening night

November 9Gotham, the first major restaurant to permanently close as a result of the pandemic, reopens. Jing Fong waits for Con Edison to turn the gas on as it completes renovations on the space. Veselka and Di An Di have both been humming along for months.

But pandemic-era hurdles still remain: The number of workers in full-service restaurants has dropped more than 30 percent compared to 2019, as staff shortages and supply chain issues continue to hamper most restaurants around the country. The expansion of outdoor dining has altered the landscape of New York City and provided restaurants an essential lifeline, but precisely how permanently remains a question as community boards fight back against what they claim is increased noise and litter. The rent deals and deferments that saved many businesses will come due soon, too.

Operating a food business in New York City is difficult, and hundreds close every year, pandemic or not. Despite the question marks presented by new variants, openings continue to tick up to 2019 levels. After the nearly two-year roller coaster, most businesses have endured, some in surprising ways.

At Gotham, old regulars and new diners alike promptly fill the reimagined space. "Despite setbacks," says Csencsitz, "New York has always found a way forward."

Workers raise the phoenix to the wall of the new Jing Fong restaurant.
Workers raise the phoenix to the wall of the new Jing Fong restaurant.

Gary He is a James Beard Award winner and loser based in Brooklyn, New York.

Corrections: This piece has been updated to more accurately characterize the discussions between Jing Fong and its former landlord, and the average check price at Di An Di. Eater regrets the errors.

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