Don’t let classic restaurants vanish

Published 10:54 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014

Story highlights

Classic New York restaurants are closing at an alarming rate

Some restaurants help define a neighborhood's identity

Rising rents have forced many out of business

Kate Krader advocates conferring landmark status on important restaurants

Editor’s Note: Kate Krader (@kkrader on Twitter) is Food & Wine’s restaurant editor. When she tells us where to find our culinary heart’s desire, we listen up.

(CNN) —  

Am I the only one who is freaked out about the future of New York City restaurants? Who sees so many beloved places announce that high rents are forcing them to shut their doors and move away from neighborhoods that they helped establish?

I’ll answer my own question—I’m not the only person freaked out on the subject. Here’s what Alex Stupak, chef and owner of New York’s remarkable Empellón Mexican food empire, has to say. “The rent escalation in New York is terrifying. If your rent goes up from $10,000 to $50,000, let’s say, then you have to make that up somewhere: on your tableware, on your food, on your staff. Pretty soon you’ll decide that it’s easier to use paper plates so you can save on your water bill. In 20 years, this just might be a city of Taco Bells, like in Demolition Man.”

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Yikes. The alarm first sounded for me when I heard about the closing of Pastis, the brasserie oasis in the Meatpacking District. It’s gone. Alarm bells also rang when the star chef Bobby Flay—Bobby Flay!—had to close Mesa Grill because his rent doubled. Then came word that the modernist WD-50, whose chef Wylie Dufresne was key to turning the Lower East Side into a dining destination, would close this November.

And now news that makes the earth shake even harder: The venerable Union Square Café, which defined farm-to-table dining in New York City as far as I’m concerned, is closing at the end of 2015, when the rent will skyrocket to somewhere around $650,000 a year.

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What brings ghost towns to life? “Restaurants,” Flay told Julia Moskin in a New York Times article on this very subject. “Eventually, they’re going to drive away all the people and places that make New York City interesting,” he added, underscoring my fears.

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Here’s what I propose: landmark status for restaurants that have helped establish neighborhoods. Places like Union Square Café, which transformed a neighborhood that was most notable for the drug dealing in the park, and which was instrumental in turning a few tables of fruit and vegetables into the world-famous Union Square Greenmarket. The Landmarks Preservation Commission could grant that status to a restaurant that can demonstrate its contribution to the community; landlords would have to regulate rent accordingly.

Extra helpings:

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Until I can figure out a better way to pitch this idea, I’ll nervously watch as more restaurants close, and chefs leave NYC.

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But while I’m on the lookout for Demolition Man signals—Sylvester Stallone; Taco Bell proliferation—I’ll also be comforted by what Danny Meyer, Union Square Café’s iconic owner, had to say about moving out of his restaurant’s namesake area: “We will turn over every single rock in our own neighborhood, to stay where we are.”