Restrictions on dining in New York have devastated an industry that defines the city. According to the New York State Department of Labor, the city lost more than 11,000 restaurant and bar jobs, in December 2020 alone. Hundreds of these businesses have closed, with little economic respite on the horizon. Restaurant owners and workers have had to contend with mostly empty dining rooms, a dystopian challenge for a city used to full books and bars filled elbow-to-elbow. In some cases, the outcome has been eerie: The banquet halls of Chinatown’s grand Cantonese restaurants are left empty and intact as if the guests have just left their seats. Dining rooms have been repurposed as produce stands, offices, storage spaces, or extensions of the kitchen.
This time capsule of images captures the interiors of empty restaurants as still lifes, reframing the details with care as precious objects that represent the simultaneous sorrow and the resiliency of the moment: a stack of chairs, a forgotten string of lanterns, objects that evoke the potential and hope of our city. Though indoor dining has returned to 35 percent capacity since February, restaurants continue to face the persisting challenges of the pandemic. At Vamos al Tequila, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the server Lucia Ahuatl was somber when she described the diminishing clientele, the fact that business is still primarily orders for pick-up or delivery, even with the expansion of outdoor dining and the return of indoor dining. “Every day is so different,” she said. “It’s a little better, but it’s just weird. Everything is weird.”
Photos by Bess Adler.
Hop Lee Kitchen. 16 Mott St., Manhattan
Pates et Traditions. 52 Havemeyer St., Brooklyn
Peking Duck House. 28 Mott St., Manhattan
Katz’s Delicatessen. 205 E. Houston, Manhattan
Di An Di. 68 Greenpoint Ave., Brooklyn
The Liberty. 29 W. 35th St., Manhattan
Spicy Tibet. 75-04 Roosevelt Ave., Queens
Vamos al Tequila. 162 Franklin St., Brooklyn