My first visit to London was over the holidays, and it was nostalgic bliss. I could immediately feel the history amongst the cobbled streets, and ancient stone buildings (not to mention the grandeur of Buckingham Palace). On our last night we dined at Rules, a London institution that was established in 1798, and is the oldest restaurant in the city. From the food, to the décor, to the service, we felt like royalty. I could feel the history in each room… Edward, Prince of Wales being ruled by “cheese and chat” in the bar by Lily Langtry, while Charlie Chaplin and Charles Dickens entertain their guests with drinks, fine fare, and copious cups of tea. Despite the antiquity of it all, the drinks and food screamed fresh and flavorful, using only what was in season, as well as locally hunted and grown. Rules had an excitement to it with 200 years of history to back it up.
This dining experience got me thinking… do we really crave new restaurants or is it all a longing for the past? Most of the restaurants that are revamped or popping up left and right are mirroring “the good old days”, and grandma’s kitchen. Take for example the old world décor of Freeman’s and Saxon and Parole or even the U.S. nostalgia of Harding’s in the Flatiron District. Or how about the old-lace, flowered-wallpaper template of all of the Frank restaurants in the East Village? And yet institutions like Russ & Daughters are becoming more few and far between, and others like Peter Luger’s only real draw left is their deliciously flavored porterhouse. Why is it that we keep recreating the old, but our tried and true New York food institutions are dying out or becoming nothing but tourist attractions (e.g. Katz Delicatessen)?
Could the constant battle between landlord and tenant be a factor? The battle that contributed to the downsize of Kenny Shopsin’s infamous restaurant in the village, which is now crunched and cramped into a tiny spot in Essex Market due to the refusal of the owner to present him with a new lease. Or the revamp of the old Bill’s Gay Nineties to simply Bill’s via new ownership on account of a lease disagreement. And could it be that the old are being pushed out by restaurateurs whom are willing to pay top dollar for a space, and then tire of the scene or can’t handle the pressure after 3 years? Or the guys that want to continue their legacy with bigger and better restaurants instead of focusing on the one in front of them? While asking myself these questions, I found an interesting article that features Danny Meyer’s thoughts on what it takes to run successful restaurants. In short, he conveys that many of these people that open a place don’t know what they’re getting into (e.g. have never worked in a restaurant) and don’t always have the passion it takes to survive. On the other hand, institutions like Rule’s have been through wars, a few owners, and restricted hours, yet after all these years, still managed to present an exceptional dining experience.
I don’t necessarily have the answer for what drives the industry to continue opening new or revamping old restaurants at this rate. Maybe it’s the conditions of New York’s real estate, maybe it’s our constant want for something new, or maybe we have created a desire to promote (or judge) each entrepreneur or restaurateur that takes the chance to make their restaurant the next best thing (however long that may be). Whatever it is, I find it will be a difficult pace to sustain, and it makes me long for a New York restaurant that one day may be written about like the one in London. Described eloquently by Joseph Cecil Wingard in 1998, “A Table at Rules” is an ode to the establishment and will keep me yearning for that memorable meal. “Though men be great at war and art… ‘Tis cooks who keep the ribs apart! …And Rules, we know, is, oh, so able…To put a morsel on the table…For what is man without his bread? … (Marie forgot and lost her head!)” “So I can testify to you…That old things matter – yes, they do…Tradition is what sees us through… and quality will draw a queue”.