photo credit: luckystrikeny.com
A few weeks ago when Keith McNally announced that Lucky Strike, his restaurant in SoHo would close after 31 years, I wrote on social media that these days I find myself missing some places more than people. Lucky Strike was one of those places. There was a sadness knowing I wouldn’t be able to visit my favorite restaurant once last time - as New Yorkers we are used to our beloved places being shuttered, in part due to the high costs of commercial rent - but usually we have some time to say goodbye. During these days of COVID-19, this is not always possible. In announcing the closure, McNally posted about “greedy landlord during lockdown syndrome” on his instagram account, alluding to the hard realities many small businesses are dealing with. Usually I roll with this sort of thing, accepting it as part of my New York life, but this time felt different. Given coronavirus a heightened sense of vulnerability exists, and coupled with nostalgia, I feel much more emotional about these things than I normally do.
The history of dining out in New York City is rooted in how the City developed and began in part as a functional necessity. As the City’s population grew in the early 19th century, “streets became congested and commutes became too long to accommodate a mid-day meal. Oyster cellars opened up throughout the Financial District to feed this segment of the population. Everyone—rich and poor—ate oysters at the time, but most cellars weren’t nice establishments.” [How Urban Development Shaped the Way 19th-Century New Yorkers Ate- Curbed - Diana Budds, 2/18/19]. The intertwined history of New York City’s development and how its residents eat may have begun with practical reasons but in a contemporary context also serves to mirror the cultural dynamics of the City and the people who live here. The diversity of New York can be seen in its food culture - global cuisine is well represented in the City’s over 26,000 restaurants.
But oddly enough for me, it’s never totally been about the food. What I’m eating is important and how good the food definitely is - but the more important thing is the cultural experience of dining in a restaurant. What I loved about Lucky Strike was not just how good the burger or steak au poivre was, but the feeling I had being there. Memories there began with my time as an intern at a gallery across the street fifteen years ago. Walking up to its location on Grand between Wooster and West Broadway - you felt the history of the SoHo art scene represented in the buildings that surrounded its doors. That atmosphere was carried inside the restaurant- a constant as the neighborhood changed around it. All places in the McNally empire (Schiller’s Liquor Bar [rip], Pastis, Minetta Tavern, Balthazar, The Odeon, etc) embody a brasserie/bistro classic formula. They are a staple below 14th Street- so much so that the New York Times branded McNally “The Restaurateur Who Invented Downtown” [Joyce Wadler, 1/18/04). All of this translated into a comforting sense of the familiar when it came to Lucky Strike, an intimate place in a large dense city, supported by the familiar faces of its dedicated staff.
The economic realities of running a restaurant in New York were difficult even before COVID-19 and it is hard to imagine how many of our favorite restaurants will survive- even though they may be the first places we will want to run to after all of this is over. As Prune Chef & Owner Gabrielle Hamilton eloquently wrote in her recent testimonial in the New York Times Magazine, “I have been shuttered before. With no help from the government, Prune has survived 9/11, the blackout, Hurricane Sandy, the recession, months of a city water-main replacement, online reservations systems — you still have to call us on the telephone, and we still use a pencil and paper to take reservations! We’ve survived the tyranny of convenience culture and the invasion of Caviar, Seamless and Grubhub. So I’m going to let the restaurant sleep, like the beauty she is, shallow breathing, dormant. Bills unpaid. And see what she looks like when she wakes up — so well rested, young all over again, in a city that may no longer recognize her, want her or need her.” [My Restaurant Was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need It Anymore?, 4/23/20]