Fall Preview: Eat, Drink, and Be Worried
Most publications offer a Fall Dining Preview made out of rehashed press releases touting upscale restaurants slated to open in the coming months. The predictions often prove untrue, with the restaurants not opening until months after the announced date—or sometimes not at all. If they do open on time, the enthusiastically recommended dishes are often strangely absent.
Flying in the face of tradition and putting our asses on the line, our Fall Preview makes actual predictions about the future of New York dining, using data gathered in the recent past to forecast what's to come. So, gazing into our culinary crystal ball, here's what we see for the upcoming fall dining season and beyond . . .
The future will continue to hold sad news for lovers of traditional New York eats. Will sainted places like Katz's Deli, Russ & Daughters, DiFara's, Mitchell's Soul Food, and B&H Deli close? It could happen. Patisserie Claude, the home of perfect croissants and pains au chocolat, will shutter at the end of the year after two decades of delighting West Villagers. Succumbing to the same real-estate pressures, Chez Brigitte closed not long ago, a lunch counter offering cheap French sandwiches and stews since the Beat era. So did Florent, a place synonymous with the meatpacking district since the 1980s, and M&G Diner, a wonderful soul-food place that couldn't keep up with 125th Street's franchise mania.
These sorts of colorful joints cannot easily be replaced. All three Polish meat markets in the East Village have closed. Other recent exterminations of worthwhile places include Brick Oven Gallery, Pintxos, Burmese Café, Bright Food Shop, Matamoros Pueblo Grocery, Havana Chelsea Luncheonette, and a slew of other cheap, unpretentious places. When rents double or triple at the whim of greedy landlords, no amount of patronage can make a restaurant viable.
What sorts of places will replace them? It's a cinch that there'll be a lot more franchises, which can source inferior ingredients and turn out lower-quality products more efficiently. With the dollar as weak as a two-day-old puppy, investment in the New York restaurant scene seems like a particularly good move on the part of foreign fast-food franchises. As chronicled by my colleague Sarah DiGregorio, the ridiculous profusion of fro-yo places—many headquartered in Korea or Japan—has covered the city in sour glop, clad in the false cloak of "healthfulness," though many are made from chemical powders. There are literally dozens of these places now occupying small, strategically placed storefronts, including Pinkberry, Red Mango, Oko, Yolato, Very Berry, and Yogurtland. Our prediction: Come winter, there'll be a shakeout, with the supremely awful Pinkberry emerging as the winner. Yellow snow tastes better!
But fro-yo parlors are only the tip of the foreign-franchise iceberg. Maoz and Walk to Wok are both Dutch chains, seemingly inexpensive, but pricey when you add the necessary extras. Sakae Sushi is a Singaporean invader, utilizing a novel conveyor-belt system to hypnotize you while delivering food not quite up to East Village sushi-bar standards.
About to debut on Bleecker Street is a Korean chain called New York Hot Dog & Coffee, flaunting two products we like to think of as our own. Of course, the principal Korean fast-food import for the last couple of years has been fried chicken, via such chains as Cheogajip, Kyedong, and KyoChon. Can anyone make better fried chicken than our own places like Mitchell's and Ruthie's? Even the Times has noted that old-fashioned soul-food places are fast disappearing, though they blame faddishness rather than real-estate interests.
Then there are the Japanese noodle imports, zooming in at a higher price level than most other noodle slingers in town. Yes, you can get a great bowl of ramen at Ippudo and Setagaya, but is it any better than the sublime noodles at Momofuku or Eldridge Street's Super Taste and Sheng Wang? Of course, Japanese chains like Teriyaki Boy and Go! Go! Curry have long been pumping the bucks out of Gotham.
Here are some likely further developments:
You can tell the economy's tanking when noodles, burgers, and hot dogs are glamorized as dinner entrées. There will be more luxe hot-dog parlors, more lame Kobe burgers, and more chefs (most recently Jean-Georges Vongerichten) turning to noodles to feed the masses, but at elevated prices.
The inflow of American franchises based elsewhere will continue apace. Most recently, we've seen massive invasions of Five Guys (making the driest burgers on the planet) and Qdoba Grill (I didn't like it when I tried it in Denver, and I don't like it here).
Thai will continue to replace old-fashioned Cantonese joints in many regions of the city. Some of these Siamese places will be quite good, though others will amp up the sugar and kill the fish sauce in deference to their expected constituency.
Neighborhood pizza parlors will continue to vanish, in favor of places that serve tapas, wraps, and smoothies.
The small-dish craze will continue. Many of these places are really just peddling alcohol, using small, salty dishes to get you to drink more.
Expect the food press to continue chasing the next big thing. This is how advertising revenues are generated. Unfortunately, it also creates a boom-and-bust cycle among new restaurants that sees many of them close within a few months as the crowd of would-be foodies moves on to the next place.
Chefs will continue to incorporate ethnic recipes from all over the world into their oeuvres. This is a very good thing. At the same time, ethnic restaurateurs will try their hands at attracting a more upmarket clientele. The Senegalese mini-chain Les Ambassades is pleasing evidence of this on a small scale.
New regional Chinese cuisines that have popped up in the city's five Chinatowns will gradually work their way into the mainstream, and someday lamb will cease to be a rarity in Chinese restaurants.
Owners of street carts selling halal curries and kebabs will gradually move into storefronts and become restaurateurs.
Turkish food is on the increase in parts of Brooklyn—especially Midwood and Bath Beach—and this trend will spread throughout the five boroughs.
The fall will continue the year of the Eastern European eatery. In the East Village, Kafana introduced us to Serbian fare for the first time, via grilled ground meats and a delicious variation on the burek called grebinica. Meanwhile, Sutra in Sunset Park is slinging Croatian bureks (just make sure you don't put them in the same bag with the Serbian food). Further south in Sunset Park, Eurotrip—a psychedelic name for a new watering hole—is serving a slew of Czech and Hungarian recipes. There's a new Bulgarian tavern on the Lower East Side, too—Mehanata—as new Polish restaurants in Greenpoint struggle to elevate the cuisine to bistro status at places like Karczma and Krolewski Jadlo.
Ultimately, the biggest influence on the future of New York dining may be the world's dwindling food supply, as well as the monoculture of corn and soy railed against in The Omnivore's Dilemma. Will we be sitting on our landscaped terraces next year eating soyburgers and drinking cocktails of fermented corn syrup? Will we look at the sushi bar and see only farm-raised, salmonella-laced salmon? Will the meat eaters among us end up babbling and then falling over from mad-cow disease? Stay tuned to find out . . .
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