On a hot summer day in the East Village, when your skin is sticky and the streets are oppressive, there’s nothing quite like escaping into the cool haven of De Robertis Pasticceria and Caffe for an orzata with lemon ice. Since you’re there, you’ll probably go ahead and taste one of the best cannolis or pignoli cookies of your life, too.
But what if you can’t do that next summer? The De Robertis building and the one next to it are on the market. The 110-year-old pastry shop with the alluring displays, beautiful tiled floor and classic red neon sign could simply evaporate from First Avenue near 11th Street. (Along with a music school, music shop, and more, unfortunately.)
This kind of event is not surprising to vaunted food writer Mimi Sheraton, 88, with nearly seven decades’ experience living in Greenwich Village. She can rattle off dozens of restaurants and specialty food shops that were dear to her and are now closed: Sea Fare, Lafayette, the Brevoort, Mandarin House… But she accepts it, enjoying the new more than reminiscing about the old, whereas other food experts like Robert Sietsema of Eater take a more activist stance. Sietsema, previously the longtime Village Voice restaurant critic, published a plan for restaurant preservation earlier this year, both as a reaction to the loss of beloved places – like the Gray’s Papaya on Sixth Avenue at 8th Street, in his case – and a proactive step against losing additional ones.
The issue of restaurant preservation is bubbling in many locales, from Buenos Aires to Barcelona, as part of the larger question of protecting “uses” — as distinct from, but often intertwined with, preserving architecture and the built environment. Around the country and the world, localities are coming up with new tools to try to protect beloved places from the maw of the market. In San Francisco, SF Heritage has created a list of Legacy Bars and Restaurants as a way to acknowledge special places and drive business to them. In England, people are lobbying for pubs to be labeled “assets of community value” to protect some of these traditional gathering places before they’re all gone. There’s always the old-fashioned route of drumming up business, which the Southern-oriented Fatback Collective is doing by promoting barbecue master Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Cue Tour to raise money for rebuilding a South Carolina cookhouse destroyed by fire.
Restaurants are special creatures because they are, of course, businesses — but they can also be treasured clubhouses, where we feel we belong, and tasty ones at that, which satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst. All of that adds up to places that matter, places that speak to our soul as much as our stomach. And that’s why people are finding it too painful to simply let them succumb to market forces. (The City Lore program Place Matters, by the way, welcomes restaurateurs and patrons alike to add their favorite establishments to its list.)
The reasons why well-liked restaurants close basically boil down to two things: the owner had enough and decided to hang up his or her apron, or business conditions decided it for him, due to decreased patronage (declining quality, changing tastes) or increased rent. Food industry insiders, from Ms. Sheraton to David Sax, who went so far as to publish the book Save the Deli in order to do just that, question how much one can do about any of these things.
For Sheraton, this spring’s loss of neighborhood eatery Manatus on Bleecker Street still stings. “I very much miss Manatus,” she said. But last year, “I saw the handwriting on the wall.” The place needed refurbishing, but the longtime owner was getting tired and anticipated a rent increase soon. Now it’s gone. El Faro, a Spanish mainstay at the corner of Greenwich and Horatio Streets, closed in 2012, and although some may miss it (like this writer, who remembers it fondly but hadn’t been in a while), Sheraton dined there toward the end. “It had become really grim and awful,” she recalled.
A certain kind of “restaurant preservation” is afoot that, while amusing to the wealthy, has little to do with most people’s wallets or what the restaurants actually were. Fedora on 4th Street still, at least, has the wonderful neon sign, but serves trendy cuisine at trendy prices and is no longer a down-at-the-heels clubhouse for eccentrics. Ditto the Beatrice and Waverly Inns, Minetta Tavern and so on. Sheraton mused about Rocco’s on Thompson Street becoming Carbone, an expensive restaurant where she would be dining on the evening we talked. “It’s not Rocco’s, it’s not anything like Rocco’s,” she said. “I think it’s great, but it’s not anything like Rocco’s.”
In an era of commercial rents doubling or tripling at lease’s end, however, punishing rents seem to be the biggest restaurant-killer. While many wish for commercial rent control, there’s little sign of that on the political horizon. However, a bill has been introduced in City Council “for establishing an environment for fair negotiations in the commercial lease renewal process in order to determine reasonable lease terms.”
There’s also the possibility of new zoning rules limiting chain stores, which would create a ceiling on the current sky’s-the-limit rents. Jeremiah Moss, the pseudonymous author of Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, tells us, “Mayor De Blasio needs to step up and take action. If Giuliani could ban adult businesses with a single zoning, then De Blasio can, at the very least, limit chains and banks with new zoning. Limits like that must be implemented in tandem with a cultural protection program. Then New York might have a chance.”
Here’s an idea for what could work in New York City — a plan that recognizes our capitalistic ways, our civic strength, and our desire for disco fries with that. (This idea has no official sanction from Village Preservation, by the way.) Combining one cup each of Sietsema, SF Heritage, and Place Matters, consider this: A new or existing nonprofit organization would open a list of “Restaurants That Matter.” Eaters and owners alike can fill out a form with vital information and put establishments on the list. Parallel to that would be another self-selected list, of chefs and business people who would like nothing better than to carry on the tradition of, say, a 1950s Puerto Rican lunch counter in Chelsea or a century-old ice cream shop in Forest Hills (La Taza De Oro and Eddie’s Sweet Shop, respectively, both from Sietsema’s list). The nonprofit would perform some vetting and screening services, serving as matchmaker between worthy restaurants that seek new leadership, and the preservation-minded proprietors who are up to the challenge.
This model still includes plenty of questions — does the new owner promise to be faithful to the old vision for a certain amount of time? how would that be enforced? how much change to the menu, prices and décor is allowed? — but it may be worth a try, in order to facilitate the quick action that’s needed once a place is threatened.
According to a broker with the De Robertis listing, the buildings are to be delivered vacant, except for tenants with ongoing leases, which includes several residents and Nai Tapas Bar. Interest in the property is strong with several interested buyers, including parties seeking to find a way to keep De Robertis in place.
So maybe the De Robertis family has already found a preservation-minded new owner of its buildings, which would explain why they keep insisting that sales talk “is all rumors.” Between bites of my fudge-topped cookie, I’m really hoping so.