When you hear that your favourite restaurant has closed, it can feel almost as if there’s been a death in the family. Refrains of “He was so young!” and “I just saw him last week!” become “But they were so busy all the time!” and “We just ate there last week!”
With restaurants, the cause of death is frequently a conflict with the landlord — a congenital disorder of the hospitality industry. Yes, businesses close for other reasons. But bad leases, unreasonable rent hikes, and disputes over who should pay for building repairs can often lead to the death of otherwise healthy restaurants. I know a restaurateur who was chased out by an upstairs landlord who regularly called the police on the restaurant for being “too loud.” The legal issues that these situations cause often prevent the restaurateurs from publicly explaining what really happened, which leaves customers wondering.
Those customers often go through the five stages of grief. After denial (“Are you sure they’re not just renovating?”) and anger (“This city makes it impossible for small businesses to survive!”), we reach bargaining. We scheme to find a new favourite to take its place — as if the old restaurant had been a mere collection of dishes.
But restaurants have personalities. What we miss about departed restaurants is more than the mysteries of their secret sauce, rich mashed potatoes, or crispy beef. It’s the way the host said hello, the perfect lighting in the corner booth, or how the owners never moved that mop bucket out of the bathroom, no matter how many renovations they went through.
Anything worth loving has flaws. When you really love a restaurant, you love all of it — even the annoying parts. When it disappears suddenly, it leaves an emptiness in your life. Because a beloved restaurant acts as a second kitchen table, a default location to meet friends and family.
If you don’t have a restaurant you feel strongly about, then the sort of connection I’m describing might seem nutty. These businesses are not our family. We are not financially invested in them. But community comes in many forms. This is particularly true in urban centres, where we tend to live in smaller homes and depend on local businesses as gathering spaces.
When I got word that my favourite restaurant was closing, I started putting a crew together for one last meal. It took me a minute to realize that I was making a list of Jews, and it felt like I was organizing a shiva.
The relationship between Jews and Chinese food is too well-documented to require explanation. Last year, Toronto’s Lee Garden closed. It was the remaining Chinatown staple (since 1978) for the generation before me. And for months after the sudden closure, elderly Jews would approach me, arms stretched to the heavens, asking me to explain what had happened. And I was kind of smug about telling them that it hadn’t been that good a restaurant.
And then the big man upstairs came for my favourite spot.
Anne’s Magic Kitchen was supposed to be the restaurant to replace my previous favourite spot, Chinese Traditional Bun. CTB had gotten me hooked on dandan, a handmade noodle served with a one-of-a-kind sauce (I have the recipe). It was a running joke that this gem had been produced in a cold, dirty basement in a neighbourhood containing about a hundred competing restaurants. CTB survived road construction, the 2003 SARS outbreak, and even a manslaughter on the premises. But when the chef retired to China, the kitchen couldn’t match his Shaanxi flavours — and not long after, the owner sold.
When I discovered Anne’s, it felt like a new beginning. Anne’s was above ground; it was clean and bright; and its handmade noodles had much of the Sichuan and northern Chinese intensity of CTB.
In a Chinatown dominated by dumplings and recently overrun with hotpot joints, Anne’s quickly became my go-to. It was where I took out-of-towners (who would tell me that they preferred it to all of the other famous restaurants they’d tried) and celebrated my birthday. If I had a bad day at work, my wife would say, “I think someone needs some Anne’s.” It was the comfort I craved.
And then I got a text from a friend asking what she should order for a last meal there. I called to confirm, then lit up the bat signal. Friends dropped their Monday-night plans for a final hit of dandan.
On closing night, I met the eponymous Anne for the first time. She was sad about the closure, thanked me for my patronage, and hinted that she might open another restaurant in the future.
Our group of eight managed to order everything — the table groaned under bowls of ropey noodles, vinegary cucumber salad, Chongqing chicken packed with crispy bones and chewy gristle, and the pool of fire that is mapo tofu.
We ate until we were full, and then we kept eating. We ate too much — all of us — the way you hug someone a little too long when you’re saying goodbye.
If you have a favourite neighbourhood restaurant, hold it close. Let the owners know you love what they do. Do it with money, and by bringing them new customers. Never keep it to yourself or take it for granted that the restaurant will always be there. Never feel bad about choosing to eat there instead of making dinner. Think of it instead like visiting a grandparent, the one you keep guilting your kids about by saying that they might not be with us next year.
Because they might not.
May we have a moment of your time?
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