As the weather continues to warm our cities and our spirits, this past weekend I strolled the streets and parks of lower Manhattan, enjoying the crowds, doing some light shopping, while searching for somewhere to treat myself to a quiet brunch.
It’s remarkable, perhaps unbelievable even, but we are now at a place in the pandemic where so many more people are eating out that getting seated quickly at a restaurant is not a given. It’s busy for many of the popular places—the ‘lucky’ ones that managed to survive. Many of my favorites are gone for good, with the words “Permanently Closed” popping up in bold red letters when queried on a Google search. But Manhattan on the weekend is now bustling with brunch crowds, and a thirty-minute wait is not unheard of. This is progress to be applauded—the surviving restaurants need the money. But I was way too hungry to stand waiting, flipping through my phone for my name to be called, eventually guided to a corner table, placing an order, and still waiting perhaps another thirty minutes for my meal. So, I continued past the crowded, mostly “American” cuisine spots, and meandered through West Village streets for a place I might walk in, get seated, and order right away.
Luckily, I discovered what turned out to be the perfect place. Interestingly, it reminded me of my favorite neighborhood restaurant back when I lived in lower Manhattan last year.
The Chinese restaurant was situated on the South Cove pier in Battery Park City. It had sprawling outdoor seating, right on the pier, overlooking the Jersey City skyline across Hudson River, and the Statue of Liberty was visible not so far in the distance. The location was perfect, and I spent much time and money eating many meals here, with my wife, with family, and with friends. Yes, that killer view had something to do with it, but it was also the quality of the food and service. Both were exceptional. Since I spent so much time there, I got to know the staff, but my favorite was this elder gentleman who looked to be the owner or manager of the establishment. I thought this because he wasn’t a waiter, and he didn’t attend bar. Mostly, he stood around, greeting guests and making sure their needs were taken care of. He always made a point of coming to my table and conversing with me for a bit. Later, I learned that he was not the owner or the manager. During one of our chats, he confided to me that decades ago he had owned a restaurant in Manhattan, years after migrating to America. Now, he was on staff at this place on the pier as a greeter and with the task of attracting the tourists walking the pier and passing by the restaurant. The sadness in his eyes as he recollected his time as a restaurant owner left me with the unhappy feeling that his working at this restaurant was not a choice but a necessity: one of the many immigrants forced to work post-retirement to survive.
The restaurant on the pier—Ningbo Café was its name—is now “Permanently Closed”. Interestingly, it closed in the very early days of the pandemic, months before many, many more restaurants in NYC succumbed to the same fate. Ningbo’s fate, and the closure of many Asian restaurants as the pandemic progressed, are both saddening and alarming. It all seems so irrationally weird that many of these places were forced into closure because of the feeling—and yes, I’ve heard this from people I consider friends—that somehow eating Chinese food might contaminate one with COVID-19. Well, given the politics of fear that was being promoted during the scariest times of the pandemic, maybe it’s not so weird, just sad and alarming.
With this in mind, I decided to look for a Chinese restaurant that was mostly empty of guests. I found one and was excited that I could get seated right away, and soon get to ‘throwing down’ on some great food. I decided on a cold appetizer of cucumbers in garlic sauce, with an entrée of fish in Asian chile sauce. And as a, um, “dessert” of sorts I ordered a hot appetizer of beef tripe.
It was all delicious. Completely satisfied, I left the restaurant—Chow House on Bleeker—and started on what I knew would be a very long walk back to the World Trade Center PATH train. As I walked, I considered three things: First, that great Chinese food is as New York as the best Italian, Seafood, Soul food, and Steak restaurant. Secondly, I thought that with Chow House I might have found a nice replacement for Ningbo Café. Lastly, I pondered about the fate of the elder gentleman who worked at Ningbo. I wondered where he was, and how life had been for him during this past year. Was he lucky finding work in one of the surviving Chinese restaurants? Was he even still with us? Or, was he “Permanently Closed.”
April 11, 2021