This column marks the third dispatch I’m filing from my perch in Sunnyside, my sweet little neighbourhood in the borough of Queens, about four miles as the crow flies from Times Square. It’s mid-July. The pandemic and the havoc America’s so-called leaders have let it wreak have marooned me here since returning from a quick weekend jaunt to Boston in early March. At that point, the news of the mysterious new microbe paralyzing parts of China and decimating a generation of Italians was closing in. I was talking with a number of people to figure out whether to cancel my trip to London. Soon enough, Norwegian Airlines made the decision for me, offering me a voucher for a fraction of my ticket price and the anticipation of future travel in exchange for the inconvenience of a fatal and fast-spreading pandemic.
Aside from a trip across state lines to see my brother and his family in exotic New Jersey, I have been here in New York since then, and it’s the longest I’ve been in one place for my entire adult life. If you had asked me back in March about the prospect of staying put in NYC for four months through the summer, I would have been disappointed at the thought of not going to Denmark or Scotland, as I’d been planning, but delaying my travels for a later date would be a reasonable concession for the gift of a few months to spend exploring the hometown I love dearly and spending more time catching up with friends. Airports, jetlag, get thee gone. I’m going to roam free, I thought, untethered by the strictures of flight times, security lines, and delays on the tarmac. Before I know it, I’ll be milling my own flour and raising chickens.
But as it turns out, exploring the city, paying visits to favourite places, catching quiet moments in landmark spaces, wandering aimlessly, accidentally discovering new spots and christening them my ‘local’ was not on the cards. If it was a matter of everything being off-limits, on hold until a later moment, that would be a gift. The reality that’s emerging at an exponentially increasing speed, however, is not simply that those places are inaccessible, but that they’re vanishing. People like me who write about bars and restaurants have begun to feel like obituary writers, keeping a log of the businesses that are falling victim to the pandemic. It is heartbreaking to watch from the sidelines, the closest any of us can be, as familiar bars, even long-standing institutions, slip away.
Pegu Club, an iconic bar in Manhattan’s Soho neighbourhood and one of the early players in the American cocktail renaissance, would have turned 15 this summer. Instead, in April, owner and industry star Audrey Saunders announced that she would not renew its lease in October. Then: Clyde Common, a trendy cocktail bar in Portland, Oregon that sparked the barrel-aged-cocktail trend, announced in early May it would not reopen. A few days later, word came out of Venice that the legendary Harry’s Bar, renowned as the birthplace of the Bellini, would shutter for good. The Stud, San Francisco’s oldest gay bar, and Great Scott, a 44-year-old Boston rock club that embodied the scrappiness and grit of Boston’s music scene, announced their respective terminations. Whisky-lovers did a gut-wrenching double-take upon the news that Dundee Dell posted on its Facebook page on 2 June. The pilgrimage-worthy, no-frills tavern in Omaha that’s as well known for its fried-green-tomato BLTs as its epic Scotch collection post it would lock up for good after a century-long run.
Some bars and restaurants have turned to clever means for survival. Jack Rose, the grand and beloved Washington DC whisky bar, sold off bottles from its legendary collection to bring in some cash. I’ve visited a few spots since the pandemic began and partook in the new “walktini” trend that’s caught on New York. It’s certainly odd to walk up to a service station outside a bar and get a pint of Guinness in a plastic cup, but it’s comforting nonetheless to look a bartender in the eye, ask for a drink, and make safely distanced small talk. Less comforting, however, is the send-off: “Stay safe,” we say to each other. And we each know that the other means it.