Restaurant Dante. Artu in Beacon Hill. Stella. The Automatic. The Table at Season to Taste. Cuchi Cuchi.
Nearly three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are really starting to see announcements of restaurant closures. Interestingly, most of them seem to be well-known spots, household names that tend to be mentioned often in the media and at times in “best-of” lists, while other big-name dining spots are quietly being mentioned among industry folks as being gone for good as well.
Meanwhile, little ma-and-pa spots, neighborhood joints, and pizzerias and sub shops seem to continue to putter along, with very few closing announcements taking place among these categories. Why is that? Will this be a trend that will continue as we head into Phase 2 and beyond? No one really knows as of yet, but there’s something definitely happening here and there could be several reasons behind it.
What do the restaurants mentioned above have in common? They mostly have different concepts and tend to appeal to different demographics in some ways, but think about where these restaurants and bars are located: the Kendall Square Area. The South End. Beacon Hill. North Cambridge. These tend to be extremely pricey areas for businesses (and residents as well), so being basically out of business for two or more months is particularly devastating if you’re paying thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in rent per month.
As some have said, it’s possible that not all of these big-name places closed solely because of the coronavirus crisis. Even before the pandemic started, there had been grave concerns about lease prices, which in an area like Harvard Square have forced some dining spots to move or close at a disturbing pace for years. When you look at the monthly rents in Wakefield, Braintree, or Bedford, and then compare them to the monthly rents in Boston’s Seaport District or the Back Bay, it’s easy to see how dire the situation can be for restaurants in the latter.
One popular topic these days is how the era of the upscale and higher-end restaurants and bars may be dead, or at least shelved for a long time. You can thank COVID-19 in part of this. Dining spots in the Boston area have been doing nothing but takeout and/or delivery for many weeks now, and while it can seem like a novel experience to order veal chops to bring home to your own dining room, the novelty can quickly wear off when you realize how much you’re paying for something without the added benefits of service and atmosphere. What ultimately happens is that many simply go back to what is familiar to them—ordering from the local sub shop, pizza place, deli, Chinese-American eatery, or any number of spots that they used to go to for takeout/delivery.
Naturally, hot spots that rely on the whole dining experience—food, service, atmosphere—resultantly suffer, and with the reopening of places looking restricted for quite some time, perhaps the people behind some of the bigger names are taking two steps back, looking at the larger picture and realizing that there may not be a path to profitability for a long time, especially if customers decide that they won’t be ready to dine or drink at a restaurant or bar until they feel completely safe.
While it may not apply to the restaurants mentioned herein (they’re mostly smaller spots), one major issue is that some of the more popular restaurants in and around Boston tend to reside in large spaces and require a lot of workers to make things run smoothly. Think about some of the sprawling places in the Seaport District with lines night after night, then compare them to your typical corner pubs in Dorchester or Roslindale, or your old-school neighborhood joints in Chelsea, Quincy, or Waltham, and you can start to see the big picture—that not only do the rents tend to be much higher in the former, but the spaces are often much, much bigger. So while a little Italian-American joint just outside of Boston might have a total of five to ten workers, a place on the waterfront could have hundreds. If you’ve been wondering why some of the big restaurant groups in the area immediately closed down for the time being when restrictions went into place while the ma-and-pa spots typically didn’t, it’s likely that the size of the staff was a factor.
All of this is theoretical, of course, and we probably won’t know more about any closure trends until we start getting deeper and deeper into Phase 2 and beyond, when dining spots are slowly allowed to open back up in stages and with restrictions. Could it be that many smaller, lesser-known restaurants have already closed but they just haven’t made announcements yet? Definitely. But keep in mind that the trend toward big-name closings was already happening before the pandemic, with the likes of Doyle’s, Top of the Hub, The Hungry I, The No Name, Lumiere, Central Kitchen, and others announcing their farewells.
Based on some of the other big names that have been bandied about as possible closures over the coming days and weeks, there is a chance that many household names within the local scene could disappear for good when all is said and done.