Sunday, September 25, 2005


The New York business scene: Restaurant life spans

[See 40 Hours, Friday, 12:30 a.m.]
I don't know how many thousands of restaurants there are in New York, and you've probably heard the factoid that most new restaurants in any major city close within a year. But even successful restaurants have life spans. A few famous great ones may last for several decades, but what about the smaller ones?

My two favorite Chinese places in Manhattan were within a block of each other on Broadway at 96th and 97th Streets, Hunan Balcony and Empire Szechuan. The Balcony had the best cold sesame noodles I've ever tasted, and Empire had a number of great entrees -- a killer Mongolian beef, for instance.

These restaurants had their heydays in the mid-1980s and have been steadily declining ever since. I've continued going to the Balcony for the cold sesame noodles, enjoying those and ordering increasingly desultory main courses just as a placeholder to round out the meal.

Last Friday night in New York, I went to the Balcony around 12:30 a.m. -- not particularly late for a meal in the city that never sleeps, but was told "you can have dinner, but we're closing in 15 minutes." Considering the whole place smelled like a freshly mopped restroom, I turned on my heel and walked out for what is probably the last time.

DSCN5503 DSCN5504
Hunan Balcony: it's glory days are now just a blur.

So I ventured into Empire Szechuan for the first time in several years. I did so despite two obvious problems. Number one, the lighting in the restaurant's sign was out.


Not a good sign. Nor was this other sign:


Can you imagine saying to a friend or loved one: "Hey, let's go to the discount sushi place tonight!" What, is it day old sushi?

I ordered dinner there nonetheless, so desperate was I for Chinese food. How was the food? The answer: after I'd had a few bites of General Tso's Chicken, my friend looked at me and asked hopefully, "Not as disappointing as it looks?"

I'm guessing that the Balcony and Empire have favorable lease terms that will enable them to hunker down with their tiny clientele for many years. But as restaurants in my life, may they rest in peace.

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