Why Is It So Hard to Lose the Restaurants We Love?
In the first season of NBC’s The Good Place—a sitcom about what it means to be worthy of the eponymous afterlife realm—a restaurant opens. (If you’ve watched the series, you know it was called "The Good Plates," and you’re still forking delighted by the wordplay.) The restaurant’s opening night menu is personalized for each dinner guest: in a feat of afterlife magic, the chef recreates every character’s favorite meal on Earth. “Each one of you has a very special memory attached to the meal you’re eating,” says Michael, played by the ineffable Ted Danson. Diners lift silver cloches from their plates and react as if they’ve been reunited with a long-lost friend.
Your favorite meal might not have taken place in a restaurant, but there’s a good chance it did. We define ourselves in restaurants: first as kids, rehearsing pleases and thank yous and learning to tell strangers what we want; later as adults, we borrow clout from places where we don’t feel we belong and practice loyalty to the places we do. We fall in love in restaurants—with partners, with cities, with food.
But restaurant closures are a reality of the industry. Failure rates are high: around 60 percent for establishments in their first year of operation. Real estate can seal your fate with a bad location, or a rent spike, or an uncompromising landlord. Some restaurateurs choose to close on their own terms, at the height of success, like Jen Agg of the Black Hoof, or Ferran Adrià of El Bulli before her, or Gaggan Anand of Gaggan next year. Loss is inevitable, and it can be surprisingly hard to bear.
“Some people think of grief as [a response to] the loss of a physical person,” says Dr. Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist based in Santa Rosa, California. “It’s the same with a significant place.” Manly speaks from experience: Last summer, she said goodbye to a café that had been a weekly meeting place for her and her mother, who passed away a few years ago. “This cafe witnessed our aging process, our bonding process,” she said. When her sons were born, they became part of the ritual, three generations sharing the café’s signature muffins. Manly grieved—really grieved, cycling through the five classic stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Dr. Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, California, watched the decline and fall of the upscale deli where he and his wife held their rehearsal dinner. A backdrop for family memories for years, the deli started slipping towards the end—a factor that may have helped prepare regulars for the eventual closure. “Usually we handle an extended loss better than a sudden loss,” he says. By the time an ending comes, you might be moving towards acceptance.
Our attachments to restaurants reflect the complexity of the memories we create there.
“The relationship with the food itself, and then the relationship with the community, and then the relationship with the environment, create positive feedback and memories,” says Dr. Kate Cummins, a licensed clinical psychologist based in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. “If you’ve created all of these memories in this specific space, [a restaurant closure is] almost like taking away a piece of your skeletal system.”
In recent years I’ve left lives in two cities. I get homesick for restaurants now—so badly, sometimes, I can almost taste the memories. Missing London, I ache for the padrón peppers at Pizarro, the crunch of sea salt flakes between my teeth, the sun hanging low over Bermondsey Street and the Gothic-style church across the road. And when I think of Toronto, I pine for lobster knuckles at the Ceili Cottage, drinking patio beers in a heatwave, with the Queen streetcar dinging past on its way back to the yard.
On Mondays, the Ceili Cottage served five Malpeques for $5. It wasn’t a buck-a-shuck night: The proprietor was a champion oyster shucker and a sustainable seafood advocate; he’d never cheapen the bivalve that way. But you could order as many five-dollar plates as you liked, and the result was the same. I took my dude for his first round of oysters one Monday in 2016. You don’t get many firsts five years into knowing someone, but that first raw oyster—it’s formative. I watched his face register the hit of seawater, salty but refreshing, defying all logic. I’d had the same reaction in the same place once; it was why I decided to move in down the street.
The Ceili Cottage closed last year, along with a slew of Toronto institutions. Celebrity chefs Mark McEwan and Matty Matheson shuttered long-standing restaurants; non-chef celebrity Drake also closed the doors on an affiliated boite. There were others, meaningful ones, but the Black Hoof might have hit hardest. Everyone has a story about the restaurant that put Toronto on the map. So we mourned together in group texts, or on social media, or in line for one last dinner service. It's easier to admit to your feelings when someone else goes first.
Manly says that acknowledgment is essential to processing grief. "If you don't acknowledge that you're grieving," she says, "then you think you've moved past it." Ignore the hurt, and it'll come back to haunt you: a catch in your throat when a familiar item appears on an unfamiliar menu, a weight in your chest when you pass an empty shopfront.
The five stages of grief aren’t linear. You know this, of course, because you have lived and lost and felt depression pinch at your body after long stretches of acceptance. This is what makes the Good Plates dinner so seductive: It’s hypothetical, like the old question of what you’d choose for your final meal, but not limited by reality, and that means bargaining isn’t futile. In the Good Place, you may be removed from everything you love, but you can still taste your memories.