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Louder, prouder, and more extravagant than ever: Welcome to the Decadent Age of New York City nightlife

Lobster on a bed of Diamonds.
New York City dining has embraced a new Gilded Age with luxurious, maximalist restaurants with decadent ingredients as international as the city.Carl Godfrey for BI

The bars and restaurants that put the glint on New York City never stopped partying.

While the rest of the country — businesses, investors, economists, regular people — misspent 2023 in a state of anxiety, waiting for a recession that never came, the bastions of New York City's dining elite came out of the pandemic louder, prouder, and more extravagant than ever.

Here, it's ancient Rome. And if New York City has a legalized form of popular bloodsport, it's the restaurant business.

To dine at the most sought-after restaurants is an exercise in one's capacity to tolerate rejection. In old New York, money and cache were the currencies that could, eventually, find you a seat wherever you wanted. But the internet and reservation apps like Resy have removed person-to-person contact in these bookings and turned scoring a coveted table into the shortest video game ever played. Status still talks, but tech nerds who've programmed bots to crawl for reservations have added a disconcerting new layer. Recently, I met a man who has a constant crawl for a five-person table at a chic new restaurant. He was very proud of himself for this. I was not.

The surge of demand doesn't mean everything has been easy. Food prices have risen steadily, the hot job market has made workers hard to find and keep, and, of course, there's the inexorable rise of New York City rents. Yet new restaurants have kept coming. And not just any restaurants — luxurious, maximalist restaurants with ingredients as international as the city itself.

The new wave of eateries is also a stark contrast to the previous era of NYC dining. After the financial crisis, the city put on a black turtleneck à la Steve Jobs and presented everything with clean lines and prized understatement. Now it's returned to something that looks more like the Gilded Age — a maximalist mob-wife aesthetic that orders "more with a side of much more." The city's bars have gone rococo as well. Is there a greater vote of confidence in New York's economic recovery than opening a tiki bar that feels like a dive, hangs florals like a wedding at the Grand Prospect Hall, and asks people to pay $25 for a cocktail called "Tarman"?

Beneath the city's shimmering victory over the pandemic and dining's glorious return as Gotham's favorite pastime, there's still a great divide between the haves and the have-nots. As the pandemic emergency abated, our weird new economy revealed the dramatic difference between Americans who feel they can handle an inflationary shock and those who cannot. So it makes sense that Manhattan, where the income gap is greater than any other county in the country, has been the vanguard of this American vibe revolution. It is a granite island of hungry rich people looking for something to do — Wall Street bankers, tech executives, generationally wealthy people, the famous and beautiful. In a country roiled by recession worries, those at the top of New York City — for better or worse — couldn't give a single gilded shit.

The Big Apple bites back

Opening a new business anywhere is an act of hope. Opening a restaurant even more so. Opening a restaurant in New York City requires the faith of a medieval saint. For an industry that already existed on a knife's edge, the pandemic looked like it could be a catastrophic blow. Were it not for delivery apps, creative outdoor seating, and many New Yorkers' stubborn resistance to learning to use their apartment kitchens, we might have lost even more of our eateries than we did. In this town, an unlisted, unmarked, hole-in-the-wall serving top-flight Xinjiang noodles can be every bit a destination as Tavern on the Green — and the food will probably be better. Even with this chaos, New York is a city that embraces bizarre circumstances, and when the pandemic took hold, that became its superpower.

"I think the city and New Yorkers are so different and so unfazed by it. Remember when there were a million people eating outside?" Jennifer Saesue, a Manhattan restaurateur, said.

Saesue opened her first restaurant, Fish Cheeks, in 2017, and before long, it became a staple for the downtown set. During the pandemic, Fish Cheeks survived as other restaurants did — ramping up takeout and setting up outdoor seating. Saesue said that after a lull during lockdowns, its revenue clicked back into the normal cycle of the city's restaurant business: a slow start to the year, a busy spring, a slower summer, and then full-on mania starting in the fall and through the holiday season.

Since then, New Yorkers staved off recession fears by simply spending like it would never come — especially on food, drinks, and entertainment. By the end of March 2023, nightlife spending reached 11% above pre-pandemic levels, a report from Mastercard found. It's not hard to understand why. Few people in the country lived as cramped an existence through the pandemic as New Yorkers did. Once it was over, they bet everything on the return of the institutions that form the backbone of the city's culture. The rest of the country could keep their weak vibes. For New York City, a brush with death called for a time of decadence.

"I feel like we are back to where we were pre-pandemic. Now more than ever, people are spending, and even more so, restaurants are opening back up," Saesue told me. "There are new, hot restaurants opening every freaking week."

So that's what the city's doing now. Get into it. Clubsteraunts are back, and Gen Z — a generation that claims to dislike fun — can be seen there in full force. The city's bistros have met this enthusiasm by upping their game. Chefs in New York have somehow yassified hard-boiled eggs, and LCD Soundsystem's frontman James Murphy has a restaurant that's selling them for $25. Naturally, those eggs have caviar on them. There's caviar everywhere. At Coqodaq, a just-opened Korean fried chicken restaurant that looks like a Las Vegas church, you can order a perfectly crisped nugget with caviar on it. It will cost you $28 and whatever it takes you to get through a meal while watching packs of TikTok food influencers completely lose their minds.

As the kids might say, "Nature is healing." The city's affluent consists of the same Wall Street workhorses, fashion and public-relations power brokers, trust-fund babies (American and foreign), chic people, quasi-creatives of advertising, total nerds of tech, and straight-up, never-sleeping hustlers — but their tastes have changed. Members-only social clubs and restaurants abound. The new Aman New York has a private club with a $200,000 initiation fee, and the boys who brought us Carbone have a private restaurant called ZZ's with a $20,000 initiation fee and $10,000 annual membership. There are the Casas — Cruz and Cipriani (both private clubs, no relation) — and the old mainstay Soho House, which has expanded to three locations in the city. Private clubs delineating the space between the haves and the have-nots were a feature of the first Gilded Age. Here we are again, except now the most sought-after restaurants can function almost as exclusively as clubs — know someone, wait for hours, game the digital-reservation system, beg (maybe) — and then maybe you'll get a seat at a decent time to eat, like 9:30 p.m. (if you're lucky) or 5:30 p.m. (if you've given up on fun).

Saesue opened her second concept, Bangkok Supper Club, in the West Village in 2023. It was immediately met with critical acclaim and the kind of success that makes getting a reservation an only-in-NYC kind of status symbol.

"Looking from where I am," Saesue told me, "it doesn't seem like people are thinking about the recession that much. I think they're talking about it, but their behavior doesn't say that."

A city is lucky if it has two or three dining rooms ethereal enough to transport you to a world in which everything you see or touch is precious. In the past few years, New York has opened them at a steady clip. Most recently, the famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened Four Twenty-Five on Park Avenue, where it feels like you are dining on a crystal cloud. It's a place to watch a very classic uptown New York City crowd — an older set of ultraprofessionals, mom and dad on date night, women who have enough money but too much self-awareness to be on "Real Housewives," money managers drinking at the gorgeous bar after a late night at the office (yes, they're going to the office). For these people, there must be elegance at all times.

Not all of NYC nightlife is focused on making things fancy; some of it is just theatrical and fun. In the East Village, Paradise Lost transports patrons to a tiki bar located on a choppy beach near the capitol of Hell. It works because the drinks are a full-on show. The Saturn, a vintage gin cocktail that won the 1967 IBA championship, comes smoking with dry ice. And if you order the Lady of the Beasts, you'll experience what the bar calls "fire and show." Bongo drums will ring out through the bar, and your server will present the cocktail to you in a dazzle of flames. The Lady is just one of a few cocktails on the menu that come with all of that drama. If there is a hard landing for the US economy, NYC will have to meet it with a bit of a hangover. After what the city went through, it will have been worth it.

The full vibespace

A survey of New York City's most glimmering restaurants and competitive cocktailers is, of course, an incomplete picture of how the city is recovering. The pandemic was a violent lesson in how an inflationary shock impacts the affluent much less than everyone else. And that makes for complex vibes.

According to a report from TouchBistro, a company that provides point-of-sales services to restaurants, NYC restaurant margins averaged around 9.2% in 2023, down from 10.1% a year in 2022 and just below the national average of 9.3%. Food operators said they spent 43% more on food costs in 2023 than they did in 2022, the highest jump in the country. And while employers in other parts of the economy are regaining the upper hand, staff turnover at NYC restaurants was around 31% in 2023. The national average turnover rate sat at 28%. Every restaurant is facing these issues, but businesses' ability to deal with increasing costs — while holding onto customers — varies greatly. A December survey from the New York City Hospitality Alliance found that while 37% of respondents felt positive about future business revenue, 30% percent of respondents were feeling pessimistic about the future, and another 20% felt uncertain.

"New York City's restaurants and bars are experiencing an uneven pandemic recovery nearly four years after COVID-19 struck our city," Andrew Rigie, the executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, said. "While some have recovered, others still struggle."

The restaurant industry is a mirror of the city. The haves are being delighted in new dining rooms and glittering new high-rises. The have-nots are experiencing the trauma of a record number of evictions, especially in Brooklyn and The Bronx, and the squeeze of record-high rents. No one seems to have an answer for New York's housing crisis, where rental vacancies dropped to 1.4% in 2023 — a healthy rate is considered somewhere between 5% and 8%.

Nationwide, in the aggregate, restaurants are growing. Sales reached a seasonally-adjusted rate of $95.01 billion in January, up 0.7% from December and the 11th month of consecutive growth. But that doesn't mean the mood is great: 97% of restaurant owners are worried about higher food costs, according to a survey from the National Restaurant Association, and 38% say they didn't make money last year. That's a lot of have-nots. In a moment when food prices are volatile at best and workers are hard to come by, most of the restaurant industry has to make hard decisions. As Corey Mintz argued in this very publication, we may hate what it takes to save restaurants — more self-service, higher prices — but we may not have a choice. I don't care how many times the Nasdaq punches new highs — this does not make for good vibes.

Restaurants are pinched, in part, because their patrons are pinched, too. Yes, the rest of the country is starting to see what New York City has been seeing: The worst is over. The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index showed significant improvement over the past two months, and the outlook for inflation continues to improve. This is fantastic news for the country, but as analysts at UBS pointed out in a recent note to clients, just because we're not feeling bad doesn't mean we necessarily feel good.

"These are encouraging developments and sentiment should continue to improve as disinflation progresses, the Fed cuts rates and real incomes keep rising," the UBS analysts wrote. "In short, the vibecession for the public at large may be over, but the vibespansion has a long way to go."

Inflation hurts everyone, but it is catastrophic for people who are just getting by — or just starting to save a little bit. In an extremely cringeworthy interview, WK Kellogg CEO Gary Pilnick seemed excited when he said his company's cereal-for-dinner messaging was "landing really well."

"Cereal for dinner is something that is probably more on trend now, and we would expect to continue as that consumer is under pressure," he said. Since 1978, CEO pay has skyrocketed 1,460%, thanks mostly to stock-based compensation. When prices go up dramatically, those who can afford it may see it and know it, but they don't feel it. Those who can't, apparently, make Gary Pilnick's day.

If a pandemic can't defeat New York City, a little inflation certainly isn't going to do it. What it will do, though, is reveal the structural weaknesses in our society. The city's last Gilded Age was as much a time of growth and vitality as it was a time of corruption and inequality. It was a warning for this town and the whole country. Watching post-pandemic inflation at work is a warning, too. It showed what it looks like when this American economy experiences a short, sharp shock. And what that looks like is the affluent in New York City eating caviar, and poorer Americans eating cereal.


Linette Lopez is a senior correspondent at Business Insider.

Read the original article on Business Insider