Rio Mar was a Spanish restaurant that occupied a wedge of space between Little West 12th and Gansevoort streets, in the meatpacking district. It had been there for decades, and even when flashy Pastis opened across the street, it somehow remained obscure in plain sight. The dim downstairs bar served peanuts in the shell, and I used to sit there with friends munching and sipping red wine. Not long ago, a sign appeared on the door bidding customers farewell after 24 years.
In the weeks following, I had the upsetting experience of arriving at my favorite sushi place, Iso, on 11th Street and Second Avenue, to see it too had closed. Grange Hall, on a gorgeous pocket on Commerce Street, was next. Last week, a waiter at my local brunch spot, Titou, on West 4th, told me it was the restaurant’s last day in business.
Colson Whitehead has defined a real New Yorker as one who has been here long enough to grow attached to a place and then see it vanish. I agree, though I think he omits a particularly New York–style complication—one’s own complicity in the vanishing.
Tom Cushman, who runs the bookstore Murder Ink, once told me that his busiest day of the year came while doing renovations. People ran into the store, concerned that it was going out of business. “I’d never seen half those people before, but they all acted like they shop here all the time,” Cushman said.
I live in the West Village, the brunch capital of the world, so it’s not like Titou’s departure will mean no more eggs Benedict. Yet I feel stricken by its demise. At the same time, my distress is dishonest: If I liked these places so much, why didn’t I patronize them more often? If I was so attached to Rio Mar, why hadn’t I set foot in the place in almost two years?
New Yorkers must be inured to sudden departures, but we’re also vulnerable to them. Familiar spots become annexes to our own apartments, one functioning as the den, one the kitchen, another the living room.
Of course, a restaurant’s demise is also an occasion to sample the one thing as appealing as the familiar, namely the brand-new. Grange Hall has been taken over by the folks behind Chumley’s, who hope to return it to its previous incarnation, the Blue Mill, a onetime speakeasy that in its forties and fifties heyday was famous for having the best steaks in town. Titou’s lease was bought by Michele Gaton, former general manager of Coffee Shop, and Joseph Fortunato, Tonic’s onetime chef, who will open a Mediterranean restaurant, Extra Virgin, in April. Meanwhile, Iso (the man) was involved in a freak shooting a few years ago, catching a bullet in the wrist investigating a ruckus at neighboring Bar Veloce. Some of his sushi chefs have opened Koi in the same spot.
As for Rio Mar, management would say only, “We are having problems with our lease.” I can more or less peg the end of my visits there to the disappearance of the Christmas lights that used to hang willy-nilly over the entrance of another area stalwart, Florent. Apparently, the lights were plugged into the building next door, owned by a man trying to develop a high-rise, a project vehemently opposed by Florent (the man). Somewhere in the dispute the lights got unplugged. Maybe they are no longer needed. The neighborhood is all lit up now. It certainly got too bright for the moody romance of a place called Rio Mar.