Wednesday, 17 Apr 2024

He Wants to Draw All the Restaurants in New York City

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It is a quirk of our age that as civility and the duty to care for one’s neighbors have waned, masses dream of opening restaurants to feed complete strangers, and feed them well. Come warm yourself at my hearth; don’t ask me to pay my waitstaff minimum wage. You could say people open restaurants for the profits, but restauranting is a notoriously fickle business. More plausibly it is for the ego projection: my unique creations become literally the stuff you are made of.

How fickle is food?

John Donohue started drawing restaurants around the city in 2015, finding the practice therapeutic, like meditation. By the time he gathered his sketches for a book, “All the Restaurants in New York,” to be published in May, at least six of the restaurants were gone. Some were venerable, like Cornelia Street Café in the Village; others, hard to get into, like Tertulia nearby. The hospitality reaper laughs at such vanities.

Mr. Donahue, 50, a former editor of The New Yorker’s Goings on About Town section, rarely eats at restaurants, and has tried very few of the 102 included in his book or the ongoing array on his website.

But the distinctiveness of the exteriors and the fervor around all things culinary appealed to him, to say nothing of the bottomless supply of subjects. He buys sketch pads and Pilot pens by the case, and spends about 20 minutes on each sketch, then adds a single color at home on his computer. This means fixing wayward lines as he makes them, and drawing the buildings as he sees them, not necessarily as they are. If he later discovers that a restaurant window has three pillars rather than the two in his drawing, so be it.

“It’s like fiction,” he said. “I don’t even know what it looks like when I’m doing it. It’s the process that’s appealing to me. It’s just fortunate that the result is appealing to other people.”

Which makes the sketches documents of a city at a particular moment, and of a perception as fleeting as the restaurants themselves. The next time he returns, maybe the pillar will be back, but the bistro gone, replaced by a poke joint.

“My goal is to keep drawing forever, to get to all the restaurants in New York,” he said. It’s a silly goal, perhaps, but what goal isn’t? It’s cheap, it gets him outside (as opposed to eating in restaurants, which is expensive and mostly indoors) and provides one way of knowing this unknowable city.

And as the restaurants come and go, even the most fleeting pen lines linger as proof of what once existed. As Hippocrates said, ars longa, vittles brevis.

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