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A farewell tour of restaurants lost in America

This has been a harrowing year for restaurants — for the people who work in them, the people who own them and the people who support them by dining out. Beloved places have struggled to make ends meet, and thousands have been unable to. From fine-dining trailblazers to longtime neighborhood favorites, we commemorate just some of the many that had to close their doors forever in 2020.

THE BACHELOR FARMER

Minneapolis; opened 2011

With a menu of dill-cured fish and reinvented cinnamon rolls, an in-house forager and a dedication to cold-weather crops like rye and rutabagas, Bachelor Farmer chef Paul Berglund nailed three elements of current food culture: New Nordic cuisine, under­sung American home cooking and hyperlocal ingredients. The restaurant managed to be both an homage to the hardscrabble lives of Scandinavian immigrants and a luxurious hipster hangout, showered with stars and media coverage.

Also in Minneapolis and neighboring St. Paul, the closings of Grand Cafe, In Bloom, Bellecour and the Butcher and the Boar have left the area gutted of the kind of big, ambitious places that power a restaurant ecosystem, attracting and supporting fishmongers and farmers, wine importers and bread bakers as well as skilled cooks and servers. The Twin Cities aren’t alone in that, but that doesn’t make it any less devastating.

BLUESTEM

Kansas City, Mo.; opened 2004

In the early 2000s, Megan and Colby Garrelts represented a burgeoning breed of culinary talent: young chefs who wanted to take what they’d learned working at high-profile restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago to make a splash, and a life, in a smaller city. The result was Bluestem, an early-21st-century tasting-menu restaurant with the heart of a welcoming bistro. Dinner in the elegant, 80-seat restaurant brought foie gras torchon and chocolate pudding cake on Bernardaud French porcelain — and the liberty to order a pale ale with it, if you so pleased.

POK POK

Portland, Ore.; opened 2005

When Andy Ricker began selling Thai food that he cooked on a grill behind a shed next to his house on Division Street, he liked to say that he had gone into the restaurant business to finance his backpacking trips to Thailand. But if you’re just trying to make a buck, why put small, rock-hard black crabs in the papaya salad? Why insist that diners who asked for chopsticks eat sticky rice with their hands and noodles with a fork? Why load up the menu with livers and stomachs and blood?

It was obvious that Ricker wanted to push things. He pushed and pushed, and built a restaurant company like no other, a four-city galaxy of Pok Poks, Whiskey Soda Lounges and other small and tightly focused establishments that somehow stayed true to the low-tech, ad-hoc spirit of the original shed. Then the galaxy began to collapse, star by star, until October, when Ricker turned out all the remaining lights, including those at the original Pok Pok. “Closed for good,” he wrote in an email from Thailand, where he lives now. “And it’s good to be closed.”

TILTH

Seattle; opened 2006

Occupying a Craftsman bungalow, Tilth felt as much like the home of its chef and owner, Maria Hines, as it did a restaurant. Eating there was personal. The chef’s passion for local and organic ingredients was expressed in dishes that popped with color and flavor. A meal in the late 2000s included wild sockeye salmon with foraged mushrooms, and a vegetarian cassoulet. It tasted like the Pacific Northwest, condensed into a meal for two, with a memorable cardamom-bourbon-spiked hot chocolate for dessert.

STAPLEHOUSE

Atlanta; opened 2015

Atlanta is a city that can be insecure about the quality of its restaurants, so it meant a lot when Staplehouse was named Bon Appetit’s restaurant of the year in 2016.

Not only did the city have a restaurant and a chef (Ryan Smith) setting culinary trends instead of chasing them, but Staplehouse offered something else novel: a business structure that made the restaurant a for-profit subsidiary of the Giving Kitchen, a nonprofit organization helping restaurant workers facing unanticipated hardships.

After serving some relief meals for unemployed restaurant workers and trying takeout service, the restaurant closed for good in August and the Giving Kitchen spun off into an independent entity.

Smith and his wife, Kara Hidinger, bought the historic brick storefront that housed the restaurant and in October opened the Staplehouse Market in the same historic brick building in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, selling bottles of wine, homemade Funyuns, fermented hot sauce and dishes like brisket and tortillas to go.

“It allowed us the ability to strip off the expectation and the brand of being precious and unattainable, and reintegrate into the neighborhood,” Hidinger said.

BEVERLY SOON TOFU

Los Angeles; opened 1986

Soondubu jjigae — the hot Korean stew made with soft tofu — is part of a shared culinary lexicon in Los Angeles thanks to Monica Lee, the South Korean immigrant who opened Beverly Soon Tofu. Lee wanted her own community to feel at home, to feel restored by the comforting dish in her dining room, which she decorated with simple, glossy live-edge furniture. She also wanted to teach its pleasures to diners unfamiliar with the stew — the way it announced itself from halfway across the room, trailing an intensely reassuring steam, and arrived at the table expressive, bubbling, alive.

At first, her menu focused on nothing else, inviting diners to build their own bowls, to their own tastes, picking out broths, proteins and heat levels. “I noticed that Americans like to customize,” she said. “I saw the opportunity.”

Over the decades, her soondubu jjigae fueled weekly family dinners and special birthday parties, nursed hangovers and heartbreaks, nourished workers on their way home and new parents on a night out. By the time the restaurant closed in September, Lee hadn’t just achieved her goal, she had expanded the definition of comfort food across the city, for generations of Angelenos.

20TH STREET CAFE

Denver; opened 1946

Rod Akuno started working at 20th Street Cafe as a child, in the late 1950s. He stopped last spring, when he and Karen, his wife and partner, decided to permanently close. His grandparents, Harry and Tsugi, opened the diner nearly 75 years ago, after their release from Camp Amache, a Japanese-American internment camp in Colorado. They passed the restaurant along to their son, Ted Akuno and his wife, Ann, who in turn passed it to their son Rod.

Until the end, Rod Akuno, 68, woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get stock boiling before opening at 6:30. He made pancakes and Denver omelets, chicken-fried steaks and udon with kamaboko.

Many of his regulars also had decades-long relationships with the restaurant. “It was a space for Japanese-Americans to get together,” said Erin Yoshimura, 58, who began eating at 20th Street Cafe as a toddler. Yoshimura, whose grandparents ran a grocery in the same neighborhood, insists that Akuno’s chicken fried steak was the best in Colorado. “Of course, you had to have it with rice, not mashed potatoes,” she said. “That’s what made it a real Japanese- American meal.”

GEE’S GARDEN

Tucson, Ariz.; opened 1975

Gee’s Garden drew its crowds on weekends, when a line of waiting diners would snake out the front door, an occurrence common enough to suggest that Tucson’s largest dim-sum parlor wasn’t quite big enough — even with a seating capacity in the hundreds. Its founders, Joan and Dudley Gee, converted the restaurant to dim sum in 1995, having opened it 20 years earlier as one of southeast Arizona’s first Chinese buffets.

Eddie Lau, a former longtime employee, took over Gee’s in 2015. He credits a trio of experienced chefs — Tam Zihe, Fei Lee and Lei Panxai — for keeping the food quality high. “Our food was very very traditional, and we made it fresh,” Lau said. “People were willing to wait for it.”

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