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WHAT WAS THE RESTAURANT? To put the question in the past tense implies that it’s no longer possible to ask what the restaurant is. In time that may come to seem a ridiculous position; in many parts of the world outside the United States, where restaurants are holding firm in the face of the coronavirus, it already seems moot. But for now, anyone walking the center of any major city in this country would find it difficult to dispute that the American restaurant as we once knew it is an artifact of history. The US hospitality industry lost almost 5.5 million jobs in a single month at the start of the pandemic; 2 million more people are currently unemployed than were pre-Covid. In New York, over a thousand restaurants have perished since March. This massacre has disproportionately affected workers of color, who made up more than three-quarters of the city’s pre-Covid restaurant labor force, and the working poor, which is the only way to describe the vast mass of people employed in an industry with an average salary of $33,700. Restaurants have been brought to their knees at precisely the moment when the nourishment of the country is most in peril: since the start of the pandemic the number of Americans facing food insecurity has climbed from thirty-seven million to fifty-four million. This year of death and hunger closes a period in which the restaurant, aided by social media and its mimetic logic of aspirational consumption, enjoyed an imperial phase of growth and influence. Neither inhospitable margins nor a famously high rate of failure for new businesses had, writ large, held the restaurant back… For many they became a totem, a lodestar of in-group identification, a shorthand for cultural savvy and openness to experience. The person who frequented the right restaurants was living their best life; the restaurant agnostic was a cultural heathen, left behind by the great hungry tide of progress.”

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