To some eaters, a restaurant's closing means grief - and guilt
Not long after Lisa Ingall gave birth to a baby boy - after 30 punishing hours in labor without food - she turned to her husband, Amit Saha, and made a simple request:
"'Get . . . down to the Classics and get me a Hell Burger!'" Saha recalled his wife saying that June day in 2010. "It wasn't so much of a request as it was a demand."
Next thing he knew, Saha was perched atop a bar stool at Ray's the Classics in Silver Spring, Maryland, waiting for the hamburger and knocking back shots with Elliott Rattley, then director of operations for the whole Ray's family of restaurants. These were celebratory toasts between friends - one a new father and the other a restaurant veteran quick with a free pour for regulars.
Memories like these came rushing back to Saha the moment he heard the Classics, as the place would later be named, was going to close Feb. 27. He immediately took to Facebook to pour out his feelings: "I'm heartbroken," Saha wrote. "It wasn't just a fantastic steakhouse. It was owned by my friends. So many special moments in our lives happened there."
To some, restaurants are just businesses, with cooks who prepare the food and servers who bring it, a purely transactional experience. To others, restaurants are places where friends meet, birthdays are celebrated, special occasions toasted and memories made. To those in the latter group, a beloved restaurant closure can be a blow. Therese Rando labels these blows "disenfranchised losses," which are personal losses that are not publicly recognized as such.
Rando is a clinical psychologist and author of "How to Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies." Orphaned as a teenager, Rando has devoted her life to the study of human grieving. Grief can take many forms, Rando says, some of which won't be validated by friends or family. Or even Rando's own mentor, J. William Worden, a pioneer in the field of grief. When contacted, Worden called grieving closed restaurants "a little bit of a reach." He suggested only people like the Kardashians do such a thing.
But Rando strongly disagrees. "It's incorrect to believe that grief is only after the loss of a loved one," she says. "It's after any perception of loss." People grieve after divorces, demotions, jobs transfers, infidelities and, yes, even the loss of a neighborhood restaurant. It's about a person's connection to the thing lost.
All across the country, you can find diners in various stages of grief, from anger to denial to a kind of low-grade depression. There's the Philadelphia homicide detective who considered stealing(!) a memento from his favorite downtown diner before it was demolished. There's the Houston musician who still hasn't found a suitable Tex-Mex alternative after his first option closed down - 17 years ago. There's the marketing and public relations professional who launched a full-frontal assault, via online petition, against the owners who decided to close an iconic pub in Menlo Park, California.
There are, in fact, thousands, maybe millions, of similar stories around the United States. They're easy to find. Just pose a question on Facebook - what restaurants do you mourn the loss of? - and watch the responses pour in. I got more than 150 on my page.
If there's a constant among the closures, it's that most of these restaurants weren't temples of gastronomy. They didn't have Michelin stars or celebrity chefs. They were diners, fried-chicken stands, breakfast spots, barbecue joints, burger bars and pizzerias. They were neighborhood hangouts - affordable and comfortable. The kind of places you'd patronize regularly, which is precisely why diners mourn them. They had a connection to the restaurants - and to the people who ran them and dined in them.
A customer's connection to a restaurant can be based on something other than food or human interaction. Take Joe Murray, a veteran homicide detective in Philadelphia. Little Pete's, a beloved 24-hour diner that fell victim last year to Philadelphia's gentrifying downtown, was the detective's preferred place to kill a couple of hours before he had to serve a warrant at 6 a.m. The establishment was, as he describes it, "brutally efficient." No speeches about the menu. No small talk. It was a "just-the-facts" kind of diner, and it perfectly suited Murray's daily rituals.
"They weren't rude," he clarifies. "It was just a diner. It was the best."
Philadelphia's changing landscape makes it difficult for Murray to find a replacement. The detective lives downtown, a short walk from where crews have been razing Little Pete's to make room for a 13-story hotel. Murray took a photo of the wreckage and posted it to his Twitter page. You could almost hear the sigh. These days, Murray is likely just to grab a cup of coffee from Wawa and kill time in his car. "It's kind of pathetic," he says.
Erich Avinger can relate. The guitarist and producer in Houston still misses the relaxed, living room vibe of Leo's Mexican Restaurant, a Tex-Mex spot with a backstory as colorful as the combination plates once available there. The owner claimed that he rode with Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. You could read about it on the menu or just examine the photos of Villa and his revolutionaries on the wall at Leo's.
Leo's was something of a musicians' hangout. ZZ Top's guitarist Billy Gibbons was known to frequent the place. In fact, a couple of overflowing, cheese-smothered plates graced the inside gatefold cover of "Tres Hombres," ZZ Top's breakout album from 1973. Avinger himself often introduced fellow musicians to Leo's.
"Little did they know that I was going to break them into that hot sauce and bring tears to their eyes," Avinger says.
Avinger frequented other Tex-Mex establishments once Leo's closed in 2001, but they never satisfied him. The hot sauce wasn't as explosive or the atmosphere was too refined. "When it was gone, it was the end of Tex-Mex," Avinger says about Leo's.
Part of the reason diners grieve a restaurant closure is because, as Avinger points out, it might mark the beginning of the end of an era. Eateries, after all, don't die just because developers push them out to make room for a mixed-use condo project. They die because people's tastes change. Diners want an authentic taste of interior Mexico now, not some bastardized combo plate covered in processed cheese and brown gravy.
Which might only compound the grief: Diners not only lose a cherished restaurant, but they suddenly realize they're part of a marginalized community, relics in the eyes of a younger generation. Consider the Pig Stand, a Texas-based chain that once had more than 100 locations in nine states. In its prime, during the 1920s and 1930s, the Pig Stand was considered an innovator: It has been credited with creating the first drive-in and drive-through restaurants. It may have even invented onion rings and Texas toast.
The Pig Stand chain went under in 2006, but one owner saved a sole location in San Antonio. Twelve years later, Kim Hogstrom still misses the Houston shop's open-faced turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and "that sprig of parsley that was so perfect that it was not found in nature." She misses the pig statuary, the laminated menus and the working-class atmosphere.
"It's how ordinary it was to me that made it extraordinary," says Hogstrom, a freelance writer and filmmaker.
Alison Perris, a PR and marketing executive, was not about to let the Oasis Beer Garden go down without a fight. The pub has been a fixture in Menlo Park, California, for more than 60 years, and Perris still remembers when, as a child, she tried to carve her name into a wooden booth with a butter knife. It's a tradition at the O, as locals call the pub. You leave your mark on the place, literally, with a pocket knife, butter knife or whatever carving tool you have. Kids and college students from nearby Stanford University have been doing it for decades.
On one level, Perris's Care2 petition was enormously successful: More than 16,000 people signed the online form asking the "greedy" owners to reconsider and keep the O open for generations to come. On another level, the petition didn't stop the inevitable: The O closed March 7, although Perris says at least two people are interested in working with the landlords to open the Oasis 2.0.
In the O's final days, longtime patrons flocked back to the pub for one last burger and beer. "Everybody's coming from everywhere to visit," Perris says. "Lines are out the door to the street."
The scene was much the same at the Classics in Silver Spring during the last two weeks of its life. Customers, whether neighbors or neighbors who have moved far away, lined up for a chance to order one more hanger steak. They stood two deep at the bar. They hugged one another. Some confessed their guilt: Maybe they could have helped save the Classics had they dined there more often? It's a common feeling among restaurant mourners.
Many also raised toasts to owners Rattley and Nick Lopata, who inherited the steakhouse in 2013 from founder Michael Landrum. Among those who made a final trek to the Classics: Amit Saha and Lisa Ingall, who now live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They brought their son, Devin, and crammed into a long booth with family and friends.
"There was just no way I could not go back one more time," Saha says. "It was absolutely like home."
Story by Tim Carman. Carman serves as a full-time writer for The Washington Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.