Rio Mar was a Spanish restaurant that once occupied a little wedge of space between Little West Twelfth and Gansevoort Street in the meatpacking district. It had been there for decades, an obscure treat, and even when flashy Pastis opened directly across the street, it remained esoteric, hidden in plain site. From the outside you hardly knew it was there, but once you were inside, its dim, dusky interior enveloped you. At the bar downstairs, they served baskets of peanuts in their shell, and I used to sit there with friends munching and sipping red wine. The act of having to get a nut out of its shell is extremely civilizing and enjoyable, and I hope it becomes a trend. The trend, however, will have to start somewhere other than Rio Mar. A little while ago a sign appeared on the front door bidding customers farewell after 24 years.
Colson Whitehead recently defined a real New Yorker as someone who has been here long enough to grow attached to a place and then see it vanish. I agree with this definition, though I think it omits a particularly New York style complication- one’s own possible complicity in the vanishing.
My friend Tom Cushman, who runs the Upper West Side bookstore Murder Ink and Ivy’s, once remarked to me that their busiest day of the year came while they were doing renovations. Tons of people came running into the store with an alarmed look on their face asking if they were going out of business. “I’d never seen half those people before, but they all acted like they shop here all the time,” said Tom. “I guess some people only patronize independent bookstores when they are going out of business.”
Perhaps the same can be said for charming out-of-the-way restaurants. In the weeks following the demise of Rio Mar, I had the extremely upsetting experience of arriving at my favorite sushi restaurant, Iso, on 11th Street and Second Avenue, to see that it had closed. Shortly after that, Grange Hall, which occupied a gorgeous pocket on Commerce Street, shut its doors. And just today my waiter at my local Brunch spot, Titou, on West Fourth Street, informed me that this was the restaurant’s last day in business.
Titou’s lease was bought out by someone who plans on opening a Tuscan restaurant in the same Spot. Grange Hall was not able to renew their lease on the same terms. Rio mar’s management would only say “We are having problems with out lease.” Iso’s demise is a bit more vague—Iso himself was involved is a freak shooting accident a couple of years ago, when he caught a bullet in the wrist when investigating a ruckus at his neighbor, Bar Veloce on second avenue. Some of this Sushi Chefs are opening a new place on the same Spot. For the other places, though, it seems their neighborhood simply outpaced them.
Businesses will always come and go, but these closings seemed particularly distressing to me. New Yorker’s have to be inured to sudden departures, but we are also more vulnerable to them. The regular, familiar spots become like annexes to our own apartments, this one functioning as the den, that one as the kitchen, another as the living room. I live in the West village, the Brunch capital of the world–it’s not like Titou’s departure will mean no more eggs benedict. But nonetheless I felt stricken at its demise. Perhaps it was the culmination of those other sudden erasures.
At the same time, my distress is slightly dishonest. At the least, it raises the question, if I liked these places so much, why didn’t I patronize them more often? If I was so attached to Rio Mar, for example, why haven’t I set foot in the place in almost two years?
I can more or less peg the end of my visits to Rio Mar, and the whole Meatpacking district, to the disappearance of the Christmas lights that used to hang down willy-nilly over the entrance of another long-time stalwart of the neighborhood, Florent. Back when the neighborhood was a spooky ghost town populated by vivid night people, it was always a relief to see those colorful lights glimmering in the distance, signaling one’s destination.
Florent is still there, but the lights have disappeared. Apparently they were plugged into the building next door, which is owned by a man trying to develop a high rise. The high rise is being vehemently opposed by Florent (the man), and somewhere in that dispute the lights got unplugged. Maybe they are not needed anymore. The neighborhood is all lit up now. It certainly got too bright for the moody romance of a place called Rio Mar.