There is a fake restaurant around the corner from my apartment.
It pretends to be a restaurant, oh sure. It has tables and chairs, waiters and a bartender, dressed in neckties over white shirt. But no one ever eats there. Occasionally, a passerby might see a solitary guy at the bar, or a pained-looking couple, marooned in an inland sea of deserted tables. It is under-attended, suspiciously so.
It first opened a couple of years ago, splashy: big American restaurant, lots of meats! Many martini glasses! We welcomed it. It seemed to be a counterweight to the artisanal whatever, to the gift shop that sold greeting cards made by hand, to the hip retailers from Williamsburg. Shrimp cocktail! Ribeye! It was not ironic, thank God.
We went a couple times in the beginning. It is a large room, twenty or so four-seat tables, big plush booths along a wall. The food: fine. There was a pianist once, on a New Year’s Eve, when the only other party was the family that runs the tavern up the street, all dressed up and messed up. The plates were square, and the food was fine in that way that the first time you eat it, you reassure each other that it’s really good! And the second time, you start to realize that you are lying to each other, and that the food is edible. We wanted to like it. We wanted to have that restaurant around the corner become part of the family.
But each time we went, the emptiness of the place became impossible to ignore. As we sat, waiting for our square plates to be cleared, we’d look around, disquieted, wondering where the camera was, when we were going to be “Punk’d.” The vibes, they were not good, bordering on desolation. We stopped going.
Not a couple blocks away there is another empty restaurant, a showy storefront with tables and chairs seemingly bought for cheap from another restaurant that had its physical assets auctioned off unceremoniously. It is invariably empty like a prairie, longing for a single tumbleweed. It has been like that for more than ten years. I always assumed that it was a part of the neighborhood, like a comfortable chair, but one with a healthy takeout/Seamless business. And in the other direction, sits an equally empty restaurant, a red sauce joint, much maligned on Yelp, though we love it in the way you love a red sauce joint that your grandparents might have taken you to. That place: largely empty, but just enough for the owner to shower each table with attention in between yelling at the busboy.
Neither of those places get to me. They may have been empty but they were not fake. They have function and tenancy. They’re just not the kind of places that get reviewed, or visited by that guy with the hair for his television series. But that fake place? What is up with that fake place?
The fake restaurant has a website, an earnest, non-boilerplate website. Also, it has a TV commercial. You would see it on local cable channels, and it was resolutely normal: teeming crowds, glistening food, clinking rainbow cocktails, much classy grown-up fun! The commercial knocked loose a spiral of QUESTIONS. Was this alleged food real, or was it styled, all glycerin and egg whites? And who were those people having fun? They didn’t look like anyone I knew, or saw on the subway every weekday. And what kind of restaurant produces a TV commercial in Brooklyn? Was the commercial to try to trick people into eating at the restaurant, or to trick people into thinking that the restaurant was an actual restaurant?
Were the actors even actors? Maybe the commercial was some stock B-roll footage of generic fun-havers in a generic American restaurant. Maybe it was a pro forma bit of CGI. How deep did this thing go?
So 2017 churned tirelessly into chewed-up, murky, terrible 2017, and the restaurant around the corner didn’t shut down, which was an affront. From a distance, it seemed to be a success story—with a commercial even!—but up close, it increasingly appeared to be either a sham or a bad joke. How does it even work, a restaurant with no customers? Do they keep food around just in case, so if a tourist gets lost and ends up there, the restaurant doesn’t have to say, “Oh, you’d like the burger, yeah, we’re fresh out of burgers.”
I walked past the restaurant, the empty restaurant, regularly. Other times it would come to mind, unbidden. It itched at me, in the same way that seeing someone’s inbox has 12,000 unread emails in it. Nothing to do with me. Nothing at all. But how can that be RIGHT?
I would reassure myself that the restaurant was obviously some sort of operation, the purpose of which was some non-restaurant venture. There was a time in the city that a bodega or candy shop with much dust on the shelves was obviously a front for something, but a whole restaurant? Burgers waiting for accidental customers? Or maybe it was some sort of financial thing, or the entrance to a supervillain’s underground lair. But if so, so what? I am of course generally against financial misdoings and supervillains, but does it hurt the neighborhood? Does it hurt the neighborhood any more than purporting to be a perfectly good restaurant but not being an actual restaurant at all?
I had believed in that stupid restaurant, and how it was going to entirely sidestep gentrification by trafficking in a 1990s version of luxurious dining, and it fizzled. It fizzled but did not go away, just to inform me that my faith in the stupid restaurant was dumb. Which makes me dumb, not just for having troublesome and naive thoughts about gentrification couched in my glaringly suburban upbringing, but for caring about a restaurant, a fake restaurant that unwittingly tricked me into caring about it.
Every ad, every visit to its website assures you that a transporting dining experience is available to you, right here, around the corner from my apartment! And it’s true. There’s a hole I’m trying to fill and only this place can do it. Just not with meats and flavored Cosmopolitans. Every day the news keeps raining down, greed and stupidity and shittiness, and here I sit, powerless to think about it, instead just whiling away the hours wondering about that fake restaurant around the corner.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.