Valentine’s Day Agita

talesfleurdesel Valentines Day AgitaBlack-clad staffers commiserated over cocktails in the back bar area at Cocotte, a cozy French bistro along Park Slope’s trendy Fifth Avenue.

An ominous sign had been posted in the front window shortly after brunch that fateful Sunday afternoon last February: “Dear Cocotte’s Friends and loyal customers, We want to thank you for your support through the years. It has been a memorable journey but sadly Cocotte has to close doors. Sincerely, Cocotte Management.”

One employee of the abruptly shuttered venue openly sobbed on the sidewalk. Another quickly hustled down the street after spotting a regular patron with reputed food-industry connections; he politely asked for a job referral.

Only three nights earlier, the place had been packed with couples enjoying a romantic Valentine’s Day 2008 dinner together.

Its subsequent shuttering was one of several restaurant closures in the days and weeks immediately following the heart-themed holiday. The timing was more than merely coincidental.

“People hold on until Valentine’s Day,” Cocotte chef and co-owner Bill Snell then explained to The Observer. (Mr. Snell attributed the barely five-year-old bistro’s demise to high rents and intense competition along Brooklyn’s burgeoning restaurant row.)

“Valentine’s Day is the biggest restaurant day of the year,” Mr. Snell said. “You make a crazy amount of money. So that’s what everybody does. They hold off until Valentine’s Day, make their nut and then close.”

This year is already shaping up to be an epic one for restaurant closures as operators citywide struggle to cover their lofty pre-crash rents with plummeting post-crash revenues.

Will Cupid’s looming arrow signal even greater carnage to come? At least three Manhattan eateries have already announced that this coming Feb. 14 will be their last.

Southwestern standby Miracle Grill, located at 415 Bleecker Street, is shutting its doors the very next day (Feb. 15). “We also opened on Valentine’s Day 12 years ago,” noted owner Lynn Loflin.

Chef Cyril Renaud’s Michelin-starred French restaurant Fleur de Sel, located at 5 East 20th Street, will close the following weekend (Feb. 21).

Spanish tapas joint Suba at 109 Ludlow Street is also packing it up later this month after proprietor Yann de Rochefort reportedly sold the business to nearby Spitzer’s Corner operators Will and Rob Shamlian.

The full body count is hard to predict at this point because many proprietors are quite clandestine when it comes to closing.

“A lot of them just walk in one day, put the keys on the counter and walk out,” said Chuck Hunt, executive vice president of the New York City chapter of the New York State Restaurant Association.

Mr. Hunt suggested that it’s quite common for floundering operators to pull the plug at some point during the first quarter of any new year. “Obviously, a lot of people, if they see the end coming, they try to get through the last quarter of the year for the holidays and then close after New Year’s Eve,” he said.

This year has been no exception, with the shutterings of Fiamma and Lola in Soho, Ruby Foo’s on the Upper West Side and Lunetta in Flatiron, to name a few. “Just walk around town and you’ll see a lot of restaurants have dropped off,” Mr. Hunt said, “and it’s pretty easy to figure out why with the economy the way it is.”

Given the grim economic outlook, many operators are looking to sell.

Broker and hospitality consultant Steven Kamali has reported a tremendous uptick in new restaurant listings in recent weeks. (He declined to identify specific addresses: “We do have to protect the interest of the sellers because a lot of these businesses are still open.”)

Mr. Kamali said he didn’t anticipate another significant spike in new listings directly after Feb. 14. “I don’t think anyone would stay open for just one night of business,” he said.

Yet Mr. Kamali fully expects the burgeoning buffet of available spaces to keep on expanding well into 2009. “We expect a significant number of listings in the next couple of months,” Mr. Kamali said. “I don’t see anything different in the foreseeable future.”

cshott@observer.com