In November of 2001, Paul Liebrandt, who had made his name as the 25-year-old wunderkind chef at Atlas on Central Park South, had just begun a new turn at Papillion, a West Village bistro where he put on, as William Grimes put it in his two-star review, “culinary events that seemed to mingle theater of the absurd with conceptual art and Parisian avant-gardism of the old school.” His tenure would last only a year.
As Mr. Liebrandt put it flatly, “I think after 9/11 people did not gravitate toward that style of dining. When something happens—you look at Hurricane Irene—you go to Whole Foods and everybody’s running out with every different potato chip they can get their hands on, to hunker down at home. It’s what people do.”
September 11 hit the New York restaurant scene hard. Tourism was down, and the already waning expense-account economy due to the dot-com bubble bursting made high-end cuisine—the so-called “tweezer chefs”— less attractive for both diners and investors. In the subsequent decade, restaurants focusing on simple, familiar and hearty food—though often rendered an upscaled and inventive way—would become the culinary zeitgeist. Establishments like Freeman’s, The Meatball Shop and Locanda Verde would become the predominant feel of eating out in the city.
“It’s not just a coincidence that comfort food exploded after 9/11,” said Food & Wine restaurant editor Kate Krader “There is a kind of illogical need for stuff like macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken. Stuff that is not going to challenge you at all after a time when you’ve been really emotionally challenged. And you kind of just want to sit there and have a no-brainer dinner, or feel like someone’s going to take care of you, like your mom.”
It doesn’t hurt that comfort food joints, be they haute or otherwise, are more economically viable, offering a more affordable price-point for diners and a higher margin for restaurateurs.
As Ken Friedman, owner of the very popular and very comfortable restaurants The Spotted Pig and The Breslin, explained, “I mainly wanted to do a casual restaurant because I’m a casual guy, I don’t really dress up and make reservations. But When 9/11 happened, it just kind of made it work better because more people were open to the idea of not spending a whole lot of money on food, not being frivolous.”
Drew Nierporent, owner of several decidedly non-comfort downtown restaurants is unimpressed witht the trend. “This fixation with hamburgers is kind of silly,” he observed. “To me, a hamburger is the perfect food you can cook at home. You can source the right meat, the right cheese, the right bread. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to cook a hamburger.
Though, Danny Meyer, whose Shake Shack franchise has made quite a bit of money from people not cooking hamburgers at home, sees the appeal as extra-culinary. “There’s no question that people, immediately in the days following 9/11 sought comfort,” he said, “and they sought it sometimes in the kinds of food they ate, for sure, but I think just as much, and maybe even more powerfully, the sought it in terms of the scale of the restaurants in which they ate. They wanted places that felt, in terms of scale, much more like home.
“The notion of being part of a human community, shoulder to shoulder, in a reasonably small space that kind of feels like your home kitchen, gave an element of comfort.”