John Donohue has always been hungry. At a lanky 6’2″, the former New Yorker editor’s appetite has long been a driving force in his life. “I could never get enough to eat,” he told Observer.
Nowadays, Donohue’s work fittingly revolves around restaurants. He isn’t eating at them; he’s drawing them. For the past five years, he has sketched hundreds of establishments across New York, Paris and London, and the resultant works—All the Restaurants in New York, A Table in Paris and, most recently, A Taste of London—form a trilogy providing illustrative insights into the diverse and colorful eateries of each city.
But the 54-year-old got his start in journalism, not art. During his 22-year tenure at the New Yorker, the Brooklyn-based editor only published six cartoons in the magazine. After he found himself unemployed in 2015, Donohue found solace in sketching. “I found that drawing really has a beneficial effect on my worldview,” he said.
The restaurant project began in mid-2016 as a side gig while Donohue sought out a new job. He chose a food-based subject in part because of the success he had with his 2011 best-selling anthology Man with a Pan, which contains essays from men like Stephen King, Mario Batali and Jim Harrison on their experiences cooking for their families.
“The appetite for the food media world is sort of insatiable, so I thought if I drew restaurants someone might notice,” said Donohue. The choice was also one of convenience for a man in the process of finding employment. “It’s New York, so you can’t really throw a stone without hitting a restaurant,” said Donohue, adding that he sketched before and after job interviews.
The self-taught artist’s first restaurant was an obvious choice. While working as a journalist, Donohue decided where to dine based on price point. “I never felt like I had enough money to eat out,” he said. But the Odeon, a beacon of New York nightlife in the 1980s, had always been an aspirational establishment for him, representing “where dining as we now know it originated,” according to Donohue. Frequented by John Belushi and other Saturday Night Live cast members, the iconic Tribeca spot was even featured on the cover of Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City. “It introduced fine dining to this corner of the city that was totally undeveloped.”
Positioning himself outside of restaurants with a pen and pad in hand, Donohue can usually complete an ink sketch in about 20 minutes. “It’s almost uniform, it’s really bizarre,” he said. His use of ink means there’s no room for mistakes, which injects each work with “a little bit of vitality, because it’s kind of a high-wire act.” He adds a pop of color with Photoshop afterwards. If a restaurant has a bright red awning, this step is quick—but for the more expensive eateries, which typically have discreet black exteriors, Donohue gets experimental. For example, his drawing of New York’s Spotted Pig, which has since closed its doors, features a green sky behind the West Village gastropub.
While Donohue prefers to work anonymously as he sketches the exterior of his chosen establishments, he is sometimes approached by restaurant owners. His focused gaze coupled with the pen and paper in his hands can give the impression he’s an inspector. “They typically will approach with some apprehension,” noted the artist, who puts them at ease by displaying his work. Despite his constant interactions with restaurants, “a great irony of the project” is that Donohue doesn’t spend much time in them. “Honestly, because they’re expensive,” he said. And although it’s “very tempting,” the illustrator avoids sketching the few restaurants he does visit with friends. “It’s inconvenient to the other party if I disappear for 20 minutes.”
These days, Donohue often picks restaurants based on their reputation and “place in the culture,” a framework that influenced his sketches of the Michelin-starred Per Se and Brooklyn’s iconic cheesecake diner, Junior’s. But once his side gig blossomed into a full-blown career, complete with sketches available for purchase on his website “All The Restaurants,” Donohue began taking commissions. He also makes a point of dashing over to eateries that will soon go out of business to capture them for posterity. “There’s an archival nature to them that I really appreciate,” said Donohue. “I’m sort of documenting the dining scene in a way.”
The fleeting nature of restaurants
Despite living in New York for his entire life, the sheer volume of restaurants that have closed after he illustrated them has been a shock for Donohue. “I sort of assumed that the restaurants would always be there,” he said. The first wake-up call occurred when he sketched the China Grill, located in Manhattan’s Black Rock building. After posting the drawing to his website, Donohue looked up the eatery and found it had shut down. “They are these beautiful things that aren’t necessarily going to be there forever and need to be enjoyed and appreciated while they’re around,” he said.
Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns were devastating for the industry. There has always been a charitable component to Donohue’s work—benefiting nonprofits like City Harvest and the Historic Districts Council—but in 2020, he began giving back to hospitality workers directly by earmarking a portion of his sale proceeds for the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation’s Covid-19 fund.
Challenges are part of the work. Donohue continued drawing restaurants during Covid but had to adapt to drawing around outdoor dining structures as they were introduced in New York City. The artist also found himself sketching very different exteriors during his time in Europe, such as the iconic outdoor seating Paris cafes are known for.
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And in London, the subject of Donohue’s most recent book that came out in April, he faced difficulties rendering the city’s older buildings. Donohue’s sketch of London’s Chiltern Firehouse, located in a former fire station, took him 40 minutes instead of the usual 20. “What if my estimate for how much time I need to do this is totally off?” recalled the artist, who had not anticipated the intricacy of London’s architecture.
Despite the hiccups, the artist’s time overseas “was a wonderful experience,” and one that Donohue compares to a “midlife term abroad.” In addition to the hundreds of drawings he completed for his three books, he was commissioned to create a series on Napa Valley restaurants for a 2022 show at the Napa Valley Museum. He also has a stockpile of works sketched in the cities he’s visited since starting “All The Restaurants,” which include Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
And he’s just getting started. Several more cities with vibrant dining scenes are on Donohue’s checklist, with New Orleans, Los Angeles and Atlanta at the top. “It’s endless. I long to travel and go to other cities,” said Donohue. “I want to do this for the rest of my life.”