Special Report

The Saddest Restaurant Closings of 2021

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The pandemic sounded the death knell for many of America’s most famous restaurants. Among the casualties in 2020 were such iconic institutions as K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans, Manhattan’s “21” Club, and the 99-year-old Pacific Dining Car in Los Angeles. Lesser-known neighborhood standbys that served their communities for generations were felled, too. (Here’s a longer list of the saddest restaurant closings of 2020.)

Newer places run by celebrity chefs weren’t immune either — see McCrady’s in Charleston and Blackbird in Chicago. And chains were hard hit, too, with such familiar operations as Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Applebee’s closing many locations, and some — including California Pizza Kitchen and Chuck E. Cheese — filing for bankruptcy. (Here, on the other hand, are some restaurant chains whose sales actually increased in 2020.)

While the arrival of vaccines for COVID-19 early in 2021 seemed to promise hope for the hard-hit restaurant industry, relief was only temporary, as new variants of the coronavirus swept across the country in addition to low vaccination rates and adherence to public health policy frustrated the efforts to tamp the virus down.

As in 2020, thousands of restaurants on every level went out of business in 2021. The coronavirus was a major contributing factor in many cases, directly or indirectly. But some long-established places closed down because the owners wanted to retire or because their locations had been sold.

Click here to see the saddest restaurant closings of 2021

While the demise of any restaurant is unfortunate, some closures seem particularly sad, especially when the place had attained iconic status and/or had become an important part of its community’s social fabric. To assemble our list of the saddest restaurant closings of 2021, 24/7 Tempo consulted scores of restaurant news and review sites and local and regional magazine and newspaper sites from across the nation.

Magnolia Cafe
> Birmingham, Alabama

A well-liked purveyor of traditional Southern food, Magnolia Cafe served its last meal on Dec. 5, the 25th anniversary of its debut. The restaurant depended heavily on its catering business, which largely evaporated due to the pandemic. On top of that, the lease was up at the end of this year and the landlords sought a 42% rent increase. “Please pray for my family and me while I determine the next steps in my career,” wrote owner Mike Lee in a statement.

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Jägerhaus
> Anaheim, California

“We are so sad to announce the closing of Jägerhaus German Restaurant,” read a notice on this Orange County institution’s Facebook page in mid-December. Opened in 1979, the place was bought by Sandie and Anton Schwaiger in 1990. The couple later divorced, with Sandie keeping the restaurant. She died in October, and the small shopping mall it anchored is scheduled to be redeveloped as a 7-Eleven and a carwash.

Oliveto
> Oakland, California

Longtime Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli opened this highly praised California-accented Italian restaurant in 1995. Michael Tusk, who went on to launch the Michelin three-star Quince in San Francisco, was one of his successors in the kitchen. The place has always been known as one of the Bay Area’s best. It survived the worst ravages of the pandemic, but now co-owner Bob Klein has announced his retirement and closed the restaurant as of the end of 2021.

Spoon by H
> Los Angeles, California

Known for its solid Korean fare and delicious desserts for almost a decade and once hailed by chef-restaurateur David Chang as the “restaurant of the year,” this popular Beverly Grove café closed its doors in February. Chef-owner Yoonjin Hwang cited the pandemic but also financial difficulties caused by disputed charges on delivery apps. A GoFundMe appeal raised more than $50,000 in Hwang’s support, and she has left open the possibility of opening another place.

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Ann’s Coffee Shop
> Menlo Park, California

This old-school diner in the affluent Silicon Valley town of Menlo Park, famed for its pancakes and pies for the past 75 years, poured its last cup of java in April. After the pandemic shut down indoor dining in March 2020, owner Nicki Poulos tried to stay afloat by reducing staff and curtailing hours. The restaurant barely managed to stay afloat when the building’s owner sold the site for redevelopment and Poulos realized she couldn’t afford to reopen in a new location,

Original U.S. Restaurant
> San Francisco, California

This North Beach Italian classic may date back to the 1890s, but its early history is a little fuzzy and it has opened and closed and changed locations several times over the years. It moved to its final address only in 2015, but co-owner Alberto Cipollina and his family had been running it for decades. Cipollina made the decision to close because he wanted to retire and his children didn’t want to take over. In addition, the place has suffered from a pandemic-inspired staffing crisis. Based on its history, of course, it’s entirely possible that the restaurant will reopen yet again, with new owners, possibly in new quarters.

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Terrapin Crossroads
> San Rafael, California

Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh announced in the fall that he and his wife, Jill, were closing their popular music venue and restaurant after almost a decade. Their lease was up in September, and according to a statement on the Terrapin Crossroads Facebook page, “We explored all possible options in an attempt to keep Terrapin at its current location, but after carefully considering a number of various partnerships and collaborations, we decided that the best thing for us, and for Terrapin, was to bid farewell — for now.”

Cava Restaurant and Bar
> Montecito, California

After 25 years of serving modern Mexican and Spanish fare to this affluent community, Cava closed its doors in September. “We have experienced some challenging years of late on Coast Village Road, starting with the Thomas Fire, the subsequent debris flow event and on through to the pandemic,” wrote owner Carlos López-Hollis in a note to Santa Barbara’s Restaurant Guy newsletter.

Buckhead Diner
> Atlanta, Georgia

One of Atlanta’s best-known and most popular eateries, the neon-ringed Buckhead Diner, announced this summer that it would cease operating after 34 years. The property it sits on was sold, the lease was up, and it had been closed anyway since early in 2020, so the restaurant group behind it decided to pull the plug.

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Spiaggia
> Chicago, Illinois

Chicago’s best and most highly acclaimed Italian restaurant, the 37-year-old Michelin-starred Spiaggia, closed with the advent of the pandemic in 2020 but was anticipating a triumphant return this fall. Unfortunately, the lease was due to expire soon, and the owners couldn’t come to terms with the landlord. A restructuring was needed, they said in a statement, “to reflect the realities of operating a restaurant in an office building post-pandemic,” but negotiations failed.

Korea House
> Metairie, Louisiana

It might not be the first cuisine people think of eating in the New Orleans area, but this well-loved place served traditional Korean dishes to the community for 35 years before closing this spring for unspecified reasons. A Chinese restaurant has taken its place.

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Upperline
> New Orleans, Louisiana

Like many other restaurants around the country, this old-school New Orleans institution, open since 1983, shut down “temporarily” in March 2020. While owner JoAnn Clevenger planned to reopen when circumstances permitted, she made the decision in November to give up. One factor is Clevenger’s age — 82. “If I was 62,” she told NOLA.com, “I would definitely be reopening, but I’m not.”

Siebel’s Restaurant and UpTown Pub
> Burtonsville, Maryland

After feeding the community in this town between Baltimore and D.C. since Buck Siebel opened it as an ice cream parlor in 1939 — more recent specialties included cream of crab soup, fried oysters, and strawberry shortcake — Siebel’s served its last meal on Nov. 28.

In a letter to customers on their website, headed “All Good Things Come to an End,” the family that owned the place noted, “If you read the paper or listen to the news, it is no surprise to hear that staffing is challenging and the supply chain is crazy,” and suggested that the pandemic had reordered their priorities and “helped us remember what is important in life.”

Phillips Crab House
> Ocean City, Maryland

For 66 seasons, Phillips Crab House served this coastal resort town with a variety of fish and shellfish — and a popular seafood, pasta, and prime rib buffet — but in December, the Phillips family “made the difficult decision to sell their … property,” according to a website statement. No reason was given. Other locations remain open in Baltimore, at seven airports along the Eastern Seaboard, and in casinos in Connecticut and New York State.

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Eastern Standard, Island Creek Oyster Bar, and The Hawthorne
> Boston, Massachusetts

Noted Massachusetts restaurateur Garrett Harker and his partners closed their three adjacent restaurants in the Hotel Commonwealth on Kenmore Square in February. Popular with Boston University students, visiting celebrities, and the community in general, all three had suffered from closures and business declines since the advent of the pandemic. In June 2020, Harker also had complained to the Boston Globe that his landlords “don’t seem to acknowledge that there’s anything special about these restaurants,” and were unwilling to work with him.

Café Lucia
> Lenox, Massachusetts

This upscale Italian standby in the Berkshires, opened in 1978, closed quietly in October — four months after the death of founder and co-proprietor Jim Lucie. His widow, Nadine Atalla, continued to run the place briefly but then made the decision to call it quits “with a heavy heart,” she wrote in a statement.

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Craigie on Main
> Cambridge, Massachusetts

A notice posted this summer and still appearing on the website of chef Tony Maws’ acclaimed French-American restaurant (known above all for its near-legendary burger) reads “Temporarily Closed,” adding, “We are pushing ‘pause’ and taking a little break.” The place has not reopened, however, and is for sale, with Yelp and Google listing it as permanently closed.

Pepino’s Restaurant
> Sylvan Lake, Michigan

This 38-year-old family-owned establishment (which moved to its present location after a fire destroyed the original restaurant in 2015) served its last meal at the end of October. While the pandemic cut dining room capacity in half, the main problem, co-owner Kathy Morely told The Detroit News, was finding personnel. “It’s staffing, definitely, 100%,” Morely said. “We’ve been trying for eight months to get staffing and it just kept getting worse and worse and worse … We’re done. We’re tired. We tried everything we can.”

The Cookery
> Fish Creek, Michigan

A Door County institution, The Cookery closed in May after 44 years in business serving straightforward American fare with regional accents. Though COVID-19 doubtless affected business, owners Diсk and Carol Skare didn’t cite it in announcing their decision. “We’re both in our 70s,” Carol Skare told the Green Bay Press Gazette. “It’s definitely a little bittersweet, but we also realized it’s time in our lives to move on and see what’s on the other side. We’ve never had a summer off, so we’re going to see what Door County looks like in the summer.”‹

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El Milagro Mexican Grill and Cantina
> D’Iberville, Mississippi

July marked the end of the road for this popular Mexican place in D’Iberville, on Biloxi Bay. Owner Brenda Vega cited the impossibility of hiring and keeping staff as the main reason for its demise. Vega had only six employees over the summer, four of them high school students scheduled to return to their studies in August. “We can’t operate a full restaurant with two people because we still want to make sure we’re providing good service,” she told WLOX.

Lusco’s
> Greenwood, Mississippi

One of the Mississippi Delta’s most famous restaurants, Lusco’s, which opened in another location in 1921 and moved to its later home a dozen years later, served its last broiled pompano and fried chicken in late September. Andy and Karen Pinkston, proprietors for the past 45 years, are ready to retire. “Retiring has been the most difficult decision we have ever made,” wrote Karen in a Facebook post. “In your mind, you think that you can keep doing all the things that you have always done. But then the reality is that your physical body tells you differently.” They are continuing to produce and sell their signature sauces and other food items.

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The Fireplace
> Paramus, New Jersey

This landmark Route 17 diner, whose cheeseburgers had been called the region’s best, celebrated its 65 anniversary on the Fourth of July this year. Then, on July 30, the owners posted an announcement on Instagram reading, “We are saddened to inform you that we have made the difficult decision to close our doors tomorrow at 4 pm. Over the past months, we have had an increasingly difficult time covering the costs of running our restaurant.” A patron started a GoFundMe to raise money to help the place stay open, but it closed on schedule.

Benno
> New York City, New York

Acclaimed chef Jonathan Benno’s eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant in Manhattan’s Evelyn Hotel almost made it into 2022. Almost. After enduring a pandemic-caused shutdown, it reopened in mid-September — but then closed permanently in late December. “The pandemic has changed the landscape of this industry in ways we couldn’t have ever imagined,” Benno wrote in a statement quoted in The New York Times. A statement on the website adds, “We are grateful to our patrons and our friends for their support.” Benno’s other two enterprises at the hotel, Bar Benno and Leonelli Bakery, will remain open without his involvement and with a new name for the bar.

Café Boulud
> New York City, New York

Star French chef Daniel Boulud operated restaurants at the Surrey Hotel for almost 30 years — first his flagship, Daniel, and then, beginning in 1998, his (slightly) more casual Café Boulud. His residency there came to an end in July. The company that managed the hotel went bankrupt, and the new owners “wanted to take the restaurant in a direction that didn’t suit me,” the chef told The New York Times. A trendy Miami-based Italian restaurant, Casa Tua, will take its place. Boulud’s myriad other enterprises remain open.

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Felidia
> New York City, New York

Lidia Bastianich opened her first restaurant, Buonavia, in Queens in 1971. A second place followed, but it was Felidia (the name was a portmanteau of her name and that of her husband, Felice), which she launched in a Midtown brownstone in 1981, that first gained her fame. Bastianich went on to become a noted TV personality and cookbook author and opened other restaurants on her own and in partnership with her son, Joe, and the now-disgraced Mario Batali.

Felidia became famous for its northeastern Italian specialties and earned numerous accolades — but also, in more recent years, was the target of several wage-theft lawsuits. No official reason for leaving the place behind was given, but in October, Bastianich sold the restaurant building to a developer who plans to open a Korean barbecue restaurant in the space.

Del Posto
> New York City, New York

Five years after Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and Lydia Bastianich opened this elegant, ground-breaking Italian culinary destination in 2005, New York Times critic Sam Sifton gave it four stars — the first time an Italian restaurant had earned that honor since 1974. It went on to win two Michelin stars as well.

Batali sold his interest in the place in 2019 following accusations of sexual harassment, but chefs Mark Ladner and then Melissa Rodriguez maintained its quality. It was announced in April, however, that Del Posto had been purchased by Rodriguez and longtime general manager Jeff Katz, who closed it down with plans to open several other venues in its place.

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Flora Bar
> New York City, New York

One of the Upper East Side’s favorite restaurants, the sleek seafood specialist Flora Bar in the Met Breuer museum announced in February that it would not reopen when the Breuer moved out and Frick Madison opened in March to temporarily house the Frick Collection while the historic buildings are being renovated. Flora Bar owner-chef Ignacio Mattos continues to operate his acclaimed Estela and Altro Paradiso.

Jing Fong
> New York City, New York

Chinatown legend Jing Fong moved out of its 800-seat dim sum emporium (it was the community’s largest restaurant) at the end of May. Truman Lam, third-generation owner of the place, blamed the closure on a major business downturn fueled by both the pandemic and anti-Asian propaganda related to the virus. The restaurant has reopened not far away, but with a capacity of about 100 seats and (at least for now) without the dim sum carts that used to roll between the tables.

Sunny’s Riverhead Diner & Grill
> Riverhead, New York

Long Island’s oldest diner, open since 1932, served its last meals on Aug. 31. Co-owner Jim Liszanckie, who had taken over the place with his wife Sunny in 2017, told Newsday that they were unable to pivot successfully to takeout and that shutdowns cost them vital business because they didn’t serve dinner — the meal most people order to go. They got an SBA loan to keep them in business for a while, but ultimately, Liszanckie told the newspaper, “It was a daily grind just trying to keep our heads above water.”

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La Panetiére
> Rye, New York

At the end of October, after more than 36 years, Jacques Loupiac closed his highly esteemed Westchester County traditional French restaurant, with its garden setting and its Provençal atmosphere. While COVID-19 and problems finding staff affected the place, Loupiac said his reason for calling it quits was simply that he wanted to retire.

Crook’s Corner
> Chapel Hill, North Carolina

One of the most famous, highly acclaimed, and influential restaurants in the South posted an Instagram message in June reading in part, “With an incredibly heavy heart I must share the news that we are closing. The position we find ourselves in, exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis is no longer tenable.”

The site was originally a fish market opened by Rachel Crook in the 1940s and had many tenants over the years until Gene Hamer and Bill Neal opened it as a restaurant in 1982. The restaurant both honored traditional regional dishes and helped invent contemporary Southern cuisine. Chefs Bill Smith, Justin Burdett, and (briefly) Carrie Schleiffer were worthy successors.

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Paley’s Place
> Portland, Oregon

Nov. 27 marked the end of the line for this 26-year-old French-accented Pacific Northwestern (or vice versa) restaurant. “The events of the last year and a half have given us all time to reflect on what’s most important, and that was certainly true for us,” wrote proprietors Kimberly and Vitaly Paley on the restaurant website. “This next chapter in our lives will be about the two of us, charting out a new life together, whatever that may be.”

Tony Wang’s
> Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Tony Wang helped run other Chinese restaurants in the Lancaster area beginning in 1982 and opened his first place of his own five years later. He moved to the location that made him locally famous in 1992. Before the pandemic, a developer had planned to take the place over and raze it to build a hotel, and Wang, who had been diagnosed with throat cancer that robbed him of his voice, started looking for a place to move. He closed for what he’d hoped would be a short time in March 2020, but announced in January of this year that he would not be reopening.

Sunset Family Restaurant
> Lebanon, Tennessee

This popular family-friendly restaurant east of Nashville was opened by Vestal Fox in 1959. Relatives took it over four years later, and Bob Hodge (Fox’s step-nephew) and his wife, Virginia, became partners in 1967 and sole owners in 1983. The Hodges, who have health issues, plan to retire. “We feel good about it,” Bob Hodge told The Wilson Post. “We’re going to miss it, but we’ve put our time in.”

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Hermitage Café
> Nashville, Tennessee

“This is something I hoped I would never have to write, it almost seems like it is not real,” said Sherri Taylor Callahan, owner of this classic late-night Nashville diner — featured on TV shows including “Nashville” and “American Diner Revival.” Adding, “It was an amazing 31 almost 32 years. Regretfully, our last day to serve this amazing community will be Halloween night October 31, 2021.” Callahan explained that the location had been sold without her knowledge and without her being given the opportunity to buy it.

The Kitchen Table Bistro
> Richmond, Vermont

Lara and Steve Atkins, chef-proprietors of this well-reviewed farm-to-table restaurant southeast of Burlington, open for almost 20 years, announced on Nov. 4 that they were closing down. Steve had suffered a severe back injury a few months earlier. “As I lay on the living room floor,” he told Seven Days, “we were afforded the opportunity to have many conversations to assess where we are professionally and personally.” The injury and the difficulties caused by the pandemic led the couple to conclude that they should sell the business.

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Mamma ‘Zu
> Richmond, Virginia

This legendary 27-year-old Oregon Hill establishment, which looked like a seedy bar from the outside, was known for its surly service, immense portions, and lengthy blackboard menu of excellent Italian-American food. It was also known for the long lines that formed outside nightly of patrons waiting to get a seat at the no-reservations place. But the restaurant shut its doors when the pandemic arrived in early 2020. No official closing notice was posted, but in August a “for lease” sign appeared in the window and Mamma ‘Zu’s is now empty.

Howard Deli
> Washington, D.C.

The original Howard Deli, which evolved into an essential stop for Howard University students and other locals, opened in 1924 at a nearby location. Darryl “Pepe” Diaz and his brother Kent “Kenny” Gilmore took it over in 1988 and ran it successfully until 2020, when the coronavirus arrived and Gilmore had a debilitating stroke. With Howard University and other local schools closed down for much of the time, business plummeted. In February of this year, the brothers made the decision to close. “It’s an empty feeling inside really,” Diaz told WUSA.

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