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The Treasured Diners and Hidden Haunts That Covid-19 Closed for Good

We gather today to mourn the 150-year-old restaurant that served up platters of fried chicken and creamed corn to Abilene, Kan. To bid farewell to the New Orleans cafe that was a destination for huge crab omelets and endless conversation. To raise one last glass to the tavern in Cambridge, Mass., where the regulars arrived at 8 a.m. and the Austin diner where Janis Joplin nearly sang the neon lights off the walls.

They were local landmarks — watering holes, shops and haunts that weathered recessions and gentrification, world wars and the Great Depression, only to succumb this year to the economic ravages of the coronavirus. This is their obituary.

Thousands of businesses have closed during the pandemic, but the demise of so many beloved hangouts cuts especially deep. They were woven into the identity of big cities and small towns, their walls lined with celebrity photos and Best Of awards. Some had been around a century. Others, like the Ma’am Sir Filipino restaurant in Los Angeles, needed just a few years to win the hearts of their neighborhoods.

Their closures have left blank spaces across the country as owners liquidate their memorabilia and wistful customers leave social-media tributes recalling first dates and marriage proposals. And there are new worries: If these institutions could not survive, what can? And who will be left standing, to hold our memories and knit our communities together, when this pandemic is over?

If you ever went to the Cantab Lounge at 8 in the morning, you would meet regulars named Hoopy or Ralphie Moneybags or Growling John or Illinois, guys who showed up every morning, as if they had a time clock to punch.

This was before Cambridge, Mass., became a tech boomtown, home to a 300,000-square-foot Google satellite office complete with decorative canoes and a miniature indoor putting green.

Back then this stretch of Massachusetts Avenue was genuinely grungy. The Cantab took only cash. The bar was always sticky, and you wouldn’t want to use the bathroom. In a 1996 Senate debate, the Republican candidate, Bill Weld, held up the establishment as an argument against public assistance, saying, “They get the check, go down to the Cantab in the morning, and drink it away.” (The competition groused that his comment had been good for the Cantab’s business.)

But if you wandered in there on the right night, you could find a poetry slam or bluegrass night or Little Joe Cook and the Thrillers. Ben Affleck’s father used to work there, serving Budweisers to off-duty postal workers. Even the barflies were somehow uniquely Cambridge; Hoopy, for example, carried crossword puzzles in his inside pocket, and gave his profession as “solipsist.”

In July, when the Cantab’s owner, Richard Fitzgerald, announced he was putting it up for sale after 50 years, a howl of distress went up from that old, scruffy bohemian Cambridge. Mr. Fitzgerald, known as Fitzy, is hoping to find a new buyer to reopen the place in the summer — let’s hope in its old, sticky style.

— Ellen Barry

New Orleans

The bars and nightclubs that have shut down across New Orleans this year account for an infinity of lost time: gabbing over beers and the remains of a banh mi at the Lost Love Lounge, lingering after the friend of a friend’s band played at the Saturn Bar, giving up a further pub crawl for the siren song of the Circle Bar.

Still, as one ages, the places that were once just for mornings after become the hangouts themselves. Such was the case with Cake Cafe and Bakery, which sat on a bright yellow corner in the Marigny neighborhood.

On Saturday and Sunday mornings the line ran out the door, people waiting for French toast, biscuits and gravy and crab omelets the size of phone books; you could add a cupcake for a dollar.

The staff knew most of the customers on sight, except during carnival season when the tourists flocked. By that time those in the know had already ordered a king cake, in competition with the best in the city. It closed in June.

My young children will never know the pleasure of a long night of aimless conversation at the Lost Love Lounge. But they did know long mornings at Cake Cafe, which may be the first hangout they loved and lost.

— Campbell Robertson

There was an adage everyone knew in Spokane, Wash.: If you can’t find it anywhere else, the White Elephant will have it.

As superstores and Amazon devoured the landscape of American retail, the White Elephant hung on, a stubbornly independent small-box store. Founded in 1946, the prices were still marked in black Sharpie, and shoppers paid a dime to ride the mechanical elephant out front. It was a go-to retail destination for toys, camping tents and fishing lures. People lined up for Cabbage Patch dolls and Teddy Ruxpin bears. Children zoomed Matchbox cars around the aisles.

No more. The White Elephant, a place woven into many childhoods across eastern Washington State, was a casualty of 2020.

“When the Covid hit, that just made it a definite thing — we thought we ought to just go ahead and call it,” said Mary Conley, whose husband, John R. Conley Sr., started the business as a war-surplus store. He died in 2017.

In June, shoppers strapped on face masks and lined up for one final day of bargain-hunting as the Conleys liquidated their inventory and got ready to sell their two storefronts.

— Jack Healy

The warnings about the fries were as legendary as the fries themselves.

The large is huge!

Order it with friends.

Seriously, you can’t eat it by yourself.

The Original Hot Dog Shop had “hot dog” right there in the name, but it was the fries — perfectly cut, fried twice in peanut oil to extra crispness, served in a massive pile in a paper basket, with side cups of beef gravy or cheese product — that everyone talked about.

No one actually called it by its full name. Maybe “the Original.” But it was usually just “the O.” Or — especially among my high school friends and the University of Pittsburgh students in the city’s Oakland neighborhood — “the Dirty O.”

The place was a favorite of Michael Chabon, a Pitt grad whose first two novels are set in the city. In his memories, he told me, it’s 2 a.m. and “I’ve been hanging out with friends and drinking, and we’re all stumbling through Oakland, which is completely dark, and nothing is open except this one shining beacon of the O.”

Decades later, he can still hear the chirping video games and picture the late-night security guard glowering at a diverse cross-section of Pittsburgh. “In my memory it’s always freezing cold outside and really hot inside, and this sort of miasma of grease from the frying baskets is just hanging over everything.”

The Pitt student newspaper reported that when the O closed in April, the owners served up one more giant order of fries, donating 35,000 pounds of potatoes to charity.

— Scott Dodd

Los Angeles

When Charles Olalia decided to open a Filipino restaurant in Los Angeles’s hip Silver Lake district, he wished to “showcase my country’s food and vibe: beautiful, boisterous, loving” to a wide audience, he said.

“It was the full dining experience of what Filipino culture is,” said Mr. Olalia, 37, who immigrated to the United States when he was 20.

Ma’am Sir opened in 2018 to rave reviews for its creative renditions of signature Filipino dishes, like sizzling pork sisig and oxtail kare-kare.

Its tropical décor and festive atmosphere drew crowds of Filipino-Americans like Cheryl Balolong, 41, who grew up visiting traditional Filipino cafeteria-style joints in strip malls, picking dishes from display cases, eating and leaving.

“Ma’am Sir was different,” she said. “It was a place where we felt proud to bring friends who weren’t from our culture.” When Ms. Balolong got married, her bachelorette party was held at Ma’am Sir.

Then the pandemic struck. By August, Mr. Olalia shut the place down. “Day after day putting food in a box and seeing an empty dining room, I was getting farther and farther away from what the restaurant really was and why I built it,” he recalled.

— Miriam Jordan

Austin, Texas

For generations of University of Texas students, a stick-to-your ribs meal at Threadgill’s was about as close to mom’s kitchen as one could get. And with live music most nights, every dining experience also felt like a party.

The place had been a fixture in Austin since Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House. Its original owner, Kenneth Threadgill, a former bootlegger and well-known yodeler, was the first post-Prohibition licensed seller of beer in the county.

Threadgill’s began hosting live music in the 1940s, with local hillbilly blues artists paid in rounds of beer. U.T. students flocked there, including a rebellious undergrad named Janis Joplin, who made regular open-mic appearances.

By the time Eddie Wilson bought Threadgill’s in 1977, it had been closed for a few years and fallen into disrepair. It reopened in 1981, and became home to the Waller Creek Boys, Jimmy Dale Gilmore and other Austin musical legends.

Threadgill’s was the spot where you wooed a first date with chicken-fried steak and pecan pie. It was where you celebrated Longhorn victories and mourned losses.

Sandra Wilson said she and her husband were heartbroken over the closure in April, which left 50 employees without jobs. But after years of rising rents, Covid-19 made it nearly impossible to go on.

— Jamie Stockwell

Pikeville, Ky.

In rural America, far from airports and skyscrapers and rush hours, certain types of restaurants are hard to come by, which makes them all the more delightful when you discover them.

The Blue Raven, in Pikeville, Ky., was one of those. It would have been a great restaurant anywhere, but in Pikeville, people knew they were especially lucky to have it.

The Blue Raven was effortlessly classy. It was the kind of place you could take a third date without seeming like you were trying too hard. And it somehow managed to combine eastern Kentucky’s small-town charm with a modern, fusion menu that rotated with the whims of its workers.

One of its last dishes before it closed in May: miso chicken pot pie with hot sauce whipped cream.

— Will Wright

Coral Gables, Fla.

Ortanique on the Mile was where locals took their out-of-town relatives to try someplace that tasted like Miami. The walls were bright. The mojitos were among the best in town. The food was the “cuisine of the sun,” Cindy Hutson, the chef and co-owner, liked to say.

West Indian-style bouillabaisse. Mussels steamed in a spicy broth of Red Stripe beer. A beef tenderloin that Delius Shirley, Ms. Hutson’s partner and co-owner, recommended to customers like this: “If you don’t like this steak, I’ll buy it for you.” (They liked it.)

Their first restaurant, Norma’s on the Beach — named after Mr. Shirley’s mother, Norma Shirley, the Julia Child of Jamaica — was on Miami Beach’s touristy Lincoln Road. They moved the restaurant to Coral Gables 21 years ago and renamed it.

“We did parties for a kid’s First Communion and then when they graduated high school,” Ms. Hutson said. “Then we did a party for that same kid when they graduated college. And then we did a party when they got engaged.”

All that came to an end this year. “I cried and cried at first,” Ms. Hutson said. “But it turned into a happy cry from the outpouring of response from the neighborhood.”

— Patricia Mazzei

Abilene, Kan.

The Brookville Hotel looked like a relic from Kansas’ dusty frontier days — the white clapboard facade with black lettering, blue-and-white china, charming old patterned wallpaper and curved bistro chairs in the dining room. The food hardly changed in decades, either: fried chicken, sweet-and-sour coleslaw, creamed corn, biscuits and bowls of vanilla ice cream, family-style platters that materialized on the table in generous portions, as if by magic.

But the pandemic was too much for the hotel, which was really a restaurant and a 150-year-old institution along the interstate in the tiny city of Abilene, Kan. Drop-in customers had dwindled, along with buses packed with tourists headed to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum nearby. By early October, the Martin family, proprietors since the 1890s, called it quits.

“It is with a very heavy heart that we must announce that the Covid, and the lack of traffic, has forced us to close,” the owners wrote on Facebook.

— Julie Bosman

The Kansas City, Mo., culinary scene is most often associated with barbecue, but another place caught my eye that was more fine dining than smoked meats.

The Rieger, housed in an early 20th-century hotel of the same name, produced delightful plates of Midwestern favorites with a chef’s flair.

There was chicken with barbecue sauce, but the chicken was done in the French ballotine style. The pork tenderloin sandwich was fried in a light batter and brightened with red onions pickled with habaneros. There was an ode to French onion soup that was packed with pork confit and topped with crispy pork skin.

The basement housed a speakeasy, Manifesto, that took reservations through text messages and served craft cocktails.

The Rieger opened in 2010 and quickly became a local staple. But the pandemic would prove too much, and the restaurant announced its closure on Oct. 16 in an Instagram post.

Before that happened, Howard Hanna, who was the chef and owner, turned the Rieger into a community kitchen that served more than 85,000 free meals.

— John Eligon

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