This afternoon I was supposed to have lunch with a friend of mine and his husband at Veselka, the last Ukrainian restaurant standing (and, therefore, also the last affordable restaurant standing) in the East Village. This being 2pm on a Sunday, the restaurant was full and the line was out the door. Having just read David Shaftel’s brilliant op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Brunch Is for Jerks,”1 I turned to my friend Ivan and said, “I am not contributing to this madness known as 'Sunday brunch in Manhattan,' ” and suggested we go to Dojo, another vestige of the affordable East Village we both knew and loved. (The remaining Dojo is actually on West Fourth and Mercer Streets, but the original location—now closed—was on Saint Mark’s Place.)
Those of you of a certain age may remember Dojo as a ridiculously cheap restaurant with a Japanese flavor, famous for their carrot ginger dressing and their status as a de facto cafeteria for nearby NYU students. A few months ago, the owners of Dojo, in their infinite wisdom, decided to “renovate” and those of us who remembered the old Dojo held our collective breaths, fearing that either they would never reopen again or, if they did reopen, they would raise their prices to accommodate their higher aspirations (and renovation costs).
I’m sorry to report that my last two visits to Dojo since they reopened have been disappointing in the extreme. Gone are the wide-open spaces that made the place feel like a cafeteria physically as well as price-wise, replaced by wooden dividers that make you feel like a caged veal. While the prices have not risen substantially, something is seriously amiss in the kitchen. The last time I had breakfast there (I had suggested it to my friend Owen as a nicer alternative to the Washington Square Diner), the food was barely adequate and Owen vowed never to return for breakfast. This time, returning for lunch, was a horror show. My friend Ivan ordered a steak sandwich which, in both of our estimations, resembled Steak-umms more than actual steak, and I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich with French fries, which are still repeating on me several hours later.
Now, to be fair, Dojo never claimed to be a four-star restaurant and the service was always leisurely, at best. But this food was barely edible. I took one look at Ivan’s steak sandwich, which I had planned on sharing with him, and said, “I’m not touching that!”
It seems to me that Dojo spent all their money on renovations and then actually lowered the quality of their food to make up the cost!
I feel sorry for the (constantly rotating) wait staff that has to put up with these conditions (as well as the owners), but it seems like a catch-22 situation. The owners of such restaurants are struggling to stay in business, so they either have to renovate and (usually) raise their prices and/or cut their costs (which often means cutting their quality, as well). Then, when they cut their quality, they get even fewer customers, so it becomes a vicious cycle, until they eventually close for good.
Basically, if you’re not either very expensive or part of a chain, you can’t afford to do business in Manhattan anymore. In fact, there are some chains (and I would include high-end luxury retailers in this category) whose stores function solely as 3-D advertisements for their brand. Is anyone really buying $10,000 dresses at the Chanel store in Soho (or any of their other stores, for that matter, considering the only people who can afford them get them for free)? It doesn’t matter, because they make most of their money on perfume. This is why so many designers go out of business, unless they’re also in the business of selling underwear (hello, Calvin Klein!).
Right now there’s an entire chain of stores called Organic Avenue that sprang up literally overnight, with locations in every neighborhood in Manhattan. Yet every time I pass one of their stores, it’s completely empty!
I’m afraid that restaurants like Dojo—not fancy, but affordable—are not long for this city and will soon join the dustbin of retail history, along with all the other mom-and-pop drugstores, coffee shops and diners that have already gone out of business.