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Robert Sietsema/Eater NY

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Eulogizing the Dearly Departed Restaurants of 2015

For our Year in Eater coverage, we asked food-industry pros to reflect on their 2015. Here, food writers from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Boston eulogize the saddest restaurant closures of the year. Some were new establishments whose fires burned hot; others were beloved relics of neighborhoods rapidly embracing the Next Big Thing. All shared one thing in common: That restaurants are inherently sites where communities flourish, where shared experiences among friends, patrons, and those in the industry unfurl over many plates of food and even more glasses of alcohol. Every restaurant, in its own way, has its own era. These five in particular will be missed.

Photos: Krieger/Eater NY

Kin Shop, New York City (2010-2015) | by Helen Rosner

The thing that did me in at Kin Shop was the duck larb: boats of romaine leaves piled high with ground duck lightened with rice flour and doused in a bright, citric, briny, fiery flavor. It was spicy — not burn-your-face-off spicy, not the sort of one-upsmanship spicy that gets certain authenticity-fetishizing white dudes all agitated and testosteroney — just really, really hot, hotter than you expect in a hip restaurant, hotter than you expect for the signature item on a menu of a Greenwich Village spot with high-design wallpaper and a Top Chef pedigree. And it was good, not just spicy for the sake of spicy but spicy for the sake of flavor. The heat was floral and tart and it mattered that it was duck, with its unctuousness, and that it was romaine, with its watery lift.

Kin Shop was misidentified when anyone called it Thai — it was Thai-inspired, maybe Thai adjacent, chef Harold Dieterle's ode to the flavors of Southeast Asia but not his attempt to capture them in amber. It played with authenticity the way Picasso played with the human form, a variation necessarily based on mastery: a silky goat curry, intensely briny stir-fried flat noodles, a sweet-tart cucumber relish, roti that were croissant-like in their flaky layers. There are times I crave Thai food, and the nearest short-order pad thai joint can scratch the itch with some milquetoast mix of tamarind and lime. But there are times I crave Kin Shop, and only Kin Shop will do, and now it's gone, and I'm not sure what I'll do.

The bar at Sinbad's. Photo: Facebook

Sinbad's, San Francisco (1975-2015) | by John Birdsall

On a Tuesday in late November, as San Franciscans were just beginning to feel the stomach punch of a Thanksgiving without local Dungeness (toxic because the Pacific warmed this year into the we're-all-fucked zone) a drab and stinky little restaurant-tavern on the Embarcadero closed for good.

The Port of San Francisco evicted Sinbad's — open since the mid-1970s in a lowering, suburban-looking shanty of a place near the base of the Bay Bridge — after a couple of years of notices, warnings, negotiations, and evictions. The Port wants to build a new terminal here for the ferries hauling commuters across the bay, to Oakland and Alameda. Sinbad's was in the way.

The three brothers who owned Sinbad's, Tom, Charles, and Duane Stinson, said they always knew, eventually, they'd have to leave. They argued the Port didn't have a firm start date for demolition, and until they did, Sinbad's should be able to carry on being drab and stinky, pouring shots of Jim Beam and making Stoli tonics for a never-crowded bar of patrons who were ordinary, middle aged, and not cool.

Sinbad’s was a place of mostlys: mostly unspecial, mostly unloved, mostly uneulogized.

In 2015, Tom Stinson had the distracted, baggy-eyed look of a man who knew he was screwed, like a sales rep who's lost his touch and can't figure out why. The San Francisco Chronicle gave other endangered bars full nostalgia coverage. The Gold Dust Lounge, which closed in Union Square before it reopened at the Wharf, got stories about Janis Joplin, Tony Bennett, and dead Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, dragged from the grave to mourn the loss of something lovable and distinctive about the city. The Lexington Club, S.F.'s last dedicated lesbian bar, got a tender elegy in the Chron about the boarding up of queerspace.

What did Sinbad's get in the Chronicle? Dry reports about the Stinsons' legal moves.

But that's why I liked Sinbad's, and why its closing — in a year a lot of us realized the tech boom's changes have been so great, San Francisco is never going to re-become the intense little queer and dosed-out village of cold and battered flats we all found and loved here — was actually momentous.

Sinbad's was a place of mostlys: mostly unspecial, mostly unloved, mostly uneuolgized. It served drinks to people who looked like they were office managers, marketing people, or front-desk security, pulling down 40 or 50K in a city where that salary now bars you from entry, except as a kind of guest worker who has to commute from distant strip-mall towns like Fairfield and Antioch.

Nostalgia has been a potent meme in San Francisco since at least 1915, when massive rebuilding after the wreck of the great earthquake and fire of 1906 stoked all kinds of longing for the wild, bohemian, liquor-poisoned Barbary Coast, a city of whores and garish new money. It sparked the inextinguishable myth of San Francisco as a place of nonconformists engaged in cool, mavericky shit, the Joplins and Harvey Milks and Steve Jobses.

Sinbad's was the high school smoke pit of the waterfront. Not the romanticized one, where leather-chokered Jordan Catalano lights up and flips his hair, but the one with balding 42-year-old B2B marketers who buy dress shirts at Marshalls and keep a bottle of Chivas behind the bar, throwing back a second one in time to catch the 5:20 ferry to Oakland.

Sinbad's was the high school smoke pit for people who don't fit SF's new narrative of millionaires wearing flip-flops to team meetings at app startups and eat out every night. The smoke pit for people who don't post Instagrams from self-aware dive bars.

Sinbad’s was the doomed and fetid symbol of a San Francisco inexorably changing.

Last summer I filmed a segment at Sinbad's for Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain — Sinbad's was the doomed and fetid symbol of a San Francisco inexorably changing, as others struggled elsewhere to keep the city's gutter spirit from being power-washed into new-corporate shininess. My call time is 4:00. I enter through planter boxes of eerie stunted palms, past the Sinbad mannequin staring blankly behind glass, sit near the bar while Bourdain's production crew fixes the lights and mics me. Half a dozen drinkers anchor the flanks of the bar, looking out at one of the best views in San Francisco, with beers or pink, ridiculous-looking Cosmos.

Bourdain arrives quickly, we sit at the bar to talk. I turn my head to face him, and just then a matchbook hits his chest, glances off to the floor. The woman who threw it — late forties, in a blazer with big shirt collars folded over the lapels — is drunk-grinning straight at Bourdain. "You're cute," she says, like he's some guy she could hook up with.

Bourdain gives her the stern, this-is-not-funny glare — it makes me feel scared. We turn to talk again, another matchbook bounces off his chest. I look, she's still grinning. I turn back to Bourdain, and out of the periphery sense the production crew closing in on her.

That was Sinbad's for you — stanky, clueless, uncool, unembarrassed, nonconformist little Sinbad's.

Clio, before and after a 2009 renovation. Photos: Facebook

Clio, Boston (1996-2015) | by Rachel Blumenthal

In a year of surprising high-profile restaurant closings in Boston, one of the most surprising is Clio, Ken Oringer's 19-year-old Back Bay restaurant that will shutter after a party on New Year's Eve. Even more surprising, perhaps, is Oringer's reason for closing it down: "I get bored very easily," he told me a few weeks after the closure was announced. "I love change. I love change." He hadn't even wanted to sign a five-year lease in the first place, but here he is, nearly two decades later, with an office full of press clippings, countless old menus, and photographs of major players in the food world — people who have visited Clio, guest-cheffed there, or worked there before going on to do big things elsewhere.

It would be easy to describe Clio's importance by rattling off a list of those names, the awards, the magazine and newspaper features. But a restaurant's real success is reflected more accurately by the dent it leaves on its city, not the amount of ink on pages. In Boston, particularly in an ever-increasingly expensive neighborhood like Back Bay, plenty of places don't stick around for too long. Five years is a lifetime, let alone 19, so Clio's impression will be felt for quite some time. A high-end French-American restaurant on the surface, Clio always had an undercurrent of creativity and new, unusual ingredients. While Oringer looked through old menus a few weeks ago, he reminisced about cooking with things like grains of paradise, coconut water, geoduck, and offal long before they were commonplace. Clio was the first United States restaurant to cook to use argan oil, he said — and he had to smuggle it in from Montreal.

But a restaurant’s real success is reflected more accurately by the dent it leaves on its city, not the amount of ink on pages.

Clio's bar will be remembered for innovation as well, particularly during the Todd Maul era. Maul, who trained as a furniture maker, introduced equipment more often seen in a science lab into the bar in order to make magic. (In 2014, he moved on to open Cafe ArtScience in Kendall Square, where he continues to up the science ante in his cocktail-making.)

In a lot of ways, Clio's legacy does come back to that list of names. The restaurant's alum can be found near and far, making all kinds of waves in the food world. Tony Maws, for example, stayed local and opened up the renowned Craigie on Main, followed by The Kirkland Tap & Trotter. Former Clio pastry chef Alex Stupak opened Empellon Taqueria, Empellon Cocina, and Empellon al Pastor in New York. And then there's J. Kenji López-Alt, master of science and cooking over at Serious Eats (and now a cookbook author too).

As for Oringer himself, when he opened Clio, he was a self-described "punk," roasting whole goats in the alleyway of the expensive hotel that houses the restaurant and having to comp the rooms of guests complaining about the smell. In the early months, he was calling in friends from out of town to come help out in the kitchen; they'd crash in any spare bit of space in his tiny apartment. There were no pastry chefs then; the team would do the production work after service, lasting until the early hours of the morning. But he managed to build something special, and it catapulted him into a place where he could go on to open restaurants like Toro and Coppa, both with Jamie Bissonnette. The duo later expanded Toro to New York City, and back here in Boston, they'll soon open a new restaurant called Little Donkey (that one will be across the river, in Cambridge.)

So Clio's era is over, but it's not completely goodbye — its influence lives on throughout Boston and beyond, and besides, Oringer's not letting the space go. In 2002, he built a Japanese restaurant called Uni in Clio's lounge. Now, tiny Uni, overseen by chef Tony Messina, will expand into the Clio space, something the team has been wanting to do for a long time. But the fine dining glory days of a restaurant like Clio are over, as far as Oringer is concerned. It's not that people aren't eating that way anymore, but he isn't eating that way anymore. "I don't want to be sitting in any restaurant, I don't care how good it is, for four hours," he said last week. "Now I don't go to three-star Michelin restaurants when I travel; I just want to go to places where I can have some fun."

La Taza de Oro, New York City (mid-1950s-2015) | by Robert Sietsema

Some restaurants close with a bang, press releases flying, cameras flashing, owners and chefs taking questions from reporters and bloggers. It wasn't like that at La Taza de Oro ("The Cup of Gold"). It had been a fixture in Manhattan's Chelsea for upwards of 50 years, a Puerto Rican lunch counter that reflected the cultural make-up of a Latin neighborhood that went back to the 19th century. Indeed, Eighth Avenue between 14th and 23rd Streets was once thronged with Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Spanish, and Cuban-Chinese eateries; now that thoroughfare has lost its last remaining example.

La Taza, as its many fans called it, boasted grand signage on a garish red and yellow façade with a handsome neon coffee cup, but had a more modest interior consisting of a Formica counter with twirling stools that ran deep into the narrow space. Separated from the counter by a cramped aisle, tiny two-tops marched along the opposite wall. At mealtimes you had to weave your way through the crowded space to find a place to sit. Behind the counter, a bevy of Latin guys, most seemingly in the their 50s and 60s, stood dishing out food on massive plates, which always included a choice of white or yellow rice and red or black beans.

In the style of most of the city's ancient Latin cafes, the menu shifted according to days of the week, though certain dishes were always available. There were pork chops sauced or breaded, thick garlicky slices of pork roast, oxtails in a deep brown gravy, paprika-dusted roast chickens, the pulled beef called ropa vieja ("torn clothes"), liver and onions, mashed plantain mofongo, and fat pasteles — tamales dotted with little bits of pork and vegetables, wrapped in banana leaves. The fragrance of garlic and oregano wafted over all. For warmer months, you might go with a codfish or octopus salad seasoned with onions and white vinegar, one of many recipes that reflected Puerto Rico's Spanish heritage.

La Taza de Oro was an institution that united New Yorkers of many races and nationalities within its smeary walls.

And there were sandwiches, too, on the kind of rubbery baguettes that came from the neighborhood's Latin bakeries. The iffy quality of the bread was never an issue, because these sandwiches were destined to be filled with meat or poultry, thin slices of cheese, and a couple of pickle slices, then brushed with fat and squished in the sandwich press panini-style. But La Taza disdained to make a Cuban sandwich, proving once and for all that a Cuban lunch counter was quite a different thing from a Puerto Rican one. Instead, the best sandwiches were layered with the pork roast called lechon, or perhaps boiled ham and sliced cheese — the pressing process turned any ingredient, no matter how pedestrian, into an first-class sandwich.

In the days before there was a Starbucks on every corner, La Taza fulfilled the neighborhood's serious coffee needs — those that could not be satisfied with a paper cup of bodega coffee. Puerto Ricans had always been proud of their wonderful coffee beans, grown around San Germain in the southwest of the country, aged, ground fine, and delivered in paper bags. Here it was turned into kick-ass espresso, but I'd drop in for a café con leche — the equivalent of a latte, made with espresso and milk steamed to a bubbly froth. Even after coffee bars began popping up in the neighborhood, many java drinkers preferred La Taza's coffee for its high quality, bitter lees, and continued cheap price. (I remember paying only 50 cents for an espresso as late as 2000.)

Well, La Taza occupied the ground floor of a rickety, three-story brick residential building that probably dated to the 1850s, and one day this last April, bricks rained down from the adjacent building, causing the city's Department of Buildings to issue a vacate order that closed the café and an adjacent pizza parlor. This also entailed shutting off the gas. The place remained closed as the months dragged by, until finally in early December owner Eric Montalvo conceded that the place would never reopen.

I was devastated. Not only was La Taza de Oro an institution that united New Yorkers of many races and nationalities within its smeary walls, it was a cheap eats refuge that was one of the last places in Chelsea you could dine well sitting down for $10 or less. In fact, there are far too few places like that left in Manhattan. La Taza, you will be missed.

Photo: Wonho Frank Lee/Eater LA

Bucato, Los Angeles (2013-2015) | by Matthew Kang

When Evan Funke first opened Bucato back in mid-2013, it was destined for greatness. No one really knew what he was planning on doing, except that he would have pasta. Funke's former residency at Rustic Canyon survived many years on a strict market-driven approach to New American fare, and Westsiders ate it up. But most people remembered Funke for his supreme burger. There was no burger at Bucato, just a massive wood-fired oven and full wood stove.

When you walked into the strange space, which sat on the end of the historic Helms Bakery complex in Culver City, you were immediately confounded by its layout. Inside, a long room with soaring ceiling, a half-open kitchen that emitted warmth and the tails of wood flames, and a minimalist space that left one wondering how they were going to make any money with just 50-some seats inside (it turns out there were almost a hundred seats on the two patios).

Funke was undeterred, installing a baffling no-cell phone policy that belied our social media-driven world. It was a strong statement: Put down your gadgets and cameras, and talk to your fellow diners. What a concept.

I was one of the people who initially thought this was a terrible idea, that restaurants were moving away from Draconian policies like this. I remember showing up completely uninvited to the media preview, and one of the co-owners went on a bizarre tirade about the relationship between food media and restaurants. Maybe he was mad that I showed up despite not having an invite (I was the guest of another writer). Maybe all the writers were wondering why they'd been told not to take any photos of food or tweet about the experience from our cell phones (why have us in at all?).

It took me a while before I ventured back to Bucato, thinking that particular co-owner might come at me with one of the blazing hot fire irons. However, Funke wasn't too interested in enforcing some electronic gadgets policy. He was mainly consumed with making some of the most dynamic food in Los Angeles for nearly two years.

No one has ever seen the kind of commitment to pasta here in carb-fearing LA than Evan Funke.

First, the pasta. No one has ever seen the kind of commitment to pasta here in carb-fearing LA than Evan Funke. He was adamant about making full hand made, hand-cut pasta on the premises every day. No pasta extruders or rollers; just rolling pins, knives, flour, water, and eggs. The results were spectacular, with rustic sugos and ragus blended with fine cheeses and buoyant noodles, the kind of plates you swoon over for days before realizing you're craving them again.

The wood-fired oven churned out possibly the best foccacia of my life, a perfectly browned disk of bubbly Italian bread topped with bright olive oil and a sprinkle of crystalized salt. I had my first meal at the bar, alone, without a cell phone to keep me company, and I just ate until my pants nearly became unbuttoned from the gluttony.

When I asked Funke about Bucato, about its brief life, he told me that he'll always remember it fondly in his heart. It was his first solo restaurant project, but it will not be the last in Los Angeles. He's already met with over a dozen operators to plot his next move. And when he does land inside a kitchen again, I can only imagine the fury and passion pulsing through the plates. Los Angeles had better be ready for Funke's next installment, wherever that happens.

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