I wish I had taken more photos. It was a random weeknight in the Before Times, a celebration of nothing but friendship and free time, the kind of night you say, “Fuck it!” and order the special tasting platter. We had stuffed ourselves on taramasalata, then skordalia, and then keftedes. I wish I had captured the looks on my friends Jason and Emily’s faces every time the server came back with more dishes, now loukaniko, and then fried squid, just when we thought our meal was over. I had taken them to Zenon Taverna, a Cypriot-Greek restaurant in my neighborhood, because it felt emblematic of Astoria. Warm, welcoming, and a few decades old, it was the kind of place that still had a tequila sunrise on the cocktail menu even though no one would dare order it. The food that night, and really every time I went, was conversation-haltingly good.
At one point, Jason sighed that this kind of place just doesn’t exist in Brooklyn, at least in the version of Brooklyn (whiter, wealthier, full of people who weren’t from here and would probably again leave) he lived in. My heart did a smug little flip. Take that, everyone who complained Queens was too inconvenient or ugly. Fuck you, anyone who assumed I lived in or would soon move to Brooklyn. I’m not Greek, but Zenon was a restaurant that made me proud of my neighborhood. Maybe I didn’t live in the trendiest zip code, but who cares? I had those impeccably baked lemon potatoes.
I learned of Zenon Taverna’s closure the way I seem to learn most bad-but-not-death-in-the-family news these days: a text message link and an ensuing “nooooo.” The text came from my friend Jon, a former Astorian who knew exactly what we were losing. In an Instagram post from late November, Zenon Taverna thanked the community, but after 33 years “decided the time has come for us to close our doors.” In a follow up comment, it responded that “unfortunately the last almost 2 years have been very difficult for small businesses like us.” I felt shocked and then furious — at the news, yes, but also at myself for being surprised at all.
I know restaurants have been struggling. My colleagues and I have spent the past 20 months reporting on those difficulties: the PPP loans that were confusing and insufficient, the costs of ever-changing outdoor dining rules, how selling off wine cellars and pivoting to delivery wasn’t enough to keep some of them out of debt, and how we will see the ramifications for years to come of restaurants not getting a sufficient bailout. But I was sure Zenon was okay — or maybe it just never occurred to me that it wasn’t.
Every time I picked up takeout or sat outside over the summer, the restaurant was full of people. And more than that, the owners spent the past year and a half delivering free meals to front-line workers and free fridges, and hosting live music outdoors for the community. Would a struggling restaurant act like this? I thought, assuring myself the answer was No, its generosity could only come from a place of stability, and completely ignoring how every unstable person I knew (myself included) had thrown themselves into mutual aid work. I had fallen for that trope of self-care that Instagram reminds you about: Just like an iceberg extends so much deeper than the tip you see on the surface, someone’s social media presence is not their whole story.
And now the closure of a restaurant, of all things, was bringing all these fears I thought I had quelled — fears about more sickness, another shutdown, and another isolated winter — to the surface again.
Back in March 2020, when the restaurants closed their dining rooms while I stocked up on extra groceries and booze to bring home, I knew that when this was “over,” whenever that was and whatever that looked like, I would not be emerging into the same world to which I now had to close my door. I attempted to soothe my anxiety over that unknown with fanatic observation, obsessing over the latest discoveries about transmission and treatment, and watching case numbers and death tolls rise even as we knew what could stop it. I refreshed the websites and Instagram pages of restaurants that remained closed, hoping “temporary” wouldn’t slide into “permanent.” My life shrank to the size of my laptop screen. My anxious, lonely watch did not save anyone.
So I grieved whenever Instagram or Twitter or this very website informed me that I would never again step foot in a place I longed to be — but what struck me was how unfamiliar the grief felt. After all, a lifetime in New York means a lifetime of goodbyes. It means being used to the pang you feel when some fifth-generation stalwart decides to close its doors after the population it was built to serve has all moved away; the anger that comes when your childhood burrito spot is kicked out because the landlord wants more rent, yet years later its facade remains empty. Change is what makes it New York, the cliche goes. You may not ever feel comfortable with change, especially when it is forced by the hands of greed, but you do your best to acknowledge and make peace with the reality that nothing lives forever. You get yourself a table during a restaurant’s final week, or at the very least you spend some time walking around the neighborhood, learning the feel of the block without its icon.
But these changes felt different. It was unrelenting. Most of my usual coping mechanisms weren’t available to me since I was doing my part by staying at home, and dining rooms weren’t open anyway. I shared my grief with every like and every broken heart emoji, every tweet that amounted to “This sucks.” And I mitigated my heartbreak with deliberate, intentional optimism.
I now understand that I believed, on some level, that my personal sacrifice — all of our sacrifices — would be rewarded with something. I saw how, amid the closures, my community was still finding ways to show up for each other. Mutual aid projects and networks sprang up, with neighbors delivering groceries and installing air conditioners and fighting evictions for each other. Knowing who in my community needed help, and being able to provide it, felt like a modicum of control, which in turn felt like power. I could not keep people who lived in other states from gathering indoors, but I could buy and join Zoom classes from my local yoga studio, donate to GoFundMes to help local businesses pay rent, and tip as much as I could to my favorite restaurants for takeout. And because I had framed this in my mind as mutual aid — “Solidarity, not charity,” as the saying goes — I anticipated the results would be somewhat reciprocal. I was doing my part. And when the time came I would be cared for in return.
For a time, it felt like it worked. This past spring, when case numbers dipped and vaccination rates started to rise, my life came back to me largely intact, which I know makes me extraordinarily lucky. No one close to me died or refused vaccination, I kept my job, and for the most part the places I longed to go to during the height of lockdown are still there even now. As a vaccinated person without health conditions or small children or immunocompromised housemates, I’ve been able to take required precautions and get back to life as almost-normal. I visit my family and friends in their homes, or we meet up at bars and restaurants; I go to movies and parties. In October, I brought another friend to Zenon, and laughed as his eyes grew wide at the sheftalia. The bad news stopped coming so quickly, and sometimes, places I thought had disappeared returned. Without even realizing it, I began feeling like I was “done.”
Zenon’s closing grabbed me by the back of the neck and forced me to look at the pitiful part of myself that thought I could get away from this without acknowledging the many forms and faces of pain. I forgot that this news could come seemingly out of nowhere; Surely there would have been a GoFundMe, a call for help? I thought. In my reemergence, I thought I had taken a “proper” amount of time to mourn what would not be coming with me. Instead I realized I had not left room for the understanding that mourning was not a one-time action. I knew the world would be different, but I thought those differences would present themselves clearly, immediately, and all at once; I thought that accepting them would be like ripping off a band-aid. Instead, accepting my changed world is like watching the weather — there can be a stretch of good, sunny days, and even though storms are mostly predictable, I might still find myself pelted with sleet but without an umbrella.
Now, with the emerging Omicron variant, we’re in another storm. Restaurants are closing out of an abundance of caution again, and my fully vaccinated friends are getting breakthrough infections. I’m bracing for another round, and realizing Zenon was an early warning sign that I had let my guard down too quickly. Or that I had just forgotten that cardinal rule of New York: Things can always change.
I can acknowledge how grateful I always was to have a place like Zenon, or any of the places that have not come back, when they were there. I can remind myself that any restaurant could have closed at any moment, just like we all, pandemic or not, could die tomorrow. But expressing gratitude for what you have doesn’t fully protect you from the way that grief, trauma, and pain come in waves. You have to make room within yourself for when the tide comes in, and know how to brace yourself for a crash.
I thought my relative luck meant I wouldn’t have to deal with loss. I thought that allowing myself to even feel like I had lost something would be obscene. But Zenon Taverna was part of my world, part of what made me happy to live where I live, and it gave me something to look forward to when it felt like the world was ending. A place like that deserves to be mourned too.