Usually people run to restaurants when they just open. Critics jockey to be first with a review, despite a waitstaff and kitchen that inevitably has kinks to work out. Diners want to say they’ve been there while the place is still "hot." Does anyone ever rush to a restaurant that’s closing?
When Nancy and I saw the small notice in the paper earlier this week that Zoë was shuttering this coming weekend after an impressive 18-year run, it was sad news. Though we hadn’t been in lately, we’d been in many times over the years. Stephen and Thalia Loffredo were always hands-on restaurateurs and the restaurant was a cool mix of bright and loud, mixed with warm and inviting. The bar was always busy, the din of conversation was the same at lunch as at dinner and the large open kitchen with the wood-burning oven in the back just made you want to eat. Despite a few chef changes over the years, the food was always good if not excellent. The Cal-Ital theme may not have been cutting edge but it was always modern and fresh enough.
The wine list was always an unsung winner. It was one of the few U.S.-only wine lists that I knew I would not only find something I’d want to drink, but would actually have a hard time choosing from all the interesting options. Imagine that, with nary a bottle of Rhône or Loire in sight.
And in a day when many wine lists around town compete either with thousands of bottles, or through a combination of elitism and esoterica, the wine list at Zoë always kept to its initial theme and easy-to-handle size of around 300 selections.
So Nancy and I decided to take our date night there one last time. I had images dancing in my head of the kitchen being half out of stock on items and a wine list nearly all 86'ed. But when I called to confirm my reservation on Thursday afternoon, Stephen answered the phone, recognized my voice and said, “We’re real busy for lunch today and we’re glad we’ll be seeing you tonight.” That was all the reassurance I needed.
When it began, Zoë was a culinary outpost in a fairly edgy part of town. The neighborhood grew up around it and now the area is a shopper’s row with numerous other restaurants around as well.
“Funny, most restaurants that last as long as we did are either small local places, or institutions like Gramercy Tavern or '21' Club,” said Stephen as we chatted during dinner last night. “We sort of fell in between.”
Loffredo noted that lease issues with an incoming tenant made the timing plausible to stop now; it was something he had been thinking about recently anyway. Thalia noted this year would be the first Thanksgiving or New Years’ Eve the couple and their daughter would have to themselves in 18 years. No one’s going to argue with that reasoning.
As for dinner last night, when Stephen dropped the wine list on the table, he mentioned it was a brand-new edition.
“A brand-new edition, with just two days to go?” I asked, a bit perplexed.
I knew Stephen as a consummate professional. His answer only cemented that reputation for me.
“I was running tight on inventory as things drew down,” he explained. “But I didn’t want a bunch of 86 items on the wine list. And we’ll have a full menu right until the end.”
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Robert Taylor — New York, NY — November 13, 2009 5:05pm ET
Jason Thompson — Foster City, CA — November 16, 2009 4:57pm ET
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