New York Magazine

When the Restaurants Closed, They Cooked for Each Other

ON FRIDAY, March 13, as the coronavirus bore down on New York City, there was no reason to expect Estela would be busy. For the past week and a half, Ignacio Mattos’s celebrated restaurant on East Houston Street had been eerily slow with diners increasingly worried about sitting near each other in enclosed spaces. Earlier that day, something jarring had happened: A series of iconic, successful New York restaurants had closed. Eric Ripert had shut Le Bernardin, his three-Michelin-star seafood temple, and furloughed his 180 employees; Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group had closed its 19 restaurants and laid off 2,000 employees. The previous day, the city had mandated that all restaurants cut capacity by 50 percent. At Estela, this meant its usual 13 seats at the bar were reduced to six and its 42 dining room seats to 21.

But there Estela was, humming with frenetic energy. Before the evening was out, the restaurant would serve 112 people. To fit them into half the space, managers rearranged reservations and asked customers for flexibility in giving up their tables for other diners when needed. Beautiful plates of cured fluke with uni, burrata with salsa verde and charred bread, and fried arroz negro with squid and romesco came out of the kitchen. Guests were understanding if they had to walk around the block or have a drink at the bar downstairs before their seats were ready, and the restaurant did what it could to keep the tables turning smoothly. “We’d splash them a little after-dinner drink and move them to the bar,” Mattos later said.

There was an end-times fizz in the air, as if diners were seeking out one last hurrah before retreating into masked isolation. “People were like, ‘I’m going to get out of the house, have an amazing meal, be around people I like, and have a good time. God only knows what’s going to happen tomorrow,’” said Estela server James Hardeman, who was on the floor that night. “It was mind-boggling how much people were drinking. A table of four I had, industry people, had several rounds of cocktails and several bottles of wine. At one point, I was like, How are they still okay? They said, ‘We’ve had an incredibly stressful week. There needs to be some wild abandon.’ ”

A few bottles in, it was possible to imagine, for a moment, anyway, that things were back to normal. “Honestly, it felt like another night in New York City,” Alex Sandoval, a junior sous-chef who was working that night, said. Mattos, who had created this small gem of cooking and gathering and making merry, had missed that Friday at Estela—he was home sick. “I wasn’t feeling good … I worried I had symptoms.” It would be the last full-throated night, perhaps ever, at the restaurant that had defined his career.

Two nights later, Mattos made the excruciating decision to send an email informing his staff of 200 that he was closing all

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