In this episode of “Going Out With Jake Cornell,” host and former NYC hospitality pro Jake Cornell speaks with friend and restauranter Bill Clark. They discuss the importance of tipping at bars and restaurants, their mutual love of local neighborhood spots, and the concept of the “gay restaurant.” Tune in to learn more.
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Jake Cornell: I wanted to have you on because, in my time in the restaurant industry, I obviously knew a lot of people who were bartenders and chefs and restaurateurs. But you know the guts of the restaurant more than anyone I probably know on an intimate, traumatic level.
Bill Clark: I wish I didn’t know it as well as I did.
J: When I met you, you were running MeMe’s, owning MeMe’s, living MeMe’s. What was your career trajectory before that?
B: I went to school for hotel restaurant, so it was from the very beginning. And the only jobs that I’ve ever really had were in the restaurant industry, since I was in high school. I’ve kind of worked every single job in a restaurant at some point.
J: And where are you from originally?
B: I’m from upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes.
J: Oh, cute. Was it the touristy aspect of growing up there? What was your first connection to it all?
B: I had this weird, little fine-dining restaurant in my hometown. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, but there just happened to be a machine shop in town that made machine parts for NASA. So there were people there, there was an audience for a fine-dining restaurant. The owner of this company was the backer of this little restaurant because he wanted a place to eat. In the middle of nowhere in upstate New York, I was working at a great fine-dining restaurant.
J: That’s amazing. Then that went through all the way to opening MeMe’s, running MeMe’s, and that whole time in your life. I would guess it was one of the more intense experiences of your life. Did that time period change your relationship to how you approach restaurants and bars and stuff as a patron and as going out? As a part of your life?
B: I think it definitely had to, there is no way that it wasn’t going to in some way. Because I’ve been in the industry for so long, any time that I went out, it was like I could see through the curtain anywhere. But running and owning a restaurant is totally different. I mean, you can see through the curtain even more.
J: But that’s what I want to know, because I don’t have that knowledge. What were the things that you realized that you never would have known had you not gone to the extent of owning MeMe’s?
B: I had worked for other people who owned restaurants, obviously, and I had worked a lot of hours. But it’s the actual number of hours, the amount of your life that is taken up by owning a restaurant. Small business owners everywhere are extremely hard-working people. But I feel like the restaurant industry is a little bit of a different thing
J: Right, because there’s no one above you to be like, “Oh, they’ll do it.” It has to come down to you.
B: If the building’s on fire, you are responsible.
J: Yeah, I can’t fully imagine the level of that. It becomes like a labor of love, obviously, but then also resentment, I would imagine.
B: I mean, yeah, in some way. The thing about owning a restaurant in New York or anywhere, the leases are long, and you don’t ever open a restaurant with the intention of closing. In my mind, I was like, “OK, this is the next decade of my life.” This is it, I will do this forever.
J: MeMe’s was a very special place for a lot of people and was a really wonderful restaurant. I mean, you saw how often I was there. Obviously the food and drink was phenomenal, but part of what was so great about it was that you created a culture around it and a space and a vibe and an energy to it. I think that’s the part of restaurants that you see when we, as people, go to a lot of restaurants throughout New York. We’re always trying new places. Obviously, there is creativity to those things, but there is also a science to what makes a good cake, what makes a good patty melt, or what makes a good cocktail. But the alchemy of vibe and energy and culture is a little bit more like grasping at smoke, you know? How much of what MeMe’s became and what you created intentionally and deliberately, and how much of it was organic?
B: I mean, it was nearly entirely organic. The approach to the restaurant was that Libby and I were entertaining in the way that we entertained at home. And it just evolved into this thing and the people that started to come to the restaurant and the people who worked at the restaurant all started to fit together. It just became its own thing.
J: I mean, that makes sense because it did feel so special. I guess that has to come organically.
B: It was thought through and we were constantly trying to make a thoughtful experience for people. But it was really not a calculated move.
J: That makes total sense. How do you like to go out? What does the term “going out’ mean to you in New York?
B: I think it’s changed in the last couple of years.
J: Well, of course. Every single person has said that.
B: Yeah, I’m sure you’re getting that a lot. To go out, for me at this point right now, is to get out of my house. Before, going out to eat in New York could feel like a competitive sport. You are either trying to get the reservation or you are like, “Oh, I know that owner. I know that bartender. I know that chef.” Oh, everyone’s going here, I got to go there. But I think now, at this point, I’m going out to really enjoy myself. At this point in my life, I just want to go. I end up going to the same places all the time and it repeats. You become friendly with the people that work at a place, you know your order, they know your order. You know exactly what kind of Manhattan you’re going to get when you sit down.
J: I had dinner at Bernie’s last night.
B: Yeah, I did too. You were there like an hour before me.
J: That’s so funny. Did Matt tell you?
J: That’s so funny. What did you have?
B: We had the vinegar chicken and we had two salads. I was with Edy from Edy’s Grocer.
J: Oh, I love him. I’ve been meaning to go and check him out. I’m friendly with Mila, who is his head chef, and they’re both so sweet. But I haven’t been able to check out Edy’s yet.
B: Yeah, it’s so good.
J: So you had the vinegar chicken and two salads? We had one salad and a side of the bread.
B: The bread is actually really good.
J: I need the bread for the vinegar chicken. That is my favorite bite, the bread and the chicken.
B: Their bread is a secret hit on that menu.
J: Well, the funniest thing is, the first time I got it was two times ago. And I was like, “Is one side of bread enough for us?” It was just two of us and the guy was like, “Yeah,” and I come out and it’s a full f*cking loaf of bread. I don’t understand what kind of bread it is, but I feel like it’s more butter than it is flour.
B: Absolutely. Well, I think it’s griddled in a pound of butter. It’s delicious.
J: Yeah, I don’t think we have great cholesterol as we speak right now. I think we’re probably in a bad way. Is nightlife also a part of your going out, or are you more of a restaurant type of person?
B: When we first opened MeMe’s, my now-husband, Andrew, but he was not then, we were going out way too much.
J: It’s like the work hard, play hard attitude.
B: It was like an escapist sort of thing. Now, I think that going out is way more relaxed. I still go to parties and stuff, but I’m not out till 7 a.m. multiple times a week or a month.
J: That on top of work running a restaurant, I’m impressed that your skin looks as good as it does.
B: Oh, thanks.
J: That would have aged me pretty brutally.
B: I feel like it did.
J: You’re like, “I’m 21.” That is so funny. So have you been in New York the whole time, from the Finger Lakes?
B: No. I went to school at the University of Delaware and then I stayed in Delaware for a few years after college. And then I moved here in 2013.
J: Cool, that’s actually a similar time frame to how long I’ve lived here. And you’ve worked in restaurants that whole time?
B: I actually worked in a bakery when I first came to New York.
J: Oh, but still food?
B: Still hospitality, but yes.
J: Which bakery?
J: Cute, nice. Do you feel like you’ve seen the industry and the landscape shift and change over the time we’ve been here?
B: Yeah, generally, what people want out of restaurants has changed in the last 10 years.
B: At least for the people that I know in the industry and the people that I know that love to go out to eat. It’s much, much less geared towards fine dining and more towards these neighborhood spots like Bernie’s that we go to all the time. That’s what everybody wants.
J: I totally agree. I said that when we were talking with Molly Baz. I can’t tell you the last time I went to a fine-dining restaurant. I can’t tell you the last time anyone I know went to a fine-dining restaurant. I’m trying to think about what would be the occasion in which I would want that over the intimacy of a Bernie’s or a MeMe’s.
B: Even the Bernie’s and the MeMe’s of the world are also now a special-occasion restaurant. Because when you celebrate, you want to be somewhere that you are enjoying yourself and you feel comfortable and you feel like you’re surrounded by people that you know. That makes it so much better. Honestly, going to a super-fine-dining restaurant is such an incredible experience and can be really wonderful, but it can also be somewhat uncomfortable.
J: Have you ever worked in fine dining?
J: Same. Oh wait, you literally said that earlier.
B: When I moved to New York, the first week that I was living in New York, I was interviewing at Per Se. I was on my third trail there for a front of house position, and I realized I don’t like this. This is not for me. This is not my world. I really, really thought that that was where I was going to land. When I was in hospitality school, I was like, “Oh, I’m either going to be in luxury hotels or fine dining.” And now, I ended up owning a little gay diner. And I eat at the same corner restaurant every week. So it’s totally different.
J: That actually is, I think, one of the biggest shifts that I saw. I did work in a fine-dining restaurant for — it feels like multiple years of my life — then I have to remind myself it was truly eight months. But it was so intense and I also stayed in that world. I was in another fine-dining place after that for a bit, and I also was friends with those people for years that stayed. So that restaurant was very much in my orbit. What used to be so special about fine dining, like where I used to work, like Eleven Madison Park, like Per Se — I don’t really know much about Per Se because I’ve never been and I don’t really know anyone who ever worked there — there used to be an intimacy to it. It was between you and the experience that could be somewhat customized and curated. I remember when I worked at the restaurant I used to work at — I don’t name it because I talk a lot of sh*t about it and the owner is rich — and part of the skill of working in fine dining or working in the spaces was reading the guests or the table and being like, “Oh, I think they would love it if we did this.” Do you know what I mean? Any kind of customizing things like that and making these little extra moves that made it feel very curated to you. I’ve heard a lot of people agree with this, and I think what often gets blamed, whether or not this is valid, is the NYU-Cornell school to EMP or Per Se pipeline, the rigidity and the formalness of, this is how it’s done, this is the correct way. That has transitioned those kinds of services into very formulaic and very cookie cutter. Which then highlights at a place like a Bernie’s or a MeMe’s, and that intimacy then becomes much more valuable. I think that’s so interesting. That used to be what you were paying for in fine dining, and now it’s transitioned into these other spaces.
B: That’s what I was going to say. The customized or the thoughtful experience that you were paying for at fine dining is now translated into all these little neighborhood restaurants.
J: Exactly. That is so true and I hadn’t concretely realized that. But I do think that that is the shift.
B: You’re also an industry person, and we clearly go to the same restaurants, but I feel like that’s also a similar thing. That’s a thing that’s happening, at least in my light corner of the restaurant world. These places are industry places, they’re run by people who have been in the industry for a long time and people who are in the industry love to go to them.
J: I would imagine this is why you do it. But for me, I want to know that the staff is being treated well where I’m going, and that it’s a good place to work and it’s a good environment. And that it’s ethical, fair trade, almost. Bernie’s is a fair trade restaurant. I know the people that work at Miss Ada, and I know they love working at Miss Ada. So I feel good going to Miss Ada. It’s the same with Bernie’s, the same with Walter’s. That’s part of the draw, for me, with these restaurants that I like.
B: There are countless restaurants that people hate to work at.
J: Yeah, I’m sure we’ve both worked at them, too. People are like, “Oh, I love that restaurant” and they torture me every week. I brought that up on the show before; that is something I want to impart onto people. That should be part of how you are rating restaurants. I don’t think that gets talked about, especially right now in the culture of social media, where people are pushing restaurants. And it’s just the picture of the dish at this restaurant, or the cheese pull at this restaurant. Service is often valued in terms of how you are treated. Do people seem happy to be working at the place you’re at? That should be part of what you are looking for.
B: But it translates to the hospitality that you’re getting. You can really tell when people like to work in a place and when they don’t. Something that’s changed in the last couple of years, not just with people who work in the industry, but for average consumers, the curtain has been pulled back. People who work in restaurants are actually people now.
J: Right, they’re not servants.
B: Like a faceless person that is there to put food in front of you. Which I think is an interesting shift.
J: Yeah, I think it’s objectively good.
B: Oh, absolutely. I also think that the general consumer is understanding of how fragile and how slim the margins are, they’re realizing that. People are talking about it in a different way now than they were before. Nobody has any idea that your favorite restaurant on the corner is two bad weeks from going under. That’s not a singular experience. That’s across the entire industry.
J: Yeah, especially now in a post-Covid world. In January, you have to go to your favorite restaurants because it’s going to be bad. People don’t know, you know what I mean? I worked at a restaurant where the Labor Day weekend, literally without exaggeration, almost put the restaurant out of business because it was so bad. I don’t think that was singular to that restaurant. And that’s just part of the industry. I’m sure this is not your favorite thing to talk about because it is such a stressful thing. But I’m curious if you have gone through all of that with MeMe’s. I often have had the thought of working in restaurants with all of these challenges being like, “This isn’t sustainable.” This can’t be how the industry is run. Did you have any thoughts of what the future could look or what you would like it to look like? Any proposed solutions to all of that?
B: This is the question.
J: Well, I’m asking you the biggest question.
B: It’s really tough and really hard. I have this conversation all the time with people who are in the industry all the time. And we’re all like, “OK, well, everything needs to change.” Everything from the ground up has to change.
J: But what does that look like? I don’t even know where to start. And you know so much more than me.
B: This is maybe a little bit dramatic, but it’s as big of a question as climate change. It cannot be put up on the absolute individual small business owners. Yes, that can be the fertile ground for change, but it needs to be legislation. You cannot just have three little restaurants trying to change the world. You have to really rebuild the way that the wage laws are and the tipping laws are, that’s where it needs to begin.
J: Yes. When that conversation comes up about paying employees and tipping in wages and stuff, are you pro-keeping tipping? Or do you think it needs to go away as a system?
B: We get caught up in the conversation of, “Are we pro-tipping or anti-tipping.” There’s so much nuance and gray area there. I am pro-everyone across the board, front of house and back of house, making equal or better pay than they are currently. What is the solution to that problem? I don’t have that answer. It’s not as simple as eliminating tipping and having a flat-rate menu or pricing and things like that. It’s not as simple as that.
J: Right? It’s not like the money exists and is going to a different place. It should be going to the staff.
B: It doesn’t exist. So that’s the problem, is that it needs to also be a full reset of the consumer’s mind. You are continuing to go into a place and you’re buying a $6 burrito every day, and the person that’s making your burrito is making minimum wage, then all of a sudden the cost of cheese skyrockets. But the consumer doesn’t know that, they’re not watching the prices of dairy go up. That burrito actually should cost $15. The person going in there and buying it is not going to know why. It’s hard to convey to somebody that, yes, this thing should cost 30 percent more than you’re paying for it right now.
J: I have so much to say on this. People are not comfortable with the concept of paying for labor, especially when it comes to food. They’re like, “Well, some of the ingredients in this burrito cost this much, so I don’t understand how it should cost this much.” In a restaurant, you’re paying for the room you’re sitting in, you’re paying for the chair you’re sitting in, you’re paying for the server who’s bringing it, and the person who’s cooking it. So it does cost that much. It goes way more than you’re probably actually paying. I can’t remember if I’ve talked about this on the podcast, because I also have this conversation all the time. I think that a big part of it is, as someone who lived off tips for 10 years, tipping is not viewed as a valid source of income. When I would say, “Oh, I’m a bartender,” people would always say, “Oh wow, you must make great tips.” Yeah, that’s how I get paid. People still don’t understand the concept that there’s no paycheck under it. It was the same as if someone was like, “I’m a lawyer,” and I’d be like, “Oh, you must get a nice weekly paycheck.” Yeah, we all get paid for our job. What’s at the root of it? It’s extra, and also you’re getting away with getting something you don’t deserve. That it’s a bonus. In New York, it’s gotten better than when we started seven or eight years ago. But in other places, I still encounter this demeanor. In New York, I would say that bartenders making $60,000 a year is a pretty low-paying position. There are people in New York making six figures bartending. Not just cash only. They are people above board making six figures bartending. And people think that is ludicrous or that they are robbing the bank or they’re scamming the system. That is how that is treated. Because it doesn’t have these formal credentials that you need a master’s degree for, you need to go through these systems, you need to pay your way in. So people are like, “Well, I went through eight years of schooling to get this license or to become this thing, to make $175,000 a year.” How is it OK that you’re making that same amount of money for a job that you didn’t have to go through all the schooling for? Well, capitalism is flawed. That is the answer to your question. I think that is why there’s such a reticence against truly helping tipped people. It’s because it is a threat to the system of how people become successful in this system.
B: When you’re talking about that, you need to really look at how Americans view trade in general. That we’ve been conditioned that everyone needs a college degree. And that’s ludicrous and crazy. That should not be the way that we think about life. We really need to think about being a server, being a bartender, being a line cook, is incredibly skilled labor. I don’t know why it is so hard for people to understand that. How many times a week do people go to the same bar, or do they go to a bar? Even if you’re going to, like, the diviest dive bar, that bartender is very skilled.
J: As a former dive bar bartender, at times it’s harder than doing the fine dining.
J: They’re different skill sets. It’s like practicing corporate law versus practicing — oh, I just dug myself in a grave of not having a second law to refer to. I started a simile I don’t have the reference for. It’s like doing — I don’t know — environmental law. You’re both lawyers, but you’re doing completely different things. There is such a reticence to do all of that. I think, and I wonder if you ever encountered this, people love to think that people are in the restaurant industry for the good of the game. Or the love of the game. And they get mad when it’s like, “Oh, you’re just doing this to make money.” When you are front-facing about the fact that it’s a business, people think that’s antithetical to the culture of being a restaurant. Because it’s not a faceless corporation, like a bank is or like H&M is. Where, objectively, this place exists to make money. They all do. We do it because we love it, but at their core, they have to exist to make money. And that has to be, not necessarily celebrated, but kept top of mind.
B: It all wraps up in the same problem. That is the perception of value of the industry and of restaurants. It’s a really big problem.
J: I know, this was the crisis. I bartended all through college and I had loved it, and I had a very rose-colored-glasses idea of what life working professionally in the restaurant would be. Because I was coming from living in Burlington, Vt., rent and also having a student loan that was helping me pay for it. I was working with all my friends at a Margarita bar and we were 21 and it was the most fun time ever. I was like, “It’s going to be this forever.” Then I got to New York and got absolutely punted in the ass real quick. But this was the crisis. I was also like, “I’m going to do this and/or comedy.” I have two careers that I’m into. Three months into working in the fine dining and the restaurant industry and seeing what it all looked like, these exact conversations happened. I was like, “Oh, I can’t have a career in this because I don’t understand how to fix these problems.” And it seems so pervasive. That was what made me lean even harder into comedy and wanting to be a comedian. You are someone that is a phenomenal chef and baker and very skilled and gifted, but also passionate about the industry. Where does this, in terms of making your career, look in the face of all?
B: Uhh. Wow, this is a lot more of an intense conversation than I thought we were going to have when I walked through the door. It’s really great. Yes, I have worked in a restaurant and in a bakery physically making food for sale for so long. In the last year after closing the restaurant, I needed a minute. One of the reasons that I loved what I did was because the root of it was entertaining and entertaining at home. I pulled my head out of the sand of owning a restaurant and being there every day, all day. Literally the only purpose of my entire life was to keep the business going and making sure that I could pay the people that were working for me and keep everyone happy. I realized that I had lost touch with what I loved doing, like entertaining and cooking at home and using food to make people happy in that way. Maybe it’s self-preservation, I haven’t really thought about that, in a way, but I’ve kind of pulled back from working in the direct industry for a little while. I have been writing recipes and publishing recipes and doing more recipe development. I was never a writer, I had not written anything since college, so it’s been a really fun exercise.
J: You’re very good at doing that.
B: Well, thank you very much. It’s really fun. And I also have a great editor.
J: For right now, it’s getting back to the things that you actually enjoyed and seeing where you can go from there. I think that’s a healthy approach.
B: Yeah. I dove straight back into it this summer and I did a full chef’s residency at a restaurant in Provincetown. Which was great because I was doing it with one of my very dear friends, Dorie Santos, and she’s an incredibly talented chef. So it was very fun. It was also the first savory menu that I’ve written in years for the actual restaurant. At MeMe’s, I was the pastry chef, right? Libby was the savory chef. It was a really fun exercise to jump back into it in that way. I also physically fell apart. It was really hard.
J: I was going to say, I remember watching you in MeMe’s last year. I would try to promote you guys as much as I could online because you guys were working so f*cking hard in a way that, as a restaurant lover, I was feeling for you. When it closed out, you announced, “I’m running a restaurant in a vacation town in the middle of the summer.” I was like, “What is wrong with this man?”
B: I know.
J: That is the most stressful move I can imagine. It’s vacation town volume. Obviously, it’s Provincetown, so there’s a comfortability there, I guess.
B: We’re talking about problems with the industry; that was a true microcosm up there. We honestly went in thinking we were going to hire a full kitchen staff, because it was a comparable-sized space. It was like a 40-seat restaurant, it was anywhere between like 35 and 42, depending on how many chairs I stuck in there. But it was a similar size. We couldn’t hire anyone. There was no one to work, like, every single restaurant in town was short staffed.
J: Front of house and back of house?
B: Everyone. And the front of house of this specific restaurant was operating with 30 percent of the staff that they had operated with before the pandemic. That was not because the jobs weren’t there. Literally there was just no one to work. There was a whole housing crisis; there are many, many layers to that. A lot of the jobs in town were filled by J-1 visas and that didn’t happen because of the pandemic. So it was just this real crazy storm. You want to talk about people not getting it, the customers not getting it? I feel like in New York, people have a different perspective, people understand a little bit more. I don’t know what it is, but in a vacation town, people do not get it.
J: That was specifically what I was thinking when I said, “This man is crazy.” The mentality of people on vacation and the kind of people that go to those towns — most people who go to P-town are great — but there’s a vacation mentality. Obviously, there’s a barrier to entry in terms of wealth, and I think the higher up you go in that ladder, the worse it’s going to be, always.
B: I mean, yes and no. I was so lucky that this restaurant is another little neighborhood restaurant. The clientele of this specific restaurant was a lot of repeat customers and a lot of people who worked in town. A lot of our friends who worked in town would come there on their day off. How did I go from an environment like MeMe’s that was also similarly community-based into a very similar environment in Provincetown? There are a lot of restaurants in town that are just high volume, crank it out, that kind of thing. But this was really a different vibe, which was really lucky, and the staff there was incredible. It was a really great experience. I mean, it was tough. It was really hard. We talked to the owners. We opened just before Memorial Day and immediately it was full force. Normally there’s like a little bit of an amp up in the town.
J: But people were ready to get out of town.
B: We were doing similar sales in June of 2021 to August of 2019 with a third of the staff. So it was crazy. And then we pulled back and we got together and figured out that we were all going to die if we didn’t make a change. So we ended up being open from Thursday to Sunday for the whole season. And that was great. It was still a lot, because we had to prep the entire menu with two people nearly every day.
J: I actually just got nauseous. That made me feel sick.
B: I don’t know, we survived. It was enjoyable, and we were putting out really, really great food. It was a really fun menu. Having worked in New York and cooked in New York for so long, to pull yourself out of that and go to a totally different place, and you can cook food for that place. It was very Cape-specific food. So that was really fun.
J: That’s awesome. We talked about Bernie’s. But what are the other spaces in New York that you love to go to when you’re having your nights out? What are the places you love, and how do you enjoy dining out? Obviously, we talked about the casualness of it. But what are your moves, and how do you construct a night out?
B: Sorry, I wish I had a better answer for this.
J: No, it’s fine. I love how this is harder for you to answer than me asking you about your whole life and career.
B: It really just depends. We actually aren’t eating out a ton right now. Just because we are trying to be responsible. My friend Calvin just opened a new restaurant in Williamsburg, Bonnie’s.
J: I’ve heard great things.
B: It is so good. And it’s a similar thing. It’s really great to see somebody open another one of these neighborhood spaces. Because that’s really the vibe. The food is incredible, the menu’s wild, the wine list is great, the cocktails are wonderful. But the vibe is very friendly. That’s always the goal. Honestly, we end up going out for a drink around the corner more than we are eating out at the moment.
J: That makes sense. What were your like Bernie’s-esque spots pre-pandemic?
B: We do go to Julius‘ a lot for a burger.
J: I mean, it’s the best. I f*cking love Julius’.
B: Yeah, it’s so great. I was actually there two nights ago, and it’s so funny that it’s now table service. It still throws me every single time.
J: I actually forgot until you just said it. Every time I’m like, “Wait, sorry, what?” It’s also stressing me out because when I get to a restaurant, I’m like, “How does everything work?” I want to follow the rules. I want to fall in line. I then get like anxious when I f*ck it up at Julius’ because I’m used to walking up to the counter and just saying what I want. That’s so true. The burger there is one of the best.
B: It’s great. When we had the restaurant open, that was our Sunday night ritual for Andrew and I. He ended up working at the restaurant a ton. He essentially had two full-time jobs, his real job and then working at the restaurant. By Sunday, even though we had been working together all week at the restaurant, we really hadn’t spent any time together. I would cut myself at some point on Sunday night, and we would go straight from the restaurant to Julius’. It was like a weekly ritual, essentially. It was very grounding. Then we had Monday off — or I had Monday off — and he continued to work.
J: Talking about Julius’ reminded me of this. Obviously, gay bars have been around forever. But now we have gay restaurants. I don’t know that it’s identified as this, but I feel like people would write MeMe’s up as the queer diner.
B: That was an interesting turn of events, and Libby and I have also talked about this a lot before. But we never really set out to open a gay restaurant. We were just opening a restaurant that happened to be owned by two queer people. In a very early interview with Lukas from Jarry Mag, I called it a” very, very gay restaurant” in the sense that it was a little bit extra.
J: I mean, it was a very gay restaurant.
B: That just became a very nice peg for everything to hang on. When Hannah Goldfield wrote the first review in The New Yorker, it kind of snowballed from there.
J: But I love it, because I feel like there are other ones now. I like queerness spreading out into places outside of the drinking-focused nightlife. I think that’s really special.
B: It’s really good that this is happening, because we are also losing so many gay bars. For many, many, many reasons. But the number of queer-specific establishments are dropping like flies. That’s why I feel like it’s great to go to places like Julius’ on a weekly basis.
J: God forbid, but you don’t know.
B: They almost went under during the pandemic. They were really on the brink and they might still be, they’re just maybe not talking about it as much. But they were very vocal about the fact that they were absolutely struggling and very close to closing their doors. So I think it’s important, if you love a place, to really support it and go all the time.
J: That ties into what you’re talking about earlier about legislation. Julius’ should be protected as a historical milestone. It’s the oldest gay bar in New York, and there is a historical and cultural loss to losing places like that. You have to support these places you love because there isn’t a net under them. People are like, “Julius’ could never close, it’s Julius’.” No, they are a business, and they very much could close.
B: Absolutely, nothing is permanent.
J: Yeah, especially in New York.
B: Well, this city is obsessed with tearing itself down every 50 years and putting something else up. And then another 50 years go by and you do it again.
J: I know. I feel like I can name two different writing pieces right now that so beautifully talk about that. And there is a beauty to that in New York. But you want to save your places. It makes me sad to think about. There is this beautiful article called, “She Would Have Loved This.” Have you ever read this piece?
J: There was a line in one of the first paragraphs where she says, “When you’re sitting in your favorite bar, someone else is walking by thinking about how it used to be theirs,” in the space before it. I thought that was so poetic and devastating at the same time.
B: I mean, we lost a lot of restaurants during the pandemic. I’m sure you’ve talked about this in other interviews and other conversations.
J: But not really. You have an intimacy to that whole experience that I don’t think a lot of people get.
B: I guess. I closed the restaurant. It was kind of a wake-up call for people who go out to eat in the city, because you realize that nothing is permanent and everybody can close. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been there for three years or if you’ve been there for 50 years.
J: I remember MeMe’s last day, going and being like, “This is the last time we’re going to get the chicken fingers.” The line was down the street and it was beautiful and sad at the same time, of course. I’m sure for you more so than me. It was your spot?
B: It was lovely. It was great. It was nice to see that.
J: That was one of the biggest things, for me, that shifted in the pandemic. Being like, if I love a restaurant, I want to be on their team. I want to fight for that. I want to talk about them on a podcast. I want to post about them. I sh*t a lot, especially in previous interviews on this show, on people and the culture around going to restaurants just to be able to Instagram that you’re there. Which I do think sucks. At the same time, when I go to these restaurants I really love, I want to broadcast it out and support them to an extent.
B: I’m sure people roll their eyes every time I post something from Bernie’s because I’m literally there all the time. Maybe no one cares, I don’t. I totally get it. I agree and I think that it’s a little bit cringey. Like I was saying, going out to eat in the city can be a competitive sport.
J: That’s exactly it.
B: But I also think that it is important to broadcast it. If you really love something, you really need to let people know.
J: We learned that these places can go away. So it is that thing of, “Oh, I love this restaurant. I want to bring you here.” That was like last night. I was at Bernie’s because my friend had never been before and she lives nearby. And I was like, “So we’re going to go here so that you know this spot.” Obviously, I wanted the chicken. But at the same time, it’s getting people in. I went to Cozy Royale recently.
B: Oh, I haven’t been yet.
J: So that’s now my favorite burger in the city. I think it’s the best burger I’ve had in the city.
B: I think Win Son Bakery has the best burger.
J: You’re not the first person to tell me that and I haven’t had that burger yet. But when I went, I was like, “So now I have four people I need to bring here that I know love burgers.” Approaching restaurants in that way is really beautiful and special.
B: You’re literally just describing how important restaurants are.
J: I think people listen to the show and they’re like, “This kid is f*cking obsessed.”
B: Well, that’s literally the point of your show.
J: It’s the point of my show and it’s been the focal point of my life for a decade. So I guess that’s it. We’re all deranged, and I think we can end with that.
Thank you so much for listening to “Going Out With Jake Cornell.” If you could please go and rate and review us on whatever you’re listening to this on, that would be really gorgeous for me in a huge way, so thank you.
And now, for some credits. “Going Out With Jake Cornell” is recorded in New York City and is produced by Keith Beavers and Katie Brown. The music you’re hearing is by Darbi Cicci. The cover art you’re probably looking at was photographed by M. Cooper and designed by Danielle Grinberg. And a special shout-out to VinePair co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for making all of this possible.