Former New Yorker editor, artist, and food writer John Donohue is on a mission not to eat at every restaurant in New York City, but to draw them. He describes his project, Every Restaurant in New York as “an ongoing visual compendium of the city’s eateries,” and as “intentionally hyperbolic.” He’s figured out that by spending 20 minutes on each illustration, it’s mathematically possible to visit all 24,000 restaurants in the city in under a year. To date, he’s drawn nearly 200 restaurants, has an exhibit up of his drawings in Park Slope, and is selling prints of the restaurants (a portion of the proceeds from which he’ll donate to hunger-relief organizations). Ahead, John shares a collection of his drawings, from classic New York restaurants like Katz’s and the Grand Central Oyster Bar to new spots like Shake Shack and Carbone, and tells us how he got started on the project, about his process, and why he thinks drawing is good for the mind.
Tribeca classic The Odeon: “A destination since the beginning of time (or at least before anyone ever heard of kale or knew what to do with arugula),” says John.
How did you get into drawing and start working for the New Yorker?
I taught myself to draw by taking classes at the Art Students League and sketching people on the subway while on my way to my job as an editor at The New Yorker. I no longer work there, but when I was busy during the day pushing around words, commas, and hyphens, at night I was drawing cartoons, and I had five published in the magazine.
Where did the idea for Every Restaurant in New York come from?
I love food and cooking. In 2011 I edited “Man with a Pan: Culinary Adventures of Fathers Who Cook for their Families,” a best-selling anthology featuring contributions from Mario Batali, Mark Bittman, Mark Kurlansky, Jim Harrison, Stephen King, and many others, so I was already into things related to food. I wanted to move from the domestic sphere to a more public one, and restaurants seemed like a natural choice.
Ultimately, you plan to illustrate all 24,000+ restaurants in the city. How did you decide which to start with?
I started with The Odeon. Could it have been any other way?
You’ve said it only takes you 20 minutes to draw each restaurant. What’s your process like and is that deliberate?
I only work from life and only in ink. It is essential that I work this way. I draw for the mental-health benefits (I refined my technique by doing my dish rack every night, which I wrote about for The New Yorker’s website), and the risks I take by not really being able to correct myself is oddly liberating. It’s as if every line is a mistake. I’m much more interested in the process than the result, and fortunately for everyone this approach typically yields a desirable outcome.
“After 17 years on the line at this quiet Village paragon of forward-looking cooking,” chef Anita Lo closed her acclaimed restaurant Annisa last month.
Keith McNally is closing Schiller’s Liquor Bar in August after 14 years on the Lower East Side.
What are some of your favorite restaurants to eat at? Are these also your favorite drawings that you’ve done?
Among the many ironies of my life is that I rarely eat out. I’m a pretty good home cook and I know what I like. I can’t afford yet to eat out just to avoid doing the dishes!
Are there any restaurants that are no longer with us that you really miss?
I get nostalgic about many things, but because I don’t often eat at restaurants, there are few that I miss. There was once a pizza place called Ralphs, I think, on something like Tenth Ave by 57th Street that I used to go to as a boy, and I kind of miss the idea of it still being around. It is gone.
How do you feel about the current state of the restaurant scene in NYC?
I love how the cuisines available reflects the vibrancy of the population.
Can you tell us about any other projects you’re working on?
I’m putting the finishing touches with my agent on a book proposal for the restaurant drawings. I still draw my dish rack every night, and I archive them on this under-the-radar Tumblr A Dish Rack a Day. And since last September I start my day by drawing for about 15 minutes. Ultimately I want to write about the mental-health benefits of having a daily practice and how it is good for one’s life, one’s family, and one’s children.
“This East Village institution” has been open since 1954 and today “makes about 2,500 potato pancakes each week, 3,000 pierogi every day, and 5,000 gallons of borscht a year.”
John describes River Cafe as “New York City’s own piece of Eden.”
“Like all great things in this country, [L&B Spumoni Gardens] is the story of an immigrant, real estate, and family.”
“Once upon a time, a hot-dog stand appeared in Madison Square Park.”
All drawings © John Donohue
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