NEW YORK — If you see “Moulin Rouge” on Broadway on a Thursday at 8 p.m. and get out of the theater after 10:30, definitely do not take the train down to Wo Hop expecting to get some 11 p.m. lo mein. The subway is back to running all night, but the Chinatown institution that was once open 24 hours now closes at 10 p.m.
L’Express, a French-ish bistro on Park Avenue South, has a sign outside that reads “Ouvert 24 hours,” but these days it closes at 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and 11 p.m. the rest of the week.
Cafeteria in Chelsea, the sleekly designed comfort-food space formerly open all day and night, now calls it quits at 1 a.m. Whitestone Lanes, a bowling alley in Queens, used to be 24 hours but now shuts its doors at 1 or 2 a.m. And there’s a 24 Hour Fitness in Kew Gardens that closes at 10 p.m.
As New York recovers from the pandemic, one may wonder whether its reputation as a 24-hour town is in jeopardy.
The reasons for the early closings vary: Some businesses grew weary of the drunken clientele in the wee hours. Some worried about the safety of their staff commuting home. Some scaled back during the pandemic and have not yet resumed round-the-clock hours. And many restaurants still report difficulty in finding enough help, even amid signs of improvement.
While the rest of the country has regained all of the jobs it lost during the pandemic, New York City is bouncing back more slowly. Many hotel and restaurant jobs have disappeared because fewer people are visiting the city or dining out, and the jobs that remain are often the hardest to fill, offering late-night shifts and relatively low pay.
In 1978, when Frank Sinatra — who was known to be a late-night fixture at spots such as P.J. Clarke’s and Jilly’s — sang “New York, New York,” he wanted to “wake up in the city that never sleeps.” The nickname stuck. But now, New Yorkers accustomed to a city whose machinery churns until dawn are finding themselves disoriented by adjusted closing hours. Want a bite after last call at the bar? Sure, your bodega may be open. But you may not be able to sit down at your old standby.
A recent night out found startled customers all over the city grappling with scaled-back accommodations at formerly up-all-night institutions — as well as ample evidence that the very-late-night nibbles in New York have changed and moved but not entirely disappeared.
“Wo Hop is closed? How is that possible?” asked Damon Crittendon, after being turned away Saturday night.
He and his wife had attended a party, and he had hoped to brag to his kids about getting late-night roast duck afterward, just as he used to. He now lives 60 miles away in Goshen, but recalled his younger days when he regularly headed to Wo Hop after hanging out in clubs. “I was looking for something nostalgic,” he said.
Wo Hop, which opened in 1938, operated on a 24-hour schedule for decades, then until 4:30 a.m. starting in the early 2000s.
“We have mostly older staff,” said David Leung, who is a part owner and whose family has been involved with the restaurant for generations. He said some of the staff decided to retire after not working during the pandemic.
“We also don’t want them coming in late at night anymore,” Leung said. “Not that many of them actually live in Chinatown. So they’d be going home to Brooklyn and Queens by mass transit.” With the recent anti-Asian attacks, he said, “We were worried for their safety.”
At Veselka, a Ukrainian restaurant beloved by East Village locals and New York University students, Shep Wahnon had just finished a blintz and a matzo ball soup.
He had been a regular at Veselka since 1981, he said. “Now they have a thing, ‘The kitchen’s closing.’ That’s a new thing.” The neon sign in the window, reading “Open 24 hours,” was not illuminated.
Veselka, which started as a candy stand in 1954 and became a full restaurant in the 1980s, was open 24 hours from 1991 until March 2020 when the pandemic hit. Now, it closes at 11 p.m. weekdays and at midnight on Friday and Saturday.
“I can’t find quality help,” said Jason Birchard, the third-generation owner. “It’s really, really hard to find people, the people that wash dishes, that cook the food.”
One obstacle, he said, was that the pandemic disrupted Broadway and off-Broadway theaters — and the reliable supply of would-be actors and crew members who moved to New York, ready to work in restaurants while awaiting a big break. Now, he noted, “You can be in Kansas and audition via Zoom.”
For some business owners, staying open too late attracts some undesirable customers.
Space Billiards, located 12 stories up above the buzzy heart of K-Town on West 32nd Street, has been open since 2007 but ceased operating 24 hours day, seven days a week, before the pandemic — in 2017.
“The problem is,” said Harvey Shim, marketing director, “most people coming in after 1 a.m. are usually not the most, um, polite, or in a great state of mind.”
After 2 a.m. Sunday, six people in various shiny pleather ensembles were squeezed into the narrow front vestibule at the Donut Pub on West 14th Street, ordering red velvet, salted caramel and maple bacon doughnuts. The classic Old New York staple remains open around the clock — as it has since December 1964.
Buzzy Geduld, the founder, believes that other formerly 24-hour joints may eventually extend their hours, too. As employees return to offices, businesses will adjust to accommodate them, he said.
“You’re going to see more people back in the city and more people hanging out late at night before they go home,” he said. “I think it was a temporary thing — just one man’s opinion.”
Even now, the Donut Pub’s sugary, light French crullers are not the only option in New York in the wee hours.
Coppelia, a couple of doors down from the Donut Pub, serves “Cuban soul” food — empanadas, chicken with rice — 24 hours a day.
Daisey’s Diner in Park Slope, Neptune Diner in Astoria, Kellogg’s Diner in Williamsburg and Court Square Diner in Long Island City are all still 24 hours. And many of the 99¢ Fresh Pizza locations throughout the city are open until 5 a.m.
To some extent, the after-hours food scene has migrated from its former pockets in Manhattan to the corners of Brooklyn.
At the intersection of Jefferson and Wyckoff in Bushwick just after 4 a.m., a gentleman named Tito was speaking into a microphone over some electronic beats being broadcast via a speaker sitting on the sidewalk. “Vibrate higher, vibrate higher,” he said encouragingly.
Two people danced as the Mi Amor Halal & Mexican Fast Food truck behind them steadily served up chicken over rice and falafel tacos.
There were no fewer than nine food trucks with improvised seating areas — folding chairs and tables — set up in the immediate area, including Derek Truck, Los 3 Potrillos, Peter’s Crunchy Red Tacos, Tu Mama on the Road, Morelos Food Truck, Baby Boss Truck and Birria Estilo Tijuana.
As the time crept past 4:30 a.m., Femmie, a runway model in a fishnet crop top, plaid miniskirt and furry boots, got on line for tacos on Troutman Street. "New York is the city that never sleeps," she said, emphasizing her point with an expletive.
“I mean, look at us. Out like a black alley cat,” she said, with an expertly executed purr. “Ready to attack.”