Taste: Food for Thought: Anatomy of a Restaurant Closing

One Wednesday night in June, every seat in Washington Square West’s M Restaurant was filled. The epicurean crowd, including restaurateurs Alison Barshak and Mark Bee as well as yours truly, oohed, aahed and mmmed over a special $95 ­seven-course spread presided over by rising chef David Katz, whose Copper River king salmon with a corn and golden chanterelle ragout and a sea urchin emulsion was exquisitely prepared and presented.

And yet two weeks later, after just over a year in business, the restaurant closed. The foodie community was, understandably, stunned. Inquirer food critic Craig LaBan had used the words “gorgeous” and “perfection” to describe the cuisine. This magazine declared M “a gem.” On culinary website eGullet.com, the restaurant had been one of the most frequented Philadelphia topics.

And M wasn’t alone. This past summer, in the midst of the Great Philadelphia Restaurant Renaissance Part II, three other much-loved restaurants quietly closed their doors: Astral Plane, a quirky holdover from the original renaissance; Guillermo Pernot’s Pasión, which led a ceviche charge upon opening in 1998; and Pif, a six-year-old French BYOB serving foie gras terrine in the middle of South Philly.

“Good restaurants open and close all the time,” says Pernot. “That’s part of the cycle.” He’s right. Restaurants open. Restaurants close. But there are plenty of mediocre or worse restaurants that have enjoyed success for an inexplicably long time. Why do those restaurants stay open while our favorites fizzle out?

M Restaurant at the ­Morris House Hotel was the only restaurant that seemed to suffer a particularly pre mature demise. The reviews were glowing. But a glance at the restaurant’s financials shows it closed for a very good reason: far too few customers and way too much spending. The restaurant lost $100,000 in the first half of 2007. It doesn’t matter how tasty the food is if the numbers don’t add up.

In the case of Astral Plane, its time had long since come and gone. I can’t remember when I last heard someone rave about a meal at Astral Plane—in fact, I had recently heard a couple of complaints—but people still went there. And owner Reed Apaghian had been spending his weekends there for a quarter of a century; it was time to move on.

Sometimes a restaurant’s downward turn can be caused by the absence of the chef who made it what it was. Pernot’s quick answer about the closing of Pasión didn’t address the fact that he took a job with Cuba Libre last year. He retained partial ownership of the restaurant, but as co-owner Michael Dombkoski told the Inquirer after closing Pasión in July, “Everyone knew he wasn’t in the kitchen.”

Je suis fatigué, monsieur,” says Pif owner David Ansill in reference to its closing about one year after he opened small-plates restaurant Ansill. “We were closed for vacation at Pif, and I decided I just didn’t have the energy to reopen,” Ansill explains. “Pif served its purpose. It allowed me to get out there and get a good reputation.” But it seems that Ansill—or perhaps his customers—just can’t let go of the place. He’s offering a special Pif prix-fixe menu in the back room of Ansill on Sunday nights.