If there is one thing that’s true in NYC (and in life), it’s that nothing ever stays the same. Perhaps it’s a sign of my optimistic nature or perhaps I’m just naive, but when Shochu Tuesdays started for us back in 2008 at Izakaya Ten in Chelsea, I thought those nights would never end. I thought that would be my home for decades. Just a little over 6 years later, those days are gone. Dean and Markus, two of the first attendees that first night, now have wives and children and live in Japan and Germany respectively. Other friends have come and gone. We’ve had lots of marriages (fortunately no divorces), lots of babies, and at least one of us has passed away.
No, make that two. Because as of this writing, Izakaya Ten, has closed its doors. The place where I discovered shochu and where I spent more nights than anywhere else over a 4 year span is no more. According to their website, “We would like to inform you that we are closing down our restaurant on Saturday, October 11th 2014. We want to thank you for sharing good times and tell you how much we have enjoyed serving you. Good Bye.”
The news has hit me harder than I expected. It’s just an inanimate place, but the people that inhabited it and the memories that were made makes it one of the most special places in all of New York City for me. So I’d like to take a trip down memory lane …
The first thing I noticed when entering the place for the first time was the exclusively Japanese staff and guests. The second thing I noticed was an enormous mural of an octopus. I wish I had a better photo, but the one below will have to do. It immediately evoked being taken somewhere exotic – somewhere fascinating, but perhaps a little bit dangerous. Later I discovered the stunningly elegant glass sake fridge in the back (photo above). The half price shochu and authentic Japanese food kept us coming back, but this place quickly became home, because of the friendly staff and warm atmosphere.
I celebrated 3 birthdays in the back room. One New Years Eve a friend and I stayed drinking with the owner and manager until 7am. That was the first time I tended bar. One Halloween we showed up as Zombies complete with face pain and tattered clothes and nobody recognized us – but the owner was even less recognizable in a Chucky mask – and she stayed in character all night, terrifying us despite knowing better. Another night I closed the place down and ended up sharing my bottle of shochu with the chef, who’d been in NYC for 8 years, but barely spoke a word of English. He became the inspiration for a short story I wrote that I’d one day like to turn into a movie. Yet another night I returned from a ski trip in Breckenridge and didn’t even go home before heading to “i10”. Dean and I hamming it up offers proof with my retro Smith ski goggles (thankfully since replaced).
The writing should have been on the wall from just a few months into my love affair with the place. First the Japanese customers began to disappear. Then American staff began to appear, many of whom I am still friends with. Portions got smaller as prices went up. Then word spread that a member of the cast of Gossip Girls began to frequent the place. Suddenly, I couldn’t get a table without a half hour to hour wait on a Tuesday night. The gallery crowd found Izakaya Ten and the clientele changed completely. No longer was i10 this hidden little Japanese bar in an unlikely neighborhood – now it was a scene. During this time my artsy friends became more likely to join us while my work-a-day friends receded. The artists, of course, were followed by the tourists, which became much more frequent in the out of the way location thanks to Highline Park, which made the far west side mainstream.
I finally stopped going regularly myself one day. Not for any particular reason other than it had lost its charm and I’d discovered other izakaya around the city that were more convenient (let’s face it, 10th Ave and 22nd St isn’t convenient unless you live in Chelsea or the south end of Hell’s Kitchen) and felt more homey. I became friendly with those staff and i10 became a place I’d visit once every 2 or 3 months rather than once or twice a week.
But in the infrequent times I’d return the place was always busy. I’d wait 30 minutes for a table. The problem wasn’t the service or the food or the crowd or the business. The problem was the voracious appetite of NYC real estate developers. I had hoped that since Izakaya Ten survived the construction of a massive condominium next door, that it would survive further development and remain this tiny one story artifact midblock on 10th Avenue, below the Highline. I guess that was my optimism or my naivete since rumor has it neighboring Tia Pol is also shuttering soon to make way for the development of the rest of the block. I’ll stop my commentary on that now since this is a eulogy.
Even if Izakaya Ten is going away, the memories and friends I made there are not. I wish Lannie Ahn and her staff the best of luck with their next adventure.
My greatest worry at this time is, what’s going to happen to that octopus and all of those fishermen?