The Closing of Damiano's: The Value of a Neighborhood Restaurant
The photo of Damiano's Vinny Dotolo posted as the announcement he and Jon Shook would be taking over the space
We in the food media tend to get excited over the news of change and newness -- it gives us something to write about, if nothing else. But change, especially in the world of restaurants, can be fairly traumatizing to a neighborhood.
In the aftermath of the news that Animal's Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo would be taking over the space that has housed Damiano's for more than 50 years, many people felt that this was an example of the true soul of L.A. being eradicated in the name of hipster progress. On our site and others that reported the news, commenters expressed anger and frustration. And in an "Open letter to the LA Weekly Re: Damiano's Pizza and the three dudes" blogger Eric G. Johnson takes us to task over our coverage of the decision by Shook and Dotolo to not renew Damiano's lease and put their own business in the space.
Although the author spends a fair amount of time questioning my review of Trois Mec (which to me is another issue entirely), his main concern, of Damiano's closing, brings up an interesting debate. How a restaurant impacts its neighborhood is something I spend a lot of time thinking about, and it's the issue that's at the heart of people's anxiety over the demise of Damiano's.
What has more worth? A beloved institution that doesn't do very much business? Or something new and trendy that brings new business and money into an area? Is that revitalization, or the insidious creep that will make all neighborhoods indistinguishable from one another, turning the city into one big rich hipster playground?
L.A. does a far better job of preserving its restaurant history than most cities. One of the unique things about L.A.'s dining culture is the number of restaurants and bars and burger stands that have withstood the test of time -- most cities have a couple of relics here and there, but nowhere near the wealth of old-school spots that help to define L.A.'s personality. There's no doubt that's something we should work to preserve.
As for Damiano's, there's no telling what the whole story is. In his letter, Johnson takes issue with my reporting of the business relationship between Damiano's owners and Shook and Dotolo as "difficult." I'm not sure there's any other way to characterize it -- one side says they are being kicked out to make way for something new and shiny, the other side says they tried to make the current relationship work but it wasn't working, both logistically and financially.
There are many beloved institutions that have shuttered in recent years, from Henry's Tacos (which then reopened) to Angeli Caffe to Campanile. Damiano's has had a long history of serving and helping to define its neighborhood. "I know people are going to miss that late night pizza," Dotolo said when I spoke to him about it. "But there is never anyone in there. It's always empty."
Whether this is the truth or a justification is almost beside the point. Some people will hate Shook and Dotolo and whatever goes into the space, and always lament the end of Damiano's. And some people will flock to the new business. Restaurants are just one more example of Darwinism at work.
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