It all started at The Odeon; well, just outside of the longtime Tribeca restaurant, to be more precise. On the sidewalk, John Donohue drew the restaurant’s exterior and kicked off his plan to hand-render all of New York City’s restaurants. The idea for All The Restaurants came to Donohue, a former New Yorker editor turned artist, after he learned that the city has about 24,000 of them. Doing a bit of math, he realized that by allotting 20 minutes per restaurant sketch, he could draw the façade of every restaurant in a year. But his math didn’t account for a number of other factors, like transportation, eating — and sleep.
An “Intentionally Hyperbolic” Project
Still, in 2017, he started what he’s called an “intentionally hyperbolic” project. It’s brought him all over the city in all sorts of weather. “It is essential that I draw from life,” he says. “Drawing takes me into the present moment unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. There are now odd patches of pavement that feel strangely intimate, only to me.” He draws in ink, which means there’s no room for mistakes, making the process “a bit of a high-wire act.”
New Yorkers, who are notoriously unfazed by public displays, usually pay little mind to one more person making art on the street. Sometimes, passersby stop to ask what he’s doing. Occasionally, a restaurant manager will notice and invite him in for a free meal. Donohue isn’t choosy in his subject matter. He renders everything from high-end eating establishments and storied classics to neighborhood diners and new spots on the block.
Since the project began, a number of restaurants he’s drawn have gone out of business, like Cucina Di Pesce, which shuttered in September after 32 years in the East Village. “I was always conscious of the archival nature of the project, and it’s something that both excites and saddens me,” Donohue says. “But, I hate to see places close.” He now offers prints of the restaurants in editions of 365, a nod to the ephemeral nature of the restaurant industry and a reminder to celebrate our own limited days by sharing good food with those we love.
A Personal Connection
Available in sizes 5 x 7 and 9 x 12, the prints have become popular gifts for residents with neighborhood pride, the city’s foodies and those wishing to celebrate a particularly special meal. “Early on, I had one customer buy Frankies 457 Spuntino, Prime Meats, and ask me to do Barrio Chino.” Donohue says. “He said he had his first date with his wife at Barrio Chino, they got engaged at Frankies, and, now that they have kids, regularly eat at Prime Meats as a family. You see the emotional connections people have to places.” (He also can create custom drawings of New York restaurants he hasn’t yet rendered.)
Although Donohue hasn’t completed his New York series, he has begun traveling to other cities with paper and ink. Abrams offered him a three-book deal, which this past summer took him to London for restaurant drawing and in the next year will send him to Paris. But how many New York restaurants has he actually completed? There are 175 online, with a few dozen waiting to go up. Although Donohue has hardly made a dent in his 24,000 goal, he’s not daunted by what’s ahead. Instead, he sounds excited. As he explains, “I’ve found an inexhaustible subject matter.”