After nearly two decades in business, longtime Chelsea restaurant and bar The Half King has announced it will close at the end of January. In a statement on The Half King's website, owners Scott Anderson, Nanette Burstein, and Sebastian Junger announced:
THE HALF KING WILL BE CLOSING FOR GOOD AT THE END OF JANUARY, 2019. WE HAVE HAD 18 WONDERFUL YEARS IN THIS NEIGHBORHOOD BUT TIMES HAVE CHANGED AND WE CAN NO LONGER AVOID FINANCIAL REALITY. PLEASE VISIT US IN OUR FINAL WEEKS - EITHER SCOTT OR SEBASTIAN OR NANETTE WILL BE HERE MOST EVENINGS IN JANUARY. IT IS WITH VERY HEAVY HEARTS THAT WE BID YOU ALL GOODBYE…
The Half King opened on West 23rd Street in 2000, around the time the center of gravity for the NYC art gallery scene was fully shifting from SoHo and the East Village to Chelsea, which was still relatively desolate on its western edge. Named for a historically influential Seneca chief, The Half King became a regular gathering place for art world types, as well as filmmakers, reporters, and authors. (Anderson, Burstein, and Junger are journalists, authors and filmmakers.)
Junger, the author of several books and documentaries, said The Half King's rent has increased three-fold since it opened. (He declined to provide an exact number.) And though the High Line has drawn hordes of tourists to the neighborhood since it was turned into a park in 2009, Junger believes the exodus of art galleries from Chelsea has diminished The Half King's regular clientele.
"High rents in Chelsea seem to have collapsed the art gallery industry in the area, and once those businesses shut down, foot traffic dropped," Junger told Gothamist in a phone interview Friday morning. "Compared to ten years ago, it's a bit of a ghost town in that neighborhood. Red Cat just closed, Trestle on Tenth just closed. These are longstanding, very beloved restaurants that were full any time you walked by them. And even they are closing."
Although High Line tourists gave The Half King some business during the day, Junger said "whatever they spent on lunch wasn't enough to make up for the rent increases that the High Line triggered. The bar business is an evening trade—that's when you make the bulk of your money—and even in the summer the High Line would shut down at ten or whatever. And in the winter, forget it."
Crowds on the High Line this past April (Scott Lynch / Gothamist)
Junger acknowledged the challenges faced by The Half King are not unique to Chelsea.
"For a lot of restaurant businesses in New York, incredibly high rent and additional pressures of high payroll taxes and raising the minimum wage for people on the floor all combined made it possible for a restaurant that is busy every night, with every chair filled, to barely get by," Junger said. "I think that's true of a lot of places, and we're no exception. I think there's a larger problem in New York, but there's sort of a micro-problem in Chelsea, after the galleries closed in that area, it turned into a ghost town."
Junger stressed The Half King isn't being kicked out, and spoke highly of the building's owner, Louie Sloves. (A call placed to Sloves this morning went unanswered.) Asked if rising rents in the area could be attributed to the expansion of Google and the tech industry, Junger declined to speculate.
"I'm not a real estate person," Junger said. "Owning a gallery is sort of a marginal business, and once they're in a neighborhood it becomes trendy and then they can't survive the rents, and out they go. One of the reasons the galleries came is that businesses like ours came into the area around 2000. There was a gas station across the street and a car wash a block up. So we changed it, the galleries came in, and that all escalated the rent, and then the High Line finished it off. It asphyxiated itself, basically."
In addition to serving food and drinks, The Half King was a regular home for author readings and a popular photography series. Glenn Raucher, who curates and hosts the reading events, is now looking for a new location. In an email, he called The Half King's closure "an enormous blow."
"From the start, Sebastian, Scott, and Nanette were utterly committed to authors and photographers being a part of the business," Raucher wrote. "And they gave their curators and hosts incredible support, and of course the cachet of their accomplishments, so that writers coming here to present their work knew the very high standard that was set. And the staff of the Half King made running a series there a complete joy."
Raucher and Anna Van Lenten, who curates the photography series, are both seeking new homes for their events. (Raucher's email is here, and Van Lenten's email is here.)