NEW YORK — Another artist is getting squeezed out of downtown Manhattan. This time, though, the artist’s medium happens to be food.
WD-50, a Lower East Side landmark for modernist cooking and one of the most influential restaurants in the world, will close in the fall. Wylie Dufresne, the chef whose quirky, Willy Wonka-ish vision has propelled the restaurant for 11 years, said on Twitter Tuesday that Nov. 30 “will be our final night of service” at the 50 Clinton St. spot. “Come celebrate with us for the next 173 days.”
In a phone interview Wednesday, Dufresne, 44, explained that the restaurant had succumbed to a classic New York City narrative: A developer, Icon Realty Management, is planning to put up a new building on the site.
“It’s a real-estate thing,” the chef said. The developer declined to comment.
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Dufresne has not peeked at the building plans. “I haven’t been particularly eager to look at what my headstone’s going to look like,” he said.
In food-obsessed circles, the shuttering of WD-50 — like the closing of El Bulli in Spain in 2011 — is being described as the loss of a history-making culinary laboratory.
Dufresne is also the gastronomic conceptualist behind Alder, an East Village tavern that offers a playfully cubist version of pub grub, but the chef made his mark on the global food scene with WD-50, an atelier of appetite where diners might be delighted — or upset — to find foie gras that had been turned into aerated puffs and eggs Benedict broken down into a Lego-like tableau of flavor. At WD-50, Dufresne and his team were not content to spread mayonnaise; instead, they fried it.
Testaments to the restaurant’s enduring influence have been popping up all over Twitter. Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, wrote: “In the future we’re going to realize WD-50 was the CBGB of this era, with way nicer bathrooms.”
“I’m sad about it,” said René Redzepi, the chef behind Noma, a restaurant in Copenhagen that some have called the best in the world. “I’m a frequent visitor in New York, and WD-50 has always been the place to go and see the edgy side of cooking. It was the place to have your preconceptions challenged.”
Redzepi, whose comments came via email, mused that Dufresne’s approach to cooking — “wild, totally unafraid, setting new standards and constantly exploring new territories” — had for a while turned WD-50 into “perhaps the most influential restaurant in the world.”
“There was definitely a time, if you were a young cook and you wanted to be in the know, that you’d be checking out WD-50’s website all the time,” he said. (In April, Redzepi and a legion of top-ranked chefs from around the world gathered in New York for a surprise party in honor of Dufresne.) Redzepi added: “I’ve never understood why New York hasn’t given him the ‘key to the city,’ like they have, rightly, to some of his peers who do a nice pasta or a new burger.”
David Chang, the chef and entrepreneur behind the expanding Momofuku empire, said Dufresne “was doing stuff that no one else was doing. He was so ahead of the curve that people took it for granted.”
For a while, the WD-50 team thought there might be a way to stay put while the new structure came together around them, but that began to feel untenable.
“The more I ruminated on that, the more it just didn’t sit well,” Dufresne said. “We weren’t going to be able to give the diners the same experience we’d been giving them.”
He added that having the restaurant continue in a construction site, with all the attendant dust and noise and inconvenience, seemed wrong for an enterprise where every dish is intended as an edible thought experiment.
Dufresne would like to move his pots and pans to a different location in the city. “I have a great love of fine dining and I hope to continue that,” he said. “We don’t quite know yet where we’re going.”
For years the chef has been seen as a pioneer not only for his exploratory approach to cooking but also for bringing three-star dining to a somewhat dingy patch of downtown Manhattan. “Wylie helped change the Lower East Side completely,” Chang said. “If any other restaurant is there now, it’s because Wylie was there first.”
But it now looks as though WD-50’s presence in that part of town helped usher in the gentrification that is forcing it out. “This is unfortunately what’s probably going to happen to almost everybody, unless you can buy the building,” Chang said.
In the end, a prophet of change was pushed out by change itself. But Dufresne appeared to be approaching the shift with equanimity. “That’s the story of New York,” he said. “Neighborhoods change. In some ways it’s part of the beauty of New York City. It’s in a constant state of flux.”