John Donohue has his work cut out for him.
The Park Slope resident is behind the art project “All the Restaurants in New York,” for which he draws the facades of NYC eateries.
Since launching in January with the Odeon, Donohue has posted drawings of close to 100 restaurants on his website, where limited-edition prints are available for purchase, and he is working through a list of requests more than 100 restaurants long. All the Restaurants in New York has even drawn interest outside of, well, New York, with commissions from Boston restaurants.
The project has expanded beyond the website, too. A show of his work at powerHouse on 8th that was slated to end in June has been extended to September, and Donohue — a former New Yorker editor and author of the 2011 book “Man with a Pan” — is shopping around a book proposal.
amNewYork spoke with Donohue, 48, about his project.
Are you an avid restaurant-goer?
The irony is because of time and money, I don’t eat at as many restaurants. These are in some sense aspirational. What I like about the project is the act of drawing itself connects me to the moment. And I find that these images really connect people to the experience they’ve had at that restaurant. It really resonates with them.
Which ones have a big personal significance for you?
Well, I like the [Grand Central] Oyster Bar one because I used to go there with my dad. My wife and I had our first date there. There are a few local favorites, like Al Di La. I started with the Odeon because it’s such an iconic place — to me it represents a certain kind of New York life that a lot of people I think moved here for.
How do you pick the restaurants you do?
I’m taking a lot of requests these days, so people let me know what they’re interested in and I do those. I also pick places based on food that I like, or the restaurant’s reputation. Some places are sort of iconic, in the city’s culinary history — those are kind of obvious choices.
Which ones recently fall into that category?
I just did Franny’s in Brooklyn because it’s closing. Even though Franny’s is relatively new compared to a place like the Odeon, that feels like it was important to have there.
So you went to the restaurant to draw it?
I always draw from life, and that’s really important. I can draw from pictures — I’ll do special things on commission. But for me, the drawing from life is a really important aspect of it. It’s almost like writing a sonnet — you have these restrictions, and the form creates the substance in a way. I draw in ink without any corrections. It takes me 20 minutes to draw each one from life, and then I put a little color in digitally. I use only one color per restaurant, which sometimes is easy and sometimes really puzzling.
Do you set a time limit of 20 minutes?
It’s funny, that’s just the way it turns out. Generally that’s all the time that it takes to do it. And it’s almost, in a way, less is more. I don’t want to overwork it. I think of the pictures as in some ways Google Earth shots — this is in a moment in time.
How did the commissions come into play?
That sort of happened organically, the way the whole project has evolved organically. I haven’t done any marketing — it’s all word of mouth. I have a request now for Peasant. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que — that was commissioned. Hugo & Sons in Park Slope [was a commission from the restaurant]. ... Some people have asked for restaurants that are closed, that were important to them in the past.
So not all the restaurants on the website are currently open?
It’s the nature of the business itself. It’s a very tough business for people. The first one that went up that closed was China Grill. I didn’t expect that it would close. I had done it and went to post it and saw that it had just closed. There are some that I put up when they were open and have since closed. Unfortunately that will continue to happen. That’s another interesting aspect of the project that I hadn’t thought through entirely — it becomes an archive of a moment in time. There’s a big historical archive aspect to it.
What are some places people requested that were already closed?
Brasserie up on Park Avenue was one I did for someone. Someone’s still waiting for me to do Sign of the Dove. I did some and they closed before I could even post them — Home on Cornelia Street.
Why do you think this has taken off with people?
The same reason people like to go to restaurants — it’s all about connection. People who are buying the prints are people who are buying them because they had their first date there, or are celebrating an anniversary or are getting a gift for a fiance or an old friend. I think people, ironically because of this digital world that we live in, they’re seeking ways to connect.
You have done a lot of restaurants in Brooklyn and Manhattan — will there be more in other boroughs?
Yeah, I have mostly ended up in Brooklyn or Manhattan, true. I do have M. Wells [Steakhouse] in Queens. Queens is a place I’m really excited to go and draw. Because it has such a diverse population, there are so many cultures and so many different foods there. The Bronx, too, and Staten Island — there’s so much for me to explore. I’m really excited about those places. There’s 24,000 restaurants in the city — there’s no shortage of things to cover. I’ll be busy for a while.
The project has a never-ending nature to it — do you ever see yourself stopping?
Ever since I discovered how important drawing is to my life, it’s really essential to my well-being, I knew the first task was to figure out ways to do more of it. I set myself up with a project that I could do for the rest of my life, which is exciting. I could see doing it forever, I could see stopping at some point and saying, “That was the project.” It’s really open. It’s a process.