Dan Kaufman (left), author of “The Fall of Wisconsin,” with Glenn Raucher, curator and host of the Half King reading series. Photo courtesy of Glenn Raucher
A Chelsea home to journalists and authors faces the writing on the wall for city restaurants
by jason cohen
The Half King has been a staple in the Chelsea community for nearly two decades. But the restaurant that became a home for many journalists and writers will be shuttering its doors later this month.
The restaurant, located directly below the High Line on West 23rd Street, was started in 2000 by journalists Sebastian Junger and Scott Anderson and filmmaker Nanette Burstein, as a neighborhood place that could also serve as a meeting spot for people in the publishing and film industries.
“We didn’t know if it would work financially, but it did,” said Junger, author of “The Perfect Storm” and a documentary filmmaker. “Every year we’d look back and wonder how we’re still open.”
Junger explained they knew the Chelsea area was not cheap, but in 2000, it was up and coming with art galleries and other new businesses. However, as the galleries closed in the last 10 or 15 years and other restaurants like the Red Cat and Trestle on Tenth shuttered their doors, the writing was on the wall, he said. With high taxes, rent tripling since it opened and minimum wage increasing in 2019, staying open was not sustainable.
“This isn’t something where making money was absolutely crucial, but then it got to the point where we weren’t even breaking even,” Junger explained. “I’m very sad it’s closing and I’m also sad for New York that businesses keep closing.”
Junger recalled how the first couple years were the toughest. Having to figure out the logistics of running a restaurant and bar on a day to day basis was challenging, he said. But once they got the hang of it, journalists, writers and other customers began to flock to the eatery.
It became known for its Monday night author readings and bi-monthly photography exhibits. Though the space could only accommodate 60 or 70 people, The Half King offered an intimate setting for an author to read his or her book and for writers to connect.
“I think journalists liked the idea that there was a place for them,” Junger said. “In New York City a place like this doesn’t exist.”
Glenn Raucher, who curated and hosted the weekly readings in 2018, is sad that the watering hole is closing. Raucher feels the series had a profound impact on the authors and attendees.
Some authors who spoke there include David Johnston, an investigative journalist and author, C.J. Chivers of the New York Times, Marie Brenner of Vanity Fair, author Carmen Gentile and Vegas Tenold, a reporter and author. Raucher noted that while many of these writers were excellent wordsmiths, it was often difficult for some to speak in public. The Half King provided a supportive setting.
“It meant a lot to them to have somebody really pay attention to their book,” he said. “People would come in and hear a story that they had never heard.”
Raucher said he is looking for a new space for the series.
Gentile, who has been a writer for 20 years, kicked off his book tour for “Blindsided by the Taliban,” in April 2018 at The Half King. He had been there a few times as a patron, but this was his first as an author.
During the event, he met a few people in the foreign news world who have since approached him for work.
“It really set the tone for what was to come afterwards,” Gentile said. “It’s one of those places in New York and frankly the world where you can have a unique and meaningful experience that covers conflict and foreign affairs that you can’t find much elsewhere. It’s a shame that it’s closing.”
In February 2018, Tenold read his “Everything You Love Will Burn,” a book about the resurgence of white supremacist and nationalist groups and their path to political power. He had been to readings there before, but this was his first time in the spotlight.
Tenold, who lives in Norway, has been a journalist for eight years and didn’t know The Half King was closing.
“As an aspiring writer you kind of always wanted to be the guy doing the reading,” he said. Being invited to The Half King was a big deal. It created a community that many New York writers will miss.