Nylon Nights

Actually, Restaurant Merch Is Pretty Hot Right Now

An Odeon hat isn’t just an Odeon hat.

by Tim Latterner

When Balthazar was having its 25th-anniversary party in April 2022, it was impossible to get a table. But earlier that day outside the restaurant, I passed the then-manager, who palmed me a small gold coin on a keyring that had a scripted “B” on it. Only later did I find out that just 150 were given out to people dining there that night. These sorts of in-the-know finds don’t just look cool — they telegraph to people that you’re on the inside.

Some people say merch is over, but I’d ask them to open their eyes and see that it’s actually (still) everywhere — and maybe more of a status symbol than ever. In New York, everyone is wearing baseball caps from restaurants right now, some of which are available to buy online, but others of which can only be obtained by having good timing and even better people skills. In the past few weeks alone, I’ve spotted a few Odeon hats on the guys at J. Mueser, an Estela in the Elizabeth Street Garden, several Nat’s on Bank flat-brims in the West Village, and more Amber Waves Farms than I care to mention. But in the larger context, in an age where even attempting to enter certain establishments to spend your money passes for blood sport, a Raf’s hat, for example, shows that you’ve got friends who can slip you a hard-to-find accessory now — and a harder-to-get reservation later.

On a local level, merch is also reflective of who we are and where we live — down to the neighborhood — almost functioning as an instantaneous personality test for passerby to decide whether or not they want to engage. “Like attracts like,” says Liv Schreiber, founder of Hot and Social. “If you want to attract someone who went to Michigan, wear a Michigan shirt, right? It's just about signaling that you place yourself in that bucket.” And with, say, an Estela hat or a T-shirt from Neir's Tavern, you can identify yourself as a member of the most niche groups. “Living in the part of Brooklyn I’m in, if I see somebody in a Sharlene’s shirt, I feel like I have common ground with that person,” says culture writer and merch connoisseur Jason Diamond of the Prospect Heights dive bar.

That’s why finding someone representing your favorite spot in the wild can feel like seeing a friendly face. I recently moved to the Upper West Side — I’m glad I’m uptown now, but I was worried I’d never make it to Wildair or Kiki’s again. But my first weekend, I saw someone waiting on the platform of the 96th Street subway wearing a white cap that said “Raf’s” in embroidered lettering. That guy was uptown at 9 a.m. but still went to Noho often enough to snag one of the rare hats they produced when they opened. (If you weren’t there or don’t know the right person to ask, there’s nothing online to track it down.)

A Raf’s hat shows that you’ve got friends who can slip you a hard-to-find accessory now — and a harder-to-get reservation later

Previously, merch offered a financial lifeline to restaurants during COVID — every time I’d take a socially distanced walk, people would nod and point to my black hat from The Odeon (I assumed they were smiling). Now, it can feel like another emblem of the way restaurants have been gamified to favor the mega-rich and well-connected. But still, the very fact that merch is so ubiquitous that we’ve created stratified tiers to categorize it indicates that it’s anything but passé.