NEW YORK - It was 9 p.m. on Sunday in Greenwich Village when Austin Stark decided to try his luck at Po, a trendy Italian restaurant so tiny and popular Manhattanites know it's sheer madness to show up without reservations on most nights.
But these are uncommon times in Manhattan, where many restaurants such as Po usually are not only packed every night but also command such a loyal following that reservations should be made weeks in advance. Since Tuesday's explosions at the World Trade Center, however, many of New York's finest restaurants have suddenly faced openings in their reservation books as diners are canceling plans and staying home.
So, when Stark sauntered up to Po on Sunday night with his girlfriend, they were seated almost immediately.
"I think people are feeling guilty about going out and doing anything," said Stark, 22, a student at New York Film Academy who's also had luck at usually packed restaurants like Blue Water Grill in the past few days. "But we always go out to dinner. Food's just food."
With the World Trade Center disaster still dominating news coverage and conversations all over Manhattan, the city's best restaurateurs have been finding it hard to fill their dining rooms - even over the weekend. Business owners have been so concerned that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has been urging New Yorkers to go about their business as normal, which includes eating out.
On Saturday evening, empty tables dotted the dining room of gastronomical giant Gramercy Tavern. And yesterday, the first day that New Yorkers began going back to work en masse, restaurants reported that things weren't looking up.
Babbo, one of the city's most celebrated restaurants, usually has patrons calling four to five weeks ahead for reservations. Last night, 40 percent of its reservations had canceled and in the first hour of dinner service, 11 of its 30 tables were filled.
"Normally, Monday night is the slowest night of the week but we usually have 200 reservations," said manager Jim Logan, whose Washington Square restaurant is owned by chef Mario Batali, host of Molto Mario on Food Network.
"Tonight, we had 104 reservations and only 64 have been confirmed," he added. "We're confirming oh, maybe half the reservations we have and that's pretty much what's been happening every evening. Business is way off. We're struggling."
Several factors have brought about the city's sudden dearth of diners. With fewer tourists coming into New York and people from the outer boroughs avoiding the trek into Manhattan, restaurants have lost a significance source of business.
As for those who live in Manhattan, many said recent events have made them reluctant to go out.
"I've had friends ask me if I want to go out to dinner or a movie and it just doesn't feel right," said Cindy Smith, a restaurateur who lives blocks from the World Trade Center site. "It's just depressing."
Robert Bohr, manager and sommelier at 71 Clinton Fresh Food in the Lower East Side, said he has cooked dinner for friends at his house three times since the disaster.
"Food brings people together and I think when you're at home, you can spend the entire time with your friends commiserating," said Bohr, whose restaurant is one of the city's hottest dining spots.
But with restaurant managers predicting that diners are going to continue to stay away for weeks more, the situation could get dire. And many are hoping that diners will see this as an opportune moment to step out of the house and take a break.
"It's a great time to go out because people need a break from the stress and strain from dealing with this devastating horror," said Nick Mautone, managing partner at Gramercy Tavern. "People need to go out right now because they can't watch the news 24 hours a day."