Wandering the streets of New York, pen and paper in hand, John Donohue stopped in front of The Odeon and drew quickly, his fluid lines capturing the manic energy burbling inside the restaurant and bearing the influence of his 20 years spent as an editor (and occasional cartoonist) at The New Yorker. More than five years ago, Donohue had set himself the near Sisyphean task of drawing all the restaurants to find an inexhaustible resource to sketch. He moved from drawing innumerable iterations of the dishrack in his kitchen to setting down in reverberating black ink—with splashes of color here and there—the fronts of New York’s eateries, coffee shops, slice joints and watering holes. The scene’s consistent oscillation meant he might never run out. At any rate, it struck him as more interesting than his dishrack.
But before he could finish drawing all the restaurants in New York, Abrams commissioned him for three books, starting with All the Restaurants in New York. His pen next brought him to Paris and then London, where he continued to document the pulse emanating from bôites, bistros, pubs and patisseries. An invitation brought him next to Napa, where, of course, he brought his pen and pad.
How do you decide which places you’re going to draw?
When I started in New York, it was just by my gut, having lived in the city for decades and knowing it. To me, The Odeon was, in my mind, a place where dining, as we understand it now, started. It’s not true at all in any way, but for my generation, it was, or is, this iconic place. It seemed like a good place to pick.
Then for London and Paris, I developed a working method in which I reached out to people who knew those cities, either lived there or were food journalists or chefs. I got their recommendations and then triangulated between people.
Walking around with a pen and sketchbook in Paris or New York is one thing. But Napa’s 30 miles long and spaced out. How did you approach Napa?
I looked mostly at the places with Michelin stars and then, like, at Eater’s 30 places to eat in Napa list or something. I asked some food writer friends for their recommendations. I tried to hit the best known, best regarded places as well as the local favorites.
What is the importance of Napa’s restaurant and dining scene to it as a wine region?
Wine’s often best with food, right? You need to have great food to go with great wine. I’m not sure how it compares to other wine regions. There’s this perception as an American that, “Oh, everywhere you go in France, you’re going to get good food.” I don’t know if people have that perception about America.
When you have an agricultural region— it’s not just wine that comes out of Napa. You get a lot of produce. You get a lot of other things that come out of Napa. When restaurants have access to those kinds of ingredients, things are going to be exceptional almost by default.
As a mostly self-taught artist, what were your influences and inspirations?
I experimented with a lot of different techniques, and really taught myself to draw on the subway going to work. Just filled notebooks and notebooks with pencil drawings of people. Then, an artist who was friends with my wife said, “Oh, if you draw on ink, you’ll really learn how to draw quicker.” I thought, “Well, that sounds counterintuitive because you’re stuck with ink.” But eventually, I switched to ink, and I find that the experience of drawing in ink is really liberating because it’s as if every line is already a mistake, so you’re not held back by the fear of making a mistake.
I switched to ink, but it was a journey in between there. I had five cartoons published in The New Yorker … Before I had kids, basically when I had more time, I wanted to be a cartoonist and I succeeded to some degree. I got published, but it wasn’t really a way to have an income.
You became a professional artist by being published in The New Yorker—what was the first thing you sold?
I have it framed in my hall. It’s God—like the Judeo-Christian God—standing in heaven looking down on Earth and talking to an angel, saying something like, “Maybe things would’ve turned out better if I put in a full week.” The idea that there’s just always more. You could always work harder or more on something, right? It’s hard to let go of. Then, I got really nervous. I was like, “Oh, my God. That joke’s been sitting around for 4,000 years and I finally got it. Am I going to get one joke every 4,000 years?”
Prints of all the restaurants John Donohue has sketched are available at, appropriately enough, alltherestaurants.com.
This article originally appeared in the December 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!