Our Favorite New York Restaurants[Note: this article by Mireille and Edward first appeared in Quarterly Review of Wines Summer 2008. While this list is updated periodically to account for restaurant closings, please call ahead before you visit.]
"What's your favorite restaurant in New York?"
“Well, it depends on the occasion, our mood, the kind of food we feel like,” is how we generally start to answer this oft-asked question. Or we answer the question with the question “for what kind of cuisine?” One restaurant characteristic of the Big Apple is the remarkable number of good eateries serving dishes from cuisines from all over the world. This is a city where two out of five people walking the streets of Manhattan were born outside America and 132 languages are spoken in the Borough of Queens. We hardly ever eat in Queens, or outside Manhattan, we confess, though reports from the peripheries increasingly tout good restaurants.
We’re game to try a lot of new restaurants and different types of cuisines, yet we keep passing up that Afghan restaurant in our neighborhood and go back to the same restaurants we enjoy time after time. Why not? Some are great, some are good and close to home, some just feel right or we like the people and want to give them our business. Often as the newcomers we are disappointed by high noise levels, poor service, high prices, impossible reservations, or uneven food (or a combination of all of these turnoffs). Does McDonald’s count as a restaurant? If so, New York City has more than 14,000 restaurants and eateries, and that is simply about 13,750 more than we care to try. As in France and the rest of the world, there are, alas, plenty of bad restaurants so we apply the wine dictum “life is too short to drink bad wines” to our eating out with “life is too short to eat bad restaurant meals.”
What’s our favorite restaurant in New York? Here’s our address book of nearly 50 favorites, including an ice-cream stand.
Adour (2 E. 55th St.; tel. 212-710-2277 — Midtown) does not rank our top high-ticket restaurant, but it is first alphabetically on our list, and how can we not include French-Global megachef and impresario Alain Ducasses’ top restaurant in New York, recently opened in the St. Regis Hotel? Count on some great, complex dishes, though not all offerings are winners. Amusingly, our favorite is the old-fashioned tiny puff pastry cups filled with béchamel and Comté that are brought as nibbles while you peruse the short menu and long wine list. All in all, seriously good.
Annisa (13 Barrow St.; tel. 212-741-6699 — West Village) is our kind of place: small, quiet with knowledgeable staff, wonderful service, seasonal menu and a feminine wine list. Only regret: it’s only open for dinner. Chef Anita Lo‘s Asian roots are reflected in her creative contemporary dishes like soup dumplings, tea-smoked duck and the winning apple tart.
Aquavit (65 E. 55th St.; tel. 212-307-7311 — Midtown) is where we head for creative twists on Scandinavian cuisine. The herring sampler and gravlax plate should not be missed, and slow cooked salmon or poached lamb loins are other good choices.
L’Arte del Gelato (75 7th Ave.; tel. 212-924-0803 and 75 9th Ave. in the Chelsea Market; tel. 212-366-0570 — West Village and Meatpacking/Chelsea): not a restaurant but a gelataria. Some days a perfect gelato can replace a meal, well lunch anyway. For us, Italians make the best in the world (forget ice cream or glace after you’ve tasted this) with fresh natural ingredients (no syrups or preservatives) for an end treat that is dense, flavorful and a third less fat than ice cream. And here’s the best gelato in town.
Atelier (57 E. 57th St.; tel. 212-350-6658 — Midtown), which means “Workshop,” is a unique and exciting concept restaurant (borrowed from Japan) where you won’t find the same old dishes many restaurants have on their menu. You can compose your own meal, order as little or as much as you wish, starting with a list of “tasting” portion dishes such as an onion tart (more a tartelette) with smoked bacon and shaved parmesan or sea urchin in fennel broth followed with a selection of appetizers and/or main courses (still small portions compared to standard restaurants) like a crispy langoustine en papillote with basil or sweetbreads and stuffed romaine or sea bass with lemon grass and baby leeks. For dessert try mango and vanilla coulis, passionfruit and exotic fruit sorbet or an unctuous Gianduja cream with coffee ice cream.
August (359 Bleecker St., tel. 212-929-4774 — West Village), warm, cozy and unpretentious, serves regional “European” cuisine that never ceases to please us. A chorizo sandwich and a Mont Blanc (tea custard/flan on a thin crust topped with fruit of the day) make for a delightful lunch. A little gem.
Babbo (120 Waverly Pl.; tel. 212-777-0303 — West Village) is hard to get in but worth the price of admission. Arguably the best Italian outpost in town with wonderful pasta dishes, rustic (read slowly cooked) preparations of rabbit, duck and lamb and a great wine list to pair them with. Portions are huge so do think of sharing.
Balthazar (80 Spring St., tel. 212-965-1414 — Soho) is the quintessential (faux) late 19th century Parisian brasserie serving breakfast, lunch and dinner — including a late supper menu. You’ll never go wrong with oysters and the seafood platters as well as the daily specials. Great bread, too. The ambience is sans pareil, or one of a kind, in New York, though others have tried to imitate it.
Basta Pasta (37 W. 17th St., tel. 212-366-0888 — Chelsea) always opens eyes when we explain to our guests that we are heading to an Italian place run by Japanese who cook from an open kitchen using the best and freshest ingredients. All the dishes (pasta and fish are their forte) are done with care by passionate people. And you may even sit next to Susan Sarandon.
BLT Fish (21 W. 17th St., tel. 212-691-8888 — Chelsea) serves exquisite fish simply brushed with olive oil and augmented with sauces, side dishes and great bread. Downstairs is for casual fare while the elegant upstairs floors are open for dinner only. Chef Laurent Tourondel is generous with his portions that could use some size reduction or an invitation to be shared.
Blue Hill (75 Washington Pl.; tel. 212-539-1776 — West Village) serves meat and vegetables that come directly from their New England family farm. This ground floor of a Washington Square brownstone is a serious spot for foodies. Short but magical menu. A quieter dining room would make it perfect.
Bouley (120 W. Broadway; tel. 212-964-2525 — TriBeca): With French technique and Japanese influence, David Bouley is high on flavors. Try his phyllo-crusted shrimp, squid and scallop in an herbal broth and his PA chicken with chanterelle mushrooms and hazelnut sauce. The vaulted dining room contributes to a European feel.
Café Boulud (20 E. 76th St.; tel. 212-772-2600 — Upper East Side) pays homage to his family café outside Lyon by being an Upper East Side posh café. Go figure. An intelligently presented menu offers consistently good dishes according to tradition/seasons/vegetarian/traveler. Don’t miss the Peekytoe crab salad and the ricotta ravioli with pea mint purée. Oh, and the desserts are not bad either.
Centro Vinoteca (74 7th Ave. South; tel. 212-367-7470 — West Village) showcases Chef Anne Burrell’s preference for big, bold flavors and succeeds with eggplant fritters, ravioli with broccoli rabe, gnocchi with lamb Bolognese and a crostata plum tart among lots of small plates offered. Eat in the casual bar and downstairs dining room or a bit more comfortably upstairs.
Craft (43 E. 19th St.; tel. 212-780-0880 — Chelsea) offers a mix-and-match or family-style service that will delight those who like to make their own menu. The food is prepared simply and unadulterated. We’ve enjoyed the roasted foie gras, the hen of the woods mushrooms, the roasted sweetbreads and most fish dishes. There is a nice selection of oysters, charcuterie, and salads. Pasta and meats can be a first course or entrée; pick your vegetables (salsify, turnips or hearts of palms plus the usuals) as well as a three or six serving selection of cheese. Leave room for the Meyer lemon beignets or the maple custard.
Daniel (60 E. 65th St.; tel. 212-288-0033 — Upper East Side) is a true institution with a formal and grand dining room and consistent classic dishes served with a contemporary accent. The flowers by Olivier are worth the price of admission. The classic black sea bass and squab à la marocaine are musts on a first visit.
Degustation (239 E. 5th St.; tel. 212-979-1012 — East Village) is a small tapas bar serving dishes with European and Asian influences. Try the tortillas with shallot confit and quail egg or the squid stuffed with short ribs.
Dell’anima (38 8th Ave.; tel. 212-366-6633 — West Village) is yet another small, new Italian outpost offering rustic dishes in a tiny and crowded West Village spot. The open kitchen, with bar service, is miniscule. Try the selection of bruschettas, the pasta Bolognese, boar with polenta and mascarpone and finish with zuppa inglese.
Devi (8 E. 18th St.; tel. 212-691-1300 — Chelsea) is a charming Indian restaurant with Southern Indian specialties. Try the lamb stuffed tandoori chicken, the tandoori prawns, and don’t skip the mango cheesecake.
Eleven Madison (11 Madison at 24th St.; tel. 212-889-0905 — Gramercy) has been a treat ever since Swiss chef Daniel Humm took over (we fell in love with his food at the Campton Place in San Francisco). His contemporary fare includes a parsnip velouté, red snapper with tomato confit and a bittersweet chocolate. The huge vaulted room with its separated dining areas and much natural lighting is grand and beckoning.
Gotham Bar and Grill (12 E. 12th St.; tel. 212-620-4020 — Greenwich Village) is a landmark for contemporary American food created by French-trained Alfred Portale, who has been feeding and pleasing New Yorkers here for over 20 years. The high ceiling room is still stunning and his towering food design not a gimmick. Try the seafood salad, king salmon with veggies and the ice cream sandwich. The three-course lunch is a winner.
Esca (402 W. 43rd St.; tel. 212-564-7272 — Midtown West) serves Italian-style seafood starting with a raw bar, seafood pasta dishes and a superior selection of fish dishes. Ideal for pre-theater and a comfy spot for larger groups.
Ino (21 Bedford St.; tel. 212-989-5679 — West Village) is tiny and cramped but worth trying for the bold flavors and textures in the simple bruschette and panini to be washed down with tasty wines by the glass.
Jean-Georges (1 Central Park West; tel. 212-299-3900 — Columbus Circle) is our first among equals as its magic is undiminished since opening day more than a decade ago, and very much to our liking. The dining room with high ceiling, natural light and a view to Central Park is exquisitely unique and zen. The service is professional and unobtrusive, the food is always perfection, and the $24 two-course lunch is the best value in town. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s celebrated cuisine is light, natural and distinctly his own. For dinner here at his flagship restaurant, try the foie gras brûlée with dried cherries, the duck breast with almonds and the small chocolate soufflé still unmatched though imitated worldwide.
Jojo (160 E. 64th St.; tel. 212-223-5656 — Upper East Side) is a popular bistro for ladies who lunch and the longest-running of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s (Jo-Jo’s) many New York restaurants. It’s in a plush town house with cozy velvet seats and low lighting. Try the marinated cod with olive oil and basil, and don’t even think of skipping dessert.
Le Bernardin (155 W. 51st St., tel. 212-554-1515 — Midtown) is where Chef Eric Ripert has consistently delighted us since 1994 with his amazing treatment of perfectly cooked fish and has taught many a palate that the less one does to fish the better (and that includes cooking, as in not overcooking). The halibut and turbot preparations are particularly outstanding.
Le Cirque (151 E. 58th St.; tel. 212-644-0202 — Midtown), in its third reincarnation, combines some great classics with contemporary dishes prepared by a talented chef who excels at pasta and fish dishes. Don’t miss the signature crème brûlée, imitated all over the world but still the best. One of New York’s power restaurants, whether it is for business, society, fashion, or gastronomy.
Mas (39 Downing St.; tel. 212-255-1790 — Greenwich Village) means a farmhouse in Provence and that’s exactly the décor and ambiance of this little restaurant that serves new American and French preparations with a healthy dose of organic. Try the chestnut bisque, the squab baked in clay and the light strawberry tart when in season.
Milos (125 W. 55th St.; tel. 212-245-7400 — Midtown) is our favorite Greek estiatorio in town as one can’t beat the fish just pulled from the tanks or displayed on crushed ice and served with crisp veggies. Better service (often uneven) would make this spot even nicer.
The Modern (9 W. 53rd St.; tel. 212-333-1220 — Midtown) is actually two restaurants: the casual front bar area with delicious Alsatian bites and a spectacular formal dining room which overlooks the MOMA’s sculpture garden. Try the escargots and potato gâteau with pearl onions and celeriac froth, the squab with ginger jus and farm vegetables and the lemon napoleon with fromage blanc sorbet.
Morimoto (88 10th Ave.; tel. 212-989-8883 — Meatpacking/Chelsea) boasts an interior alone — from the water bottle wall to the downstairs cavernous bar-lounge to the poshy, billowy Hollywood look and feel — that’s worth the visit. Since his Philadelphia days Chef Morimoto has dazzled us with his dishes. His sushi, sashimi, rock shrimp tempura and spicy crab are outstanding. A good way to sample his fusion style is to opt for an omakase dinner of small portions.
Nobu (105 Hudson St.; tel. 212-219-0500 — TriBeca) still is our favorite Japanese in town with an outstanding and seductive sashimi and sushi selection of the highest quality, as well as some signature dishes like the rock shrimp mayo or miso glazed black cod. The décor hasn’t aged as well as the menu and service.
Oceana (120 W. 49th St.; tel. 212-759-5941 — Midtown) has one of the most caring staffs we have encountered and serves sublime seafood in a luxury ocean liner kind of décor. Long-running and undeservedly gliding below the footnik rhapsodies, eating here can be like falling in love. Try the panaché of chilled sable, the Venice style bass, and the Alaskan black cod, or better yet follow the staff’s daily recommendations.
Osteria del Circo (120 W. 55th St.; tel. 212-265-3636 — Midtown) offers Northern Italian cuisine with strong Tuscan leanings at its best in a fun room with grand and funky decor. Start with the pizza (one of the best in town), don’t skip the pasta course (every offering is outstanding) and follow with osso bucco. Tough to skip the yummy desserts.
Perry Street (176 Perry St.; tel. 212-352-1900 — West Village) is Jean Georges’ West village oasis located off the beaten path but glamorous with its glass walls overlooking the Hudson River. It offers the same value and quality that its uptown sister does. Try the soup of the day, the halibut served with sweet pea ravioli or the lamb encrusted with chile crumbs and end with the chocolate pudding, crystallized violets and fresh cream.
Per Se (10 Columbus Cir. in the Time Warner Building; tel. 212-823-9335 — Columbus Circle): in our book and many others, Thomas Keller is the ranking American chef. We’ve known him forever, way before he deserted NY to start the French Laundry in Napa. If you love food, eating at Per Se is a religious experience (just don’t try to go to the theater afterward … this is first-rate theater) and a long evening affair well worth the very high price of admission. Everything from the décor to the dishes to the flower arrangements and even the view and more is totally exquisite and follows the “less is more” motto. Oysters, foie gras, sturgeon with celeriac, lobster, rabbit or whatever is on the menu will be offered in a way you’ve never tasted before. Fascinating opportunities for wine pairings well counseled by the learned staff.
Picholine (34 W. 64th St.; tel. 212- 724-8585 — Upper West Side) opened in 1993 and has enjoyed a facelift that added violets and purples in its more contemporary elegant look. No matter, the long-time regulars are still there loving, like us, Terrance Brennan’s French-Med menu. The early pre-Lincoln Center seating is a wonder. Afterwards, you can relax and taste his sea urchin panna cotta; his veal sweetbreads; John Dory with truffle vinaigrette; or venison with parsnip French toast, red cabbage confit and huckleberries; perhaps some pasta or game … and always cheese, the restaurant’s signature.
Prune (54 E. First St.; tel. 212-677-6221 — East Village) is where top chefs go after work because it’s the way mama cooks: down to earth, tasty and “comfort food.” Gabrielle Hamilton’s tiny bistro (16 seats) feeds our stomach and our soul with sweetbreads, grilled fish, spaghetti carbonara, lamb sausages with oysters and one of the best burgers in town.
Savoy (70 Prince St.; tel. 212-219-8570 — Soho) is another little gem — quality country cooking, casual and focused on what is on the plate: the best local produce. Try the bay scallops with citrus dressing, the halibut in clam broth or the sautéed veal.
Scalini Fedeli (165 Duane St.; tel. 212-528-0400 — TriBeca) with its vaulted ceilings reminds us of some restaurants in Tuscany. Good room, staff, and feeling. Try the pumpkin velouté with sea urchin, the pork and ricotta ravioli or the pork chop with rosemary. The chocolate dessert selection is yummy.
Union Square Café (21 E. 16th St.; tel. 212-243-4020 — Union Square) is a classic and timeless place serving seasonal American dishes with more than a hint of Italian, where we’ve always left smiling after our many visits since its opening in 1985. Our favorite meal still is the fried calamari with spicy anchovy mayo (the best in our book), the ricotta gnocchi or parpadelle with a ragu of braised rabbit, and more often than we’d like to admit, for lunch the sensational U.S.C. burger (with homemade poppy seed bun and French fries). The dessert selection is tough to skip, and we rarely resist the U.S.C.’s banana tart or the orange and almond upside down cake.
Veritas (43 E. 20th St.; tel. 212-353-3700 — Chelsea) was more or less created as a paradise for oenophiles — in vino veritas. The menu is limited and the food exceptional with dishes such as wild mushroom ravioli, mascarpone and tarragon; crispy pork belly with onions and apple salad; and monkfish medallions with cabbage, salsify and red wine emulsion. Sublime apple tarte tatin. Just the place for enjoying a great, great bottle of wine.
A Voce (21 Madison Avenue; tel. 212-545-8555 — Gramercy) could use a reduction in noise level and more consistent service to go with Andrew Carmellini’s excellent food (he cooked us many a superb meal at Café Boulud when he was chef). Here, the menu is modern Italian, and the pasta dishes are stellar as are some of the more rustic meat dishes. [Note: In 2009, Missy Robbins took over as executive chef at A Voce.]
Wallsé (344 W. 11th St.; tel. 212-353-2300 — West Village) is for those who love classic Austrian food paired with lovely wines and served in a modern West Village street corner space. Lobster with potato roesti, palatschinken with smoked trout, spaetzle with braised rabbit or wiener schnitzel, and a lovely apple strudel mit schlag (whipped cream) to end the meal and reconcile you with life.