The internet needs another travel guide to New York about as much as it needs another cupcake recipe, but now that we’ve logged a good three and a half years trying so many of the places we wanted to go to when we lived there but didn’t really have the budget to afford, I wanted to share that knowledge with you. This list is by no means definitive of either the city or of everywhere we’ve been, but instead it’s a list of places I’d send you if you were to ask for a recommendation.
On our most recent ventures into the city we’ve ended many a trip into town with a plate of oysters and a beer, because whenever we play the “let’s see if there are any spots at the counter” game and there are seats available we feel obligated to sit down for at least a little while. The oysters are reliably fabulous here even if the selection changes on a regular basis—my personal favorites include the Chincoteague and the Dabob—and naturally the space itself is positively breathtaking. The cookbook is fabulous as well, and since we’re moving to another seafood-rich city it will be fun to find the best markets in which to indulge in a bit of Grand Central-induced nostalgia. On our most recent visit I finally treated myself to the famous oyster pan roast, and it was heavenly on a cold, rainy day: a simple mélange of half and half, chili sauce, spices, Worcestershire sauce, and oysters on a piece of toast, it’s a dish I’m going to make at home whenever I’m feeling particularly nostalgic about New York.
Until the arrival of ‘wichcraft a few years ago, craftbar was probably the most accessible way to experience cuisine from Tom Colicchio’s perspective. Even just have a few snacks at the bar is enough to give you insight into how he views food, because while on paper the dishes all seem fairly straightforward, they are executed on such a meticulous level that you finally understand why he gets so angry at Top Chef contestants for messing things up time and time again in the fifth season episode where they serve lunch at the flagship location.
The menu at both Les Halles locations are bursting with choices—just watch the episode of No Reservations in which Anthony Bourdain goes back to work on the line for a double lunch/dinner shift—but if you want a reasonably-priced steak frites dinner with salad, you cannot go wrong with their signature plate. We’ve made their fries at home and while they came out really well, they pale to the real dish coming out of their kitchens. The downtown location is a little cheaper than its Park Avenue sibling, but the Park Avenue location is significantly more convenient if you’re interested in sticking within Midtown and places close to there.
UPDATE: Les Halles closed their Park Avenue location early in 2016, but the downtown one is still open. My last visit to the Park Avenue site was not as good as I remembered previously (the steak was really, really gristly), so I wouldn’t go out of my way to go there. I’m actually considering taking this one off the list entirely.
I resisted the lure of David Chang for years, thinking that his cookbook would be too difficult and his restaurants would be too expensive. What I really ended up doing was depriving myself of years of delicious noodles and pork buns and ramen, and that’s just a terrible thing to do. In short: go to Momofuku, plan to wait for a table either when it opens at noon or if you’re going at any other time during the day, and order yourself some ramen, some ginger scallion noodles, and some pork buns. Wash them down with a beer or two. Leave satisfied and smiling and then pick yourself up a copy of Momofuku if it doesn’t already grace your bookshelf.
I found this place during some researching for a brunch place in Soho/Nolita for a random Saturday, and I’m so glad I found it: this place is a perfect spot for a relaxing and low-key meal. Cómodo translates to comfortable in Spanish, and the name certainly fits here: think gently wrinkled white linens, dark woods, and pillows strewn here and there on benches. The menu focus here is pan-Latin and changes seasonally—if you see the short rib torta for brunch, do not hesitate to order it for you will not be disappointed. Even better: you can try out their food yourself thanks to these recipes that were published a couple of years ago in Dark Rye.
We typically steer away from the super-fine-dining locations around the city mainly because when we lived there we couldn’t afford them and when we would visit from CT we usually wouldn’t stay for dinner unless there was a specific reason (such as a birthday steakhouse dinner), so it was a while before we ever made it to the Gramercy Tavern, and when we go there we stick exclusively to the Bar Room because we’re usually in the mood for one or two of their delicious cocktails. Much like the food menu the cocktail menu changes seasonally and usually reflects the best of the best that can be found at Union Square Greenmarket. If you can go in the summertime, get the Tristar Whiskey Smash because the Tristar strawberries are incredible; if not, the fall Concord grape concoction is another excellent selection.
Barcelona Wine Bar may be my first love when it comes to tapas bars, but Boqueria is among my two favorites in Manhattan proper. There are a few locations around the city, with one in Soho and another near the Flatiron building, and both are excellent. The Soho location in particular always makes me feel like I’ve stepped out of New York and into a proper Barcelona tapas bar, and whether I’m snacking on pimientos padrones or diving into their house-made mel i mató, I can almost imagine that the chattering in the background is mostly in Catalan.
My other favorite tapas place is El Quinto Pino in Chelsea. When we went there it was a very small space dominated by a semi-circular tile and marble bar, but they’ve since expanded into a larger space, and for good reason because the food is outstanding. They’re best known for the uni panini—and you should get that because it’s worth getting at least once—but I’m also a fan of their spiced chickpeas and the pig ear that was on the menú turístico the day we were there. Now that they are open for lunch and brunch and not just at dinner, I also have this on my list of must-revisit places.
Biergartens are becoming ever-more prevalent all over the city, and this relative newcomer (as of Spring 2014) is one of the good ones: an excellent range of beers, pretzels featuring all kinds of savory toppings, and a casual atmosphere that encourages you to linger whether inside or out on their patio. It’s not far from the Queensboro/Ed Koch Bridge at 59th St which is worthwhile to check out for its architectural majesty as well as the Food Emporium nestled in the Manhattan-side base.
The Bar Room at the Modern might be one of my favorite places to get drinks right in Midtown, because the drinks are delicious and the atmosphere is so serene between the clean lines and the huge photograph by Thomas Demand lining one wall of the space. It’s funny—if you go to their website they mention how kinetic and alive the place is, and that’s certainly the case during peak times, but I tend to prefer going there during lulls in order to get my bearings while sipping on a sublime cocktail or glass of wine. Like many of the places that skew towards fine dining, you’ll get elegant little plates of food here, but it’s almost better to save this for when food isn’t your goal and instead taking a few moments to decompress in a subdued environment is your primary objective.
This was an unexpected delight—we had arrived a wee bit too early to see an exhibit at the Drawing Center, and we were both pretty hungry. The Cupping Room was on my list of potential brunch places, and it was absolutely charming: classic brunch fare, cozy little nooks all over the place, and really friendly waitstaff.
Easily one of our most favorite bars in the city, Rye House not only has an excellent cocktail list that changes with the seasons but is also one of those places that if you chat with the bartender, he or she will come up with something delightful and to your taste and it will be the most delicious drink ever. We ended up here on a St. Patrick’s Day (and I swear we were only in town to meet some of Michael’s grad school friends for lunch that had nothing to do with the holiday) and while the place was full, it was also really relaxed and the complete opposite of the green beer bacchanal that typifies the holiday. If that doesn’t sell you on a place worth visiting, nothing will.
This is the place where I dragged Michael on his 30th birthday in order assuage his angst about this momentous birthday, and this is also the place where I learned that I actually really, really like steak so long as it’s rare. Sides come a la carte (but honestly, they are largely unnecessary so it’s better that way) and with a fantastic wine and whiskey list all you really need is a good libation and a perfectly-cooked piece of meat. Make sure to check out the pipe “display of fame” to see pipes smoked by such luminaries as FDR and Anthony Bourdain and be sure to look up to see the ceiling lined by old, long pipes.
I have no pictures from Num Pang because usually we go to the 12th St. location near Union Square and then eat our sandwiches in the park, and honestly I’m more preoccupied with eating them than trying to balance them precariously on my knees while I snap a photo. While they make look like banh mi, these sandwiches are Cambodian in origin and it’s really hard to go wrong with any of them. My favorite is the veal meatball sandwich topped with a rich tomato sauce and piled high with pickled carrots and cilantro, and while I wait for the minds behind the mini-chain to release a cookbook, I’ll content myself with recreating my favorite sandwich at home.
I’ll be really, really frank here: this place is kind of expensive, and I don’t know how good the steaks are as I’m pretty loyal to Keen’s. That said, it’s in the old Vanderbilt Hotel’s dining and if you’re wandering around Midtown and you’re in search of a place to relax a bit and have a nice cocktail or glass of wine, it’s hard to beat this place if only to soak up the gorgeous architecture and specifically the Guastavino tiles.
When my best friend came to New York this past spring for a conference, we quickly jumped on the idea to meet up and it was a lovely day: she, Michael and I met at the Met and strolled around for a bit, and then we headed down to Union Square so I could get ramps and we could have brunch at CorkBuzz. The brunch fare is quite good—think elegant/indulgent takes on classic dishes—but the real star of the show is the “bucket list” of wines that they offer for $40 a bottle and are specifically picked to pair well with those brunch offerings. We lingered over a lovely Spanish white our waiter had recommended to us while catching up (it had been ages since we had all seen each other), and while the place wasn’t super-busy on the day of our visit we never felt rushed and it was easy to enjoy both the wine and the company.
In a recent interview with Saveur, Alton Brown called out Katz’s pastrami with mustard on rye as his favorite sandwich, noting that it’s a cliché but it’s a cliché for a reason. There is no other sandwich like this one, and while you’re going to go elbow-to-elbow with tourists who don’t understand how the restaurant works, all of that hassle immediately evaporates the second you dive into that sandwich. Of all the places we could have gone on our last visit to the city as locals, I picked this for our lunch spot because I knew we needed one more visit there more than anywhere else, and yet I still can’t wait to go back and eat another sandwich there when we visit there once again.
We’ll get this out of the way first: whenever I think of Russ & Daughters I also immediately think of The Decemberists’ “Sons & Daughters” and I start singing the former to the tune of the latter, and now you will too. There are many great places to get smoked fish all around the city, but like Katz’s (they’re a block apart on Houston) this was always a special destination because it takes so damn long to get from Morningside Heights to the Lower East Side. The store’s selection makes that trip completely worth it: beyond just the smoked salmon and lox there are countless fish salads, whole smoked fish, a variety of roes to choose from, any possible iteration of cream cheese you can think of and then some, and even freshly-made sandwiches. If you’re lucky you might get a bite of whitefish salad while you wait for your order, and if you’re smart you’ll take some along with you.
Food halls have popped up all over the city, from Eataly to the Todd English Food Hall in the Plaza, but Gotham West is easily my favorite. It’s a bit of a haul if only because it’s all the way on Eleventh Ave, but the trek is worth it: when you get there, you have your choice of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, tapas at Colmado, ramen via Ivan’s Slurp Shop, or charcuterie at Cannibal. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon after walking around the city all day, whether it’s on a warm summer day and the windows are wide open or a grey wintry day and you need a quick pick-me-up. Bonus points: you’re right by one of the few freestanding diners left in Manhattan and of all things, it has a parking lot.
I came very close to almost excluding this from this list, and for that I apologize. Barbecue spots are popping up all over the city, but this one by far is our favorite. In fact, Michael loves it so much that a.) he usually does a little dance in his chair while waiting for his food and b.) when the Harlem location moved a few blocks down due to Columbia taking over Manhattanville he took it as a personal mission to direct people to the new spot when they’d come upon the closed doors of the original location. Always get a reservation on the weekends because this place gets very busy very quickly, and make sure you get at least one order of wings (the Wango Tango sauce is a personal favorite) and have someone get some roasted pork and someone else get the brisket. My perennial favorite was the Cuban sandwich, and I can’t wait to have it again when Dino opens up a new location later this year here in Baltimore(!).