I've been enamored with New York City since I was a child. It seemed so exciting and glamorous. In high school I was a musical theatre geek and the bright lights of Broadway were a beacon of inspiration. And what female can watch Sex and The City in their twenties and not fall head over heels for THE City. Yes, I had an ingrained, naive love of New York. I traveled there every chance I got. And when my obsession with food and cooking began, so did my love of New York restaurants.
When I finally got my wish and was working in Manhattan, my love for New York City matured. It was more than a glamorous crush, it was a real love affair. And while life has taken me out of New York, my heart remains. Fortunately, my husband's family is in the area so I get to be in NYC several times a year, each time getting my fix until I can return again. I've eaten too many places to list them all, but if you are looking for advice or suggestions, here are my favorites.
***One note, I've haven't ranked places by cost, nor do I give an average cost per meal because in NYC, the amount you spend varies greatly based on how you order and if you plan on drinking wine/liquor with your meal. New York City is not cheap, in general every drink will add $10-$20 to your meal, but you can easily spend less (ie, following prix fixe menus or small plates) or more (tasting menus and bottles of wine can make a meal explode in cost) than the average. For example, the same restaurant that may have a special prix fixe 3-course lunch for $25 might have a 6-course tasting menu for lunch for $100. I highly suggest you follow the links and look up the menus so you get a better sense on what it really is gonna cost you.
These aren't special occasion, "once in a lifetime" meals, but rather the restaurants that exemplify why New York is the greatest food city in the world. In my travels I've come to believe that while there are other contenders for the title, (San Francisco and Paris are tied for second in my opinion) there is no other place in the world that you can find as much variety, quality, and inspiration as New York City.
This is a very recent addition for me. I first ate there last summer and I can't wait to go again. It is French for sure, but they call themselves a gastroteque—a restaurant where small plates dominate the menu and wines are marked by provenance in a cute little booklet. Casual, but still classy, seating is tight so be ready to make friends. I loved their house made rillettes, actually all the charcuterie I had was exceptional, as well as the cheese plates and veggie plates. I filled up on small plates and wine, my husband was a fan of the croque monsieur.
5 Napkin Burger
If you are traveling with children, non-foodie adults, or are just in the mood for a big sloppy burger, this is the place. By the way, everything, not just the burgers, is delicious. My favorite sides are the cheddar tots and the mac and cheese. There are a handful of locations, my favorite is Hell's Kitchen, but Union Square is convenient if you are downtown.
I'm no expert in ramen, but Ippudo is the best I've had. Their pork buns are ridiculously good, but spicy. Make sure you get the poached egg and braised pork belly as toppings, just so good.
Jewel Bako & Degustation
I've listed these two together, because they have the same owner and are right next door to each other. They aren't alike at all. Jewel Bako is sushi, Degustation is tapas and wine, but what they share is a sense of fun. Both places are incredibly tiny, they serve very good food (neither the best sushi or tapas I've had, but very good nonetheless) and have such interesting environments/menus that the event of going out is fun. When I went, I started with small plates and wine at Degustation, then went next door to Jewel Bako for dinner. Just go check them out and you'll see what I mean.
I'm not gonna lie and say that John's is as good as Lombardi's, but sometimes you want real New York pizza in Midtown and don't want to deal with the lines and crowds in Little Italy. John's makes a really good pizza in a restaurant with ample seating so you can enjoy the meal instead of grabbing a slice on the go. Service is friendly and fast, but because it gets crowded, your server can disappear on you.
I wasn't sure what to expect when I came to Les Halles. Made famous by Anthony Bourdain, the restaurant was around before him and continues now without him, so I was curious to see how it stood up. I was very happy I came. The tuna tartare was gorgeous, silky fish with a hint of lime and spice atop a sumptuous avocado base and the Steak au Poivre, Frites was perfection. Gorgeous, thick cut, perfectly cooked medium rare steak with peppercorn crust and fries that were crispy potato goodness. There are two locations, so it isn't hard to get in, and the decor feels worn-in just enough to be authentic.
As Chinatown takes over Little Italy, and Little Italy becomes more and more full of generic fodder, Lombardi's remains both a testament to history and pizza. Started in 1897 and licensed by NYC in 1905, Lombardi's is America's First Pizzeria, and still one of its best. They use a massive coal oven that gives the pizza a slightly charred crust and beautiful texture. My favorite pizza in the city.
Red Rooster *Recommended with reservations.
If you are willing to head to Harlem to try the food of Marcus Samuelsson, as I was, then I don't really have reservations about sending you here. I really enjoyed my lunch, and saw the food as a playful riff on soul food. But be warned, Samuelsson loves big flavors and mixing them. For example, the salad I had included crazy delicious pickled vegetables. Problem was, I liked them so much I ate them off the top, and then suffered when I realized that acid was necessary for balancing the salad. Fortunately, I learned that my first course, I had no other problems and found his playful set of flavors a nice change as well as a wink and a nod for people who love food and love new taste combinations. His mac and greens was interesting, not the best mac and cheese I've ever had, but a really neat combo when I'm used to seeing mac and cheese next to the collard greens. Not a great experience for my friend, who I had dragged out to Harlem and who, being raised in Georgia, had very specific ideas of what fried chicken should be. I found his combination of spices an interesting twist, she saw it as food treason.
If you don't mind waiting in long lines, this is a NYC institution and for good reason, it's a good burger at a good price. I felt like the Madison Square park location had less crowds, but that may be just in my head. They've opened FL locations in South Beach and Coral Gables - if only Orlando was next.
For real Chinese food in Midtown, this is the place to go. They are packed at lunch, but they are fast, with fresh food and big flavor. I love, love, love the Stir Fried Fresh Pork Belly with leeks, and if you like it hot, the spicy dishes have enough heat to have smoke coming out of your ears.
Coffee and Snacks
If you've been to New York City, you'll know that there is a Starbucks on just about every block. But as my espresso tastes have grown, I wanted to check out who else was brewing coffee in Manhattan. Since I seem to want snacks to go with my latte, I've included bakeries to this category as well.
Baked goods galore. I prefer the Time Warner Bldg location rather than the one next to Rockefeller Center, the crowds alone are worth it, and besides, I like to get a snack and walk around Central Park. Pretty perfect if you ask me. Their macarons are bigger than Laduree, and they use the Italian meringue method, just in case you were curious.
Interior of Cafe Grumpy
If you drink espresso straight up, this is the place for you. They have four locations (Chelsea, Lower East Side, Park Slope, Greenpoint) and they do all their roasting at the Greenpoint location in Brooklyn. The service isn't grumpy at all, the baristas are extremely friendly, and the espresso was the sweetest, most balanced shot I tasted in the city. That also meant that the milk based latte I had was also the tamest, since the milk softens and sweetens even more. Perfect for an afternoon drink, I'm not sure if I would've been as happy first thing in the morning.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
Home of the legendary cronut, Dominique Ansel Bakery serves up serious French pastries. Just avoid the bakery first thing in the morning until the cronut craze dies down, or you'll find yourself in a two hour line around the block. I had to check out his caneles and macarons, but there are plenty of surprising and unique creations as well.
Joe, the Art of Coffee in Grand Central Terminal
Joe, the Art of Coffee
There are several Joe locations in New York, seven at last count, plus a "pro shop" for equipment. I love that they have a Grand Central spot, and Joe is the place to get your morning cup. I found the espresso to be pretty bold, and while I wouldn't recommend it to a straight espresso drinker, the latte I drank was bliss.
Ladurée New York
This French shop is one of the masters of the macaron. I made my husband run around Manhattan with me, trying every macaron we could get a hold of, and Ladurée was hands down the best. If you find yourself on the Upper East Side (maybe on the way to Cafe Boulud) I highly suggest you go.
The 29th St location
With locations spanning Portland, Seattle and New York, Stumptown was the trendiest feeling coffee shop, and seemed to fall right between Grumpy and Joe, with sweetly balanced espresso shots that stood up to milk.
Markets and Shops
I love wandering food markets, looking at bread and meat, tasting things along the way, I can make an entire outing out of one of the following.
If you are a serious eater, this is the place for you. Much more gratifying to me than Eataly (see below) and contains everything from a nice wine shop (Chelsea Wine Vault) to Jacques Torres Chocolates. Bakeries, lobsters, a butcher shop and a killer Italian market for imported goods (Buon Italia) means I can spend an entire afternoon here. Plus, Buddakan and Morimoto (see below) are attached, meaning you can come for lunch, shop, then stay for dinner. And if you need to work off calories after all that, the high line isn't a far walk.
Eataly *Recommended with reservations.
Don't get me wrong, Eataly is definitely a fun place to hang out. There are a lot of food options, but it is crazy crowded and one of the most disappointing meals I've ever had was at Manzo, their more formal restaurant. Black truffles added for nothing but show to a risotto dish, Piedmontese beef that was tough. If I had paid half the price, I would've thought it was fine, but since I've eaten much better food in Manhattan at much lower prices, I left totally bummed.
Grand Central Market
Grand Central Terminal is fun just on its own, shops, restaurants, snacks. If you happen to be taking a train, stop and shop a little. I love the market, they have a mini installation of Murray's Cheese and Eli Zabar's just in case you can't get to their other NYC locations.
Union Square Greenmarket
Four days a week (Mon, Wed, Fri & Sat) Union Square holds a ridiculously good farmer's market with spectacular produce and products. The location is picturesqe, special events abound, and whether you are looking for a snack or groceries to take home, you will not be disappointed.
These are the places you want to go on a special occasion; anniversaries, birthdays, whatever you are celebrating, they will make it special. Several restaurants below are contenders for my "best meal ever" and every restaurant below was both special and memorable, although not always for the same reasons.
Annisa*Recommended with reservations.
I was dying to eat Anita Lo's food for more than a year before I actually got to this hotspot. And my meal? Disappointing. I usually wouldn't recommend it, but it's gotten such raves elsewhere I don't know if the problem was service that night, or if the food and my personal tastes don't match. There were some highs, as well as low's, but my biggest disappointment was that every dish I was given was flawed in some way, either too much salt, not enough salt, a soup dumpling that was chewy instead of delicate. It was my first experience with frog legs though, delicious and reminded me of chicken wings.
If you are going to be in Midtown and want a great meal, head to Aureole. There is just something about this restaurant that feels like classic New York to me. The price range is quite large too, you can get lunch prix fixe for $36 or go as big as the $148 dinner tasting menu. I can still taste the heirloom tomato gazpacho I had there, pure essence of tomato, with a fine vegetable relish as garnish. Sometimes it's the most simple dishes that show you just how good a restaurant can be.
Mario Batali is all over New York City, Food Network, The Chew (seriously, the man is over exposed at this point) and I have to admit, I'm annoyed that one of my favorite restaurants is attached to a celebrity chef and is crazy famous. Nevertheless, Batali is a celebrity for a reason, and Babbo has been going strong since 1998 because it is that good. Stick with the offal and pasta dishes. The entrees are nice but they aren't what's special about Babbo. The wine list is extensive and the dining room can be noisy, but has an intimacy about it I love.
If you want excellent French cuisine, an awesome wine list, and warm, attentive service, but you don't want to get dressed up, head to Cafe Boulud. You'll get a more casual experience than Daniel (Daniel Boulud's four-star flagship) but food just as good. My only advice: all my favorite dishes are from la tradition, the only disappointing dish I saw (but didn't taste, mind you) was from le voyage. Also, Cafe Boulud gets extra props for serving petite madeleines at the end of the meal. Just perfection.
Eleven Madison Park
If you want glamorous, luxe, grand scale, fine dining in Manhattan, Eleven Madison Park is the place to go. When I went, they were on their "pick your theme" tasting menu, but that has now changed so you don't get a choice. Not that you really need one. The entire reason for going to Eleven Madison Park is to try something you haven't before, to put yourself in the very capable hands of Daniel Humm. The wine service is exquisite as well, and when I was there, they sent us home with a jar of granola, just so you can feel like they are taking care of you even after you've left the restaurant.
Eric Ripert is a God among men. Seriously, the food is exquisite and arguably the best I've ever eaten. Every detail on the plate is thought out and not only is the seafood masterfully prepared and presented, it manages to be surprising and extremely delicious. The atmosphere is slightly sterile and a bit corporate though, probably because of the Midtown location, but the service is friendly and unpretentious, if a bit impersonal.
Morimoto When I want lots of sushi, I go to Morimoto. The fish is crazy fresh, and everything raw is delectable. There are traditional dishes, fun and whimsical rolls, and an a la carte menu to please any sushi loving palate. The decor is fresh and modern, and the whole vibe is fun and hip while you chow down on seriously delicious sushi. I stay away from the hot dishes, because I think Nobu does them better, but Morimoto is a safe bet for bringing people who don't like sushi. You can stuff your face with gorgeous raw fish and they can get ramen, pork belly, or whatever.
If you want to try the food that started the whole trend of upscale sushi and modern Japanese cuisine, eat at Nobu Matsuhisa's flagship restaurant. When it opened in 1994, it was a truly unique restaurant that has now inspired hundreds of imitators. I prefer the Omakase menu, but if you prefer to order yourself, make sure you try both his hot and cold dishes. The sushi is delectable and the black cod with miso reminds you why everyone copied Nobu Matsuhisa in the first place. Just in case you didn't know, Masaharu Morimoto of Morimoto (above) is an ex-head chef at Nobu. One warning, the dining room is kept very dark, if you are picky about such things, be forewarned.
The best sushi I've ever eaten, period, was sitting at the bar in Sushi Yasuda. They are as traditional of a sushi house as you can find in the US, and I think it's why some people get turned off. They are not warm and hip and fuzzy like Morimoto or Jewel Bako. When you make a reservation, they tell you not to be late (or they'll give your table away, and yes, they mean it) and when your meal will be over. They are efficient, and each piece of sushi is treated with enormous respect. I love that they don't give you your own soy sauce and wasabi. They brush soy sauce on the fish that they think it belongs on, some fish gets sea salt or another garnish instead. Their daily menu has notes marking which fish they think is absolutely the best that day, and while the sushi chefs (if you are sitting at the bar, my preference) aren't chatty, they are friendly and informative. Unlike Morimoto, only bring people here who like the raw stuff, it's what they do best, and the pickled vegetables are crunchy and a perfect accompaniment to the fish.
wd-50 *Recommended with reservations.
Another place I would heartily recommend, as long as you know what you are getting yourself into. I went with my husband, who described the meal as "more fun to make than to eat." I was amazed by the complexity of flavors and combinations in the dishes, but have to admit, I was glad I got the tasting menu. If I go again I'll do the same. I really enjoyed the three bites of every course, simply for the experience and adventure, but some of the flavor profiles were so intense, I would not be able to eat an entire entree. Perhaps the most memorable meal of my life, but for my money, memorable is beaten by delicious any day of the week