Where to eat in New York City is probably the question I get asked most often – even more than where to eat in London. Now, with an unusually large number of my friends heading to the Big Apple, I’ve finally decided to put together a definitive list of my favorite old haunts so I can refer people here and not keep writing up the same list over and over in emails. Please keep in mind, I haven’t lived in New York since early 2007 so there is nothing cutting edge about my list (in fact the lack of new entries is sort of embarrassing) but there are a lot of good old solid standbys that I myself visit when I get back to town. There’s always going to be new and exciting places, but these have all stood the test of time, many being around since I moved there the first time way back in 1996 (yes, I’m ancient).
Babbo – What I adore about this place is that it’s been absolutely consistent in the service of its delicious food since my first visit in 1999 with a group of friends (we tried a new place once a month). On my most recent visit I would say that there are a few cobwebs gathering at the corners of this place, but it’s still a favorite of mine for an early meal at the bar (no reservations needed just get there early, which works in your favor if you’re suffering from jet lag). Try the goat cheese tortellini with fennel pollen or the tripe or the branzino. Oh, and almost every time I’ve been I’ve seen at least one big name celeb – this is a great town for celeb spotting and they love Babbo.
Blue Hill – Sadly, I never made it up to the Blue Hill Farm in upstate NY, but their restaurant on a quiet side street in the Villiage is a testament to the good work they’re doing up North. This is fine American food, using seasonal ingredients in interesting ways. Opened back in 2000 it was really a pioneer in the whole farm-to-table movement that has since accelerated. Try their five course market menu which gives you a sample of what’s in season that week and soak up the very New York atmosphere of the place – it used to be an old speakeasy!
Blue Ribbon Sushi – On a cold winter’s night in 2005 I came here with a good friend and we waited for the blizzard to hit. Cozily ensconsed at the sushi bar, drinking warm saki and eating board after board of divine fresh fish, we delighted at the sight of the first flakes as they fell on the quiet street outside. You see, when it snows in New York, the city goes absolutely quiet. Who knows where the yellow cabs and delivery trucks go, but go they do and the streets are left empty to play in. So as you see, many of these restaurants are going to be tied into fond memories that go along with them. The sushi here is first rate but I remember the night more for the snow.
Buddakan – Maybe it’s appropriate that this gorgeous restaurant was featured in the first Sex and the City movie. Every time I went I did feel a little bit like one of the characters because of it’s grand staircase leading down to the dining room and the pastel colored cocktails they make so well. I also happened to really like the food. If you’re in search of a big night out with a group of friends this place is a blast – get a ton of the small plates to share and eat your way through the Asian fusion menu. I can only imagine what the kitchen is like as this place is enormous and the menu features lots of delicate, tedious to make dishes – hellish, I imagine. They do their job well though!
Cafe Luxembourg – This is one of my few uptown entries….and I urge you to give it a try if you’re headed up to a show at Lincoln Center or perhaps visiting a friend at ABC News? It sort of wants to be the Balthazar of the Upper West Side and while it’s not as grand or quite as good, I always enjoyed a lovely brasserie style meal there (the lemon tart was yummy!). I believe they have a prix fixe menu for the pre-theater crowd but they’re open continuously from 8am, so pick your meal and give it a shot.
Corner Bistro – This place has the best burgers in town, I think. They are cooked in the small service area of this bar, under a salamander (broiler). The Bistro Burger comes with bacon and cheese. There’s nothing fancy about it, just delicious, greasy goodness. This place is particularly cosy during the winter when the wood paneling and benches sort of envelope you in their warmth, however don’t let a sunny day deter you! I would imagine there are still lines snaking out of the front door, but just get yourself a beer and wait your turn. The line moves quickly and it’s worth it, I promise.
Donut Plant – When this place opened it was all the rage and now they’ve expanded and you don’t have to travel all the way to the Lower East Side to get them anymore. I LOVE donuts and this place sells fried, yeasty, cakey flavors that burst in your mouth. There’s nothing subtle here and after you’ve eaten 3 or 4 (easy to do, believe me) you’ll think about your arteries clogging up and worry just a little bit, until you need your next fix.
Eataly – This place has opened since I moved away, and I just stumbled upon it while wandering near Union Square. Good lord is it a wonderful thing and while I haven’t eaten at any of their restaurants, I have sampled a glass of wine and some salumi in one of the MANY sections of this enormous palace offering all things Italian. While in Rome recently, I visited their Eataly, but have to say there’s something more accessible about the NYC version. Go for gelato, a coffee and pastry, a mid-afternoon snack. The options are endless and it’s worth a look if nothing else!
Fried Dumpling – If you’re out drinking on the Lower East Side or perhaps just need a little fuel in your tank after a long afternoon of shopping and sight seeing, pop by this place and pick up some of their scrumptuous 4 for a $1 dumplings. They offer other items as well, but I always stuck with the dumplings. There’s no website, no reservations, nothing fancy at all – just delicious pillows of meat in pastry.
Hearth – Looking back it seems like a lot of these sort of Italian flavored American restaurants opened in NYC while I was in culinary school. I remember this one being particularly good, using lovely ingredients to create seemingly simple food, focusing on flavor. I’m certain it’s absolutely out of vogue now, but the food here was excellent and from a quick look at their website it seems they’re still pulling out interesting dishes. These are the kinds of flavors I miss terribly here in London – donuts for dessert anyone?
Hot Dogs – I wasn’t sure how to handle this entry because it’s so dear to my heart. The first thing I eat when I get off the plane is walk to a hot dog street vendor and buy one (maybe two) and eat them standing right there. Yes, I’m a pig. Once I get that craving over and done with, I usually find my way to Gray’s Papaya somewhere in the city and get myself the “Recession Special” which used to be two hot dogs with onions and a drink. Wherever you end up (the best Gray’s location is on the corner of 72nd and Broadway), please remember me while you’re eating it, you lucky dog!
‘Inoteca – Love this little Italian wine bar on Rivington Street in the heart of the Lower East Side with it’s huge windows overlooking the hipster crowds passing by. Another fabulous place to stop off after a rough afternoon of pounding the pavement. Offers lovely selection of wines and their Italian cheese selection is fab. If you’re wanting an entire meal I’d do brunch here but probably not dinner (because why, when there are so many places to eat, not go to the best?). This doesn’t mean I don’t think their food is good, just stick to the snacky and brunchy selections here.
L’Ecole – This is my culinary school’s restaurant! All of the food is prepared by students under the strict supervision of their chef instructors. It’s $30 for a three course lunch which is a bargain given that the produce used is great quality and quite a lot of work goes into each dish. You can also get an omlet, we each had a rotation through the dreaded omlet station, or a vegetarian plate that’s the creation of that day’s team. The room is very pleasant and given it’s SOHO location, a real treat if you’ve been sight seeing.
Le Bernadin – This may be the best meal I ever ate in NYC. My friend Jill took me for my birthday and we indulged in the extravagant tasting menu and she’d sweetly arranged for me to have a tour of the kitchens after our meal. Just last week it was announced that the dining room here is being expanded to accomodate more diners, which is only good news for everyone! Yes, it’s fish and fish and more fish and it’s absolutely French perfect. The service whirs around you seamlessly and unobtrusively and I just can’t say enough. It was a very special birthday treat.
Little Owl – I adore this place. I even won a blog competition when I was in culinary school for a free dinner for two at this Mediterranean inspired hot spot. Besides the meal I won, I tried to go as much as I could when I lived in NYC but getting a reservation is hard to do! The location in the West Village is charming, it’s cozy and the food is outstanding. The meatball sliders are worth a try and the pork chop is maybe the best I’ve ever had – nothing experimental here, just good solid, delicious food.
Mary’s Fish Camp – I’ve written endlessly about my search for the perfect lobster roll here in London. The lobster roll at Mary’s is the standard against which all others are held. But they not only serve fantastic lobster, they always have an intriguing starter or two (I got fried green tomatoes last time I was there) and their ice cream sundaes (usually with peanut brittle) are just so good. This place is tiny and doesn’t take reservations so come at a slightly off time and be prepared to wait.
Momofuku Noodle Bar – The day of my culinary school orientation I came here for lunch with my sister Ellen. David Chang had just opened this little ramen noodle bar on First Avenue and wasn’t yet the darling of the culinary world or the emperor of a little food kingdom. I loved it and try to go every time I visit. Some of the character is gone and I’m not sure the food is as consistent as it once was – I suppose that’s what happens when the chef himself is no longer in the place cracking the whip, but it’s still my favorite ramen – one I’ve gone as far as replicating at home thanks to his cookbook (it was an arduous multi-day task in a home kitchen). Much easier and cheaper to just pop in for a bite here (well, if you don’t live in London).
Odeon – This place was the first of a kind in New York and many have imitated it (often with great results), but my heart always stays with the original here in Tribecca. It’s another Sex and the City hangout, but the food remained consistently good throughout my many years of eating here. Nothing fancy but a perfectly made croque monsieur and the burger is pretty good too! Still great people watching after all of these years.
Pastis – Like Odeon, this scene, I mean restaurant, has been around for an age. On my last trip to NYC we came for a Saturday brunch and I couldn’t have been much happier. Eggs benedict, a tray of oysters, a bloody mary (ok, two). Beyond this, the people watching in this Meatpacking District location is hard to beat. Lots of couples with their buggies, singles after a night out, the fashion crowd and a good smattering of Eurotrash. Heaven!
Peasant – When I was in culinary school, rumor had it that chef Tyler Florence used to hang out here. Well, who were we to turn down the chance of seeing chef Tyler in the flesh? I never saw him but did see a very decrepit looking Andy Rooney – yeah, not the same thing at all. Anyway, the Italian food coming out of the kitchen here is terrific. I loved the sucking pig cooked in their wood-burning oven – really, just about anything in their ovens came out with that unique smokey flavor that’s a treat!
Public – I used to work here as an intern! It was a wonderful place to learn about all sort of interesting ingredients (kangaroo, wild boar, venison) and how to cook them in unique ways. I first used quinoa here (in little fried cakes with a sardine on top) and there’s a mushroom civiche still on the menu that gave me fits to plate up. It’s since been awarded a Michelin Star and that combined with a dining room as New York cool as just about any I’ve encountered, make it worth the trip East to check it out.
Prune – While we waited in line a couple of years ago, waiting for Prune to open its doors for Sunday brunch, my Dad asked me why we were waiting in line when there are so many other restaurants in New York. Well, I hadn’t had my coffee yet and so I wasn’t prepared to launch into a complete run-down of what’s so charming about Prune, but trust me, it’s always worth the wait. There’s something delightfully French about this tiny spot and nothing fussy or fancy on the menu (unless you count the endless varieties of bloody marys on offer). If you give it a try, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Red Farm – Our friend Vanessa told us about this new-ish place in the West Village last summer. I am beyond glad that she did! This is an odd sort of NYC dim sum house with lots of interesting combinations of ingredients. For instance, a pastrami egg roll with Chinese mustard? Oh, my god, good! The crab soup dumplings – I don’t care if it seared the roof of my mouth! I could go on and on, but instead suggest you get yourself there, pronto!
Spotted Pig – I remember the buzz when this place first opened. It was a girl chef, she was British and it was a gastropub – a what? Anyway, the buzz has remained and there’s even talk that she’s going to bring her success back to London under the same name. I love the space here and the energy and the burger! I can munch my way through the entire list of bar snacks and then still gorge on her wonderful meats and roasted veggies. A really terrific place to see and be seen with terrific food at the forefront.
Stanton Social – One very memorable New Year’s Eve started with dinner at this loungy, very cool place. The slider craze has not yet been snuffed out here – they offer an entire menu of different sliders, oh, and the french soup dumplings are a treat! There’s sushi, perogis, a raw bar….really, it’s just an unusual mixture of global flavors made into miniature tapas servings. I think it’s a terrific combination and the cocktails make it a very fun evening out.
Tartine – This is a tiny BYOB french cafe in the heart of the leafy streets of the West Village. Brunch here is a religious experience and the closest thing to Paris in New York (I think). If you’re able to snap up one of the outside tables on a warm Saturday morning, the gods are with you. Fresh squeezed orange juice, eggs, a chocolate croissant, strong coffee. It’s the little things sometimes and this place does all of them well (dinner is also a treat if you’re in the mood). What a perfect way to start the day.
Union Square Cafe – I was shopping with my mom in New York a couple of years ago and our stomachs were starting to rumble. She has always talked about wanting to try the Union Square Cafe (I think she’s read a lot about it or seen stuff on TV) and we were not far. Anyway, I turned to her and asked her why we didn’t just go? It was just the two of us and a warm summer’s day and early enough still to perhaps beat the lunch rush. We were seated in their very civilized dining room and drank iced tea and ate big salads. It was perfect, refueling us for more shopping in the afternoon, and one of my absolute favorite meals with my mom.