Writing a definitive guide to New York restaurants is dangerous business. Everything is up for debate in this food-focused city, from who’s dishing out the best woodfired pizza to which speakeasy is pouring the finest negroni. Here’s a sample platter of the best of the Big Apple.
BARBECUE AND BURGERS
We’re surprised there isn’t a permanent pork fog hovering over Manhattan, such is New York’s barbecue obsession. In the East Village, Mighty Quinn’s turns out brioche buns piled with pulled pork and slaw, and ribs that have been treated to a Texas-style salt-and-pepper rub. To drink, there’s sweet iced tea and a tight edit of craft beers from across the States. It’s no-fuss service at this cool canteen: order at the counter and clear your tray away once you’re done.
In the Flatiron District, Hill Country may look like a honky-tonk banquet hall, but the food here is the business. Grab a tray, then step up to kitchen and take your pick of smoked sausages, marbled brisket and sauce-slathered ribs, all wrapped up in a brown paper parcel like a meaty Christmas gift. Next, select sides of collard greens, mac and cheese, or baked beans studded with burnt ends (charry brisket leftovers). Take an extra handful of wet wipes, too. You’ll need them.
At nearby Blue Smoke, pitmaster Kenny Callaghan presents a broad sweep of the south, with North Carolina-style pulled pork, Texan beef brisket and Kansas City spareribs, all smoked “low and slow” over a mixture of hickory and apple woods. The extensive drinks list sports bourbon flights, boutique brews and all-American wines.
For barbecue on the go, seek out Smokeline on the High Line at West 15th Street. Pitmaster Daniel Delaney presents highlights from his Williamsburg diner, BrisketTown, including pulled pork rolls and brisket sandwiches, with old-fashioned sodas made to order.
After barbecue comes burgers in the must-eat stakes. Top of your hitlist should be April Bloomfield’s West Village gastropub, The Spotted Pig, where the pink-centred burger comes piled with Roquefort cheese. While here, also order the signature gnudi, feather-light ricotta dumplings in a sage-butter sauce.
A soft, slightly sweet bun, yellow cheese and tangy-creamy sauce are the hallmarks of Shake Shack’s ShackBurger, the American-style burger of your drive-through dreams. There are six outposts around town, including the original at Madison Square Park. Order a side of cheese fries if you dare.
While we’re on the topic of meat between bread, for any first-timers, Katz’s Delicatessen is a must. Yes, it’s a tourist haunt, and yep, couples still get their picture snapped at the table made famous in When Harry Met Sally, but all is forgiven once you bite into the mountainous pastrami on rye. Slather on the mustard and soak up the kitsch surrounds – this is old-school NYC at its best.
COOL AND CASUAL
New York excels at casual dining. In the Asian stakes, anything from David Chang is sure to wow, but we were most smitten by Momofuku Ssäm Bar in the East Village. Gather a group of six to order the whole rotisserie duck (seriously, corral strangers on the street if you need to drum up numbers). The lacquered bird comes sliced and ready to be stuffed into shallot pancakes with lettuce, herbs and Korean chilli sauce. Round things out with an order of the pork belly bau (steamed buns) for the full Chang experience.
Utterly unassuming from the street, Mission Chinese Food fans out into a basement-level dining room festooned with paper lanterns and a giant dragon puppet. The boundary-pushing regional fare challenges NYC’s Cantonese status quo, with dishes such as hot and spicy beef tendon, pork and eel dumplings, and thrice-cooked bacon with chilli oil. To drink, take your pick of lychee-infused cocktails or shots of Fernet Branca.
On the Mexican front, head to Alex Stupak’s West Village Empellón Taqueria for tortillas filled with grilled lamb, skirt steak and zingy salsas. At his chic East Village restaurant, Empellón Cocina, discover mod re-imaginings of Mexico’s cuisine, such as razor clam ceviche with guava and horseradish, or sweetbreads with tomatillo salsa.
For your Italian fix, take your pick of two vastly different offerings. On the one hand is Mario Batali’s behemoth, Eataly. Opposite Madison Square Garden, this gleaming marketplace features stalls of cheese, cured meat, pasta and oil, alongside seven eateries serving pizza, panini and rotisserie meats. In sharp contrast is Torrisi Italian Specialties, a petite Nolita dining room that delivers stunning $65 seven-course menus from an impossibly small kitchen.
FINE DINERS AND OLD FAITHFULS
Be prepared to make some midnight calls to secure reservations at New York’s top restaurants. Have your dialing finger at the ready for NoMad, the sleek ground-floor restaurant in the hotel of the same name. The darkly seductive décor and polished service are matched by stellar cuisine and a heavy-hitting wine list. A must-try here is the roast chicken for two, basted with butter and stuffed with foie gras and black truffle. It’s even better than it sounds.
NoMad’s executive chef, Daniel Humm, spends most of his time at Eleven Madison Park, known for its exquisite multi-course menus that showcase pristine ingredients from New York State. Sporting three Michelin stars and the number-five spot in the S.Pellegrino Best Restaurants list, this is splurge-worthy dining at its best.
Decidedly more low-key but equally enchanting is Balthazar. Promising a Parisian bistro experience, this grande dame is decked out with pressed-metal ceilings, tarnished mirrors, ruby-hued booths and paper-topped tables. The menu, too, is textbook French, with duck confit and steak frites the standouts.
This article first appeared in the February/March issue of James Halliday’s Wine Companion Magazine.