If I had a dime for every time someone told me she was going to New York City and needed suggestions on where to eat, I could afford to stay at a suite in the Four Seasons (Bring on the champagne! Throw in a butler!) during my own frequent visits to the city.
Since one size doesn't fit all when it comes to restaurants, here's a cheat sheet to help you make the right choice. My list of 10 recommendations addresses the usual concerns, such as where to eat near a Broadway stage and where to go when you need a pastrami fix, and it mixes old favorites with newcomers to the dining scene. All were given a taste-drive in the past two months; each makes a visit to Manhattan more appetizing.
Diners at the Spotted Pig in the the West Village.
(Helayne Seidman - For The Washington Post)
1. Near a Show
You've landed orchestra seats to "Spamalot" and now you need a place to eat that's close to the show, easy on your charge card and hopefully better than the obvious tourist traps that clutter the Great White Way.
To the rescue: Bistro du Vent. It's new and French, and it comes with pedigree (one of the partners, chef David Pasternack, also runs the esteemed seafood restaurant Esca, just around the block). Walls the shade of dark mustard, banquettes the color of red wine and a golden glow even at lunch time make for an inviting backdrop. Waiters in long white aprons dole out smiles and helpful suggestions along with a crisp baguette and tiny olives to tide you over before your meal arrives.
The menu brings together all of our favorite bistro staples, some tweaked to delicious effect. Root vegetable soup with wisps of kale and smoked pork is straight out of a Parisian grandmother's repertoire, while steak frites gets punched up with anchovy-rosemary oil. The meat is terrific, and so are the fries -- even though you want to stay alert through the play, you find yourself polishing everything off. Slices of black truffles have been slipped beneath the skin of a golden roast chicken, which shares its plate with a wedge of shredded potatoes that taste like hash browns with a graduate degree. If you're on Atkins and are eating here, good luck.
A sublime appetizer of smoked sturgeon arranged with blood orange, fennel and watercress shows the kitchen is looking forward as well as back, as does a dessert of roasted pineapple with pink peppercorn-ignited ice cream. From first bite to last, Bistro du Vent turns in a strong performance.
411 W. 42rd St. between Ninth and 10th avenues, 212-239-3060. Entrees $16-$23.
2. Peerless Plates
Andrew Carmellini is a chef's chef, which means his peers like to see what he's up to and they respect his very personal approach to cooking. He sets the bar high at Cafe Boulud on the Upper East Side, offering a menu divided into four tempting categories: French classics, farm market inspirations, seasonal flavors and "Le Voyage," loosely translated as an edible postcard from several stops on the globe.
Diners can stick with a theme or choose from among the quartet to build a meal of their own design. I opted for the latter, eager to taste the whole of Carmellini's range. Three hours later -- after Maine crab salad garnished with tangerine-peper gelee, My Grandmother's Ravioli dusted with fresh Parmesan, scallops lapped with a sauce of apples and ginger and more truffles than I'd eaten all winter -- I left the table dreaming about what my next meal here might be.
An offshoot of the grand Daniel restaurant headed by star chef Daniel Boulud, this is a cafe in name only, yet a diner doesn't have to take out a loan to eat here. Just book a table at lunch, when Cafe Boulud offers a three-course lunch for a bargain $36. Reality check: No one comes for the beige interior. Cafe Boulud is probably the least handsome of New York's top restaurants. Chances are, though, you'll be too busy focusing on what's on your plate to notice.
20 E. 76th St. between Fifth and Madison avenues, 212-772-2600, danielnyc.com/cafeboulud. Dinner entrees $25-$38.
3. Best Way to Wake Up
En route to the New York airport on a recent Sunday morning, I made a pit stop at the original Sarabeth's for brunch and instantly regretted not having more room in my carry-on. The display case of this sunny Upper East Side restaurant (there are three offshoots elsewhere around town) beckons with the breakfast staples -- lovingly made granola, marmalades, muffins -- of my fantasies.
The high-ceilinged main dining room is tidy and cheerful, with walls the color of fresh-churned butter and paintings of bucolic farm scenes -- just the place to indulge in fluffy omelets, apricot-sweetened pork sausage, tall English muffins and ricotta-and-lemon pancakes gilded with genuine maple syrup that will have you remembering them long after they've disappeared from your plate. You can get a glass of OJ anywhere; here you'll want to wake up to Four Flowers, a pretty-in-pink elixir of pomegranate, orange and pineapple juices swirled with banana.
Eye-openers such as these mean long waits. Good thing you can order breakfast as late as 3:30 in the afternoon.
1295 Madison Ave. at 92nd Street, 212-410-7335, www.sarabeth.com. Breakfast entrees $5.50-$14.75.
4. Seafood Heaven
"I still need six chowders!" a guy in white barks to some line cooks in the semi-open kitchen at Pearl Oyster Bar. The staff is in perpetual motion, attempting to keep up with the hordes of people who descend on this sliver of a seafood spot for an eating experience that resembles something a visitor might expect to find on summer vacation on the New England coast but not in the Big City.
We're talking briny oysters bedded on a mountain of shaved ice, chowder made sweet with clams and smoky with bacon, and a lobster roll that is mostly chopped lobster, lavished with a toasted bun and a haystack of shoestring potatoes. Each of those dishes is a standard-bearer, though each faces stiff competition from the blackboard, where the daily specials (skate and wild bass on a recent visit) are hand-printed.
Chef-owner Rebecca Charles calls herself "a New Yorker with a heart in Maine," and to taste her food is to believe her.
Open a mere eight years in the West Village, Pearl looks decades older. Its marble counter, pressed-tin ceiling, lantern collection and simple, satisfying way with ingredients from the water all speak to yesteryear.
Best time to slurp oysters or dive into a lobster roll: "The top of the hour, any hour" beginning at 6 p.m., says Charles. Or lunch, early in the week. With just over 50 seats, waits of up to an hour and a half on weekend evenings aren't uncommon.
18 Cornelia St. between Bleecker and West Fourth streets, 212-691-8211,www.pearloysterbar.com. Small plates $6-$10, large plates $18.50 to market price.
5. When Only a Deli Will Do
The difference between a good deli and a great one is made clear at Katz's Delicatessen, which unlike so much of the competition still slices its meat by hand. Charmingly, it also doles out orange tickets at the door to keep track of what you eat.
For the best sandwich, don't order from a waiter. The guys behind the mile-long counter are lined up like tollbooth collectors, awaiting your request and maybe a tip. Hint: A buck in the cup before your order is finished gets you a tasty preview. The pastrami is black-edged, gloriously pink and best when it's piled high on rye; the frankfurter, snappy and spicy, will be a revelation to those who know only Oscar Meyer. Of course there is also chopped liver, tongue, corned beef and knoblewurst, a garlicky salami. "Ask for mayonnaise at your peril," a sign warns newbies. The message: An echt sandwich doesn't need any more garnish than a fat pickle.
Food is only part of the draw at this Lower East Side institution, which has a sea of plain tables on a terrazzo floor and comes with a forest of hanging salamis and more celebrity photos than an issue of Us Weekly. Jackie Mason, Madeleine Albright and just about every mafioso from "The Sopranos" has paid a visit.
Lose your orange ticket marked with your order and you might have to pay the maximum fee of $50. "It's a scare tactic," a cashier tells a visitor. "But we have asked people to clean tables." Was he joking? Who knows? Needless to say, we're glad we kept a firm clasp on our stub during lunch.
205 E. Houston St. at Ludlow Street, 212-254-2246, www.katzdeli.com. Sandwiches $7.35-$12.45.
6. Sweet Somethings
Who needs Paris when there's Payard Patisserie & Bistro?
The ground-floor pastry shop on the Upper East Side is a museum of fine art, its exquisite desserts protected from probing fingers behind glass, and teeny cafe tables apparently designed with French frames in mind. Upstairs is a handsome mezzanine with striped banquettes, belle epoque mirrors and a savory menu of modern French ideas.
But dessert is the grand lure. Francoise Payard, a third-generation pastry chef whose creations previously graced the tables of New York's esteemed Daniel and Le Bernardin, is arguably the city's best sweets-maker. The proof is in his Pont Neuf (a brownie with chocolate mousse and a hazelnut wafer) and Chinon (pistachio dacquoise with wild berries) -- two of the dozen or so signature desserts Payard sells, along with fruit tarts, brioche and velvety ice creams.
"Would you like a sample of anything?" a server asks as I examine a display of sorbets and ice creams. I'm sated from late-afternoon dessert and coffee, but still curious to try more. Cherry sorbet tastes light and clean, just like spring; orange blossom ice cream puts me in the middle of an orange grove.
1032 Lexington Ave. between 73rd and 74th streets, 212-717-5252, www.payard.com/manhattan. Ice cream and pastries $2-$6.
7. A Quick Bite
David Chang hates to call his food pan-Asian, or worse, fusion. "You won't see wasabi mashed potatoes on my menu. I have too much respect for culinary tradition," says the 27-year-old vision behind the fledgling Momofuku Noodle Bar.
Instead, the Washington native, whose travels have taken him to China, Japan and Korea, is serving "stuff I like to eat." Thus visitors to his spare but friendly restaurant in the East Village, which is no wider than a standard garage door, find spicy chicken wings, kimchi stew and ramen with a tasty twist -- bites of designer Berkshire pork and a poached egg floating in a big white bowl of slippery noodles and restorative broth. Everything on Momofuku's menu is true to its roots, though some items have been rethought for a contemporary audience.
Other worthy contenders for your attention: a bowl of pickles in shades of white (pear), brown (mushroom) and pale green (cucumber); pillowy steamed buns brushed with hoisin sauce and stuffed with chicken; and braised tripe sharpened with minced onion and sweetened with bits of carrot.
Most of the stools look onto the gleaming stainless-steel kitchen, where pork dumplings are stir-fried to a crisp turn and noodles are tossed into deep pots of steaming water just feet from where they'll be eaten. For about what you'd pay to see a movie, you get a fine meal and a diverting show.
163 First Ave. between 10th and 11th streets, 212-475-7899, www.eatmomofuku.com. Noodle dishes $9-$13.
8. Food as Art
Smoked eel rillettes, venison terrine, sweetbread ravioli -- the food in the Bar Room at the Modern, one of three new restaurants at the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art, is not the sort of stuff you see and then say, "I could do that."
"The chef is Alsatian," a waitress says, introducing the menu. "Anything that sounds rich is good." She's right. Gabriel Kreuther once dazzled patrons at Atelier in the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, and he's at it again, this time in two timeless spaces: a vast and softly lighted bar and a stark but elegant restaurant offering a $74 prix-fixe dinner menu.
The bar is just where you want to find yourself after an afternoon of gallery hopping. Its black leather-and-steel chairs are as comfortable as they are stylish, and the menu stretches to more than 30 dishes, everything appetizer-size. No problem if you order one thing, or a lot more.
Chances are, though, you'll be tempted to keep grazing. Tartare of arctic char sprinkled with trout caviar is fresh and pretty; pasta tossed with black truffles and chanterelles is the food equivalent of the little black dress -- always in good taste. No matter your appetite, there's something to reel you in.
Lovely little details abound: Ask for a glass of wine and it's poured from the bottle at the table. Villeroy & Boch made the plates and Georg Jensen, the sleek utensils in your hand. The Bar Room raises the bar not just for museum eateries but for plenty of restaurants.
11 W. 53rd St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-333-1220, www.moma.org. Entrees $12-$17.
9. Drinks of Distinction
Milk & Honey, the bar with the best vibe in New York City, is also the hardest to get into. First, you have to secure its telephone number, which is known to change. Second, you have to have a reservation to gain access through an unmarked metal door in a lonely alley in the Lower East Side. Third, there is space in Milk & Honey for a mere 30 people to sit and sip.
The reward for the hassle? Some of the best cocktails you'll ever knock back. Owner Sasha Petraske -- imagine a hip version of Alfalfa from "Our Gang" -- doesn't just hire bartenders, he creates master mixologists. "Can we see a list?" I ask my server after I settle into a snug circular leather booth, the kind of furniture that encouraged canoodling in another era. "We don't have one," he says, identifying my gal pal and me as newbies to this modern-day speakeasy. "What are you in the mood for?" He proceeds to tick off the bar's fresh-squeezed juices: pineapple juice, apple juice, strawberry juice and ginger juice, among others.
Moments later, a Gin Gin Mule -- zingy with mint, lime and ginger -- lands on the oval table, along with a Sugar Plum fashioned from gin, pomegranate molasses and grapefruit juice. Try 'em, you'll love 'em. We marvel at the small details that enhance the experience: tall drinks get a thick shard of ice rather than cubes, which melt faster and dilute the libations. And by Manhattan standards, the prices are pretty tame: Six drinks (the standard order is three per person, take your time) go for $72 before tip.
The room is long and narrow, softly illuminated with votives. The patrons who inhabit the space are mostly young and cool, but not self-consciously so. The music is great and unlike so many other watering holes, you can actually hear your companions even when they whisper. For the first time ever, I want to keep a place to myself, but Milk & Honey is too special not to share. Besides, I'm not paid to keep secrets. Just don't everyone rush the place, okay?
134 Eldridge St. between Broome and Delancey streets, 212-625-3397.
10. Europe on This Side of the Pond
A pal and I show up at the Spotted Pig just before 6 o'clock on a Saturday night, grateful for having made a reservation. The only free seats in this tiny corner eatery in the West Village turn out to be ours, and the joint is so jammed, the only way for me to slip into my perch against the wall is for a server to pull out our stamp-size table and then seal me in.
Beer flows, and the short menu includes haddock chowder and veal kidneys -- food and drink you'd find in England's trendy taverns-turned-gastropubs. No wonder. Chef April Bloomfield is a Brit by birth. Yet the Spotted Pig is more than juicy burgers and updated bangers and mash; Bloomfield previously toiled at one of the world's finest Italian restaurants, London's River Cafe, so she's also treating her guests to a taste of that part of her resume.
Sweet roasted pumpkin teamed with peppery arugula and lashings of pecorino cheese, and velvety ricotta gnudi (dumplings) with brush strokes of brown butter and fried sage, are the stuff of Italian dreams, while braised pork sausage with near-melting fennel and roasted halibut draped with an emerald parsley sauce edge closer to an English kitchen. "I wanted to open a bar with food as good as any restaurant," says co-owner Ken Friedman. That he's done.
The restaurant's theme is reinforced with pig paraphernalia throughout the two-room, brick-walled closet. People standing Burberry to bargain chic at the tiny bar are looking at our table longingly, hoping my friend and I won't order dessert. But we have to delay their desires just a bit longer: To skip warm (and potent) ginger cake with fresh whipped cream is to miss a slice of cheer here.
314 W. 11th St. at Greenwich Street, 212-620-0393, www.thespottedpig.com. Entrees $15-$24.