Welcome to The Infatuation’s New York City Greatest Hits List.
Obviously you’re familiar with the concept of a “greatest hits” album, but let’s be clear that what you see before you is not meant to be the Now 24 of restaurants. This list is a short and carefully- selected collection of the places in New York City that you should hit first if you’re new to town - restaurants that are essential to NYC dining, from legendary pizza to late night oysters and bone marrow.
Just like you wouldn’t introduce someone to The Eagles without starting with “Hotel California,” or to The Steve Miller band by playing them that one song they didn’t put on a greatest hits album, we wouldn’t send someone unfamiliar to some new NYC hot spot without sending them to one of these restaurants first. You shouldn’t either.
Added on 12/16/16: Uncle Boons, Russ & Daughters, Mission Chinese, Babu Ji, Carbone, Sushi Seki UES
In this town, vodka sauce pizza is a thing, and Rubirosa, as far as we’re concerned, is the only place to have it. This thin crust delicacy is one of the absolute best pies you can have in this town. We’d be happy to eat it next to a dumpster every day for the rest of our lives, but it just so happens that the vibe inside this restaurant is excellent, and the rest of the menu (straightforward, Italian-American comfort food) is too. The wait for a table will be long, but that’s only because everyone else in New York City agrees with us. It’ll be worth it.
In case you’re new to The Infatuation, let’s talk about The Feel Good Factor™. It’s that intangible thing beyond just the food and service that makes you want to come back to a restaurant, and Babbo basically invented it. Mario Batali changed fine dining (i.e. made it actually enjoyable) when he opened this restaurant, in part by combining Led Zeppelin and white table cloths and also by making a “pasta tasting menu” a thing that exists. You will enjoy all of it, immensely.
When people tell us they are new to New York with nothing on the agenda other than to eat good food and get into a little action, The Spotted Pig is the first place we send them. Nothing beats the vibe in this legendary West Village gastropub, and the second floor bar is always full of people waiting for a table and looking to mingle. It’s open late, the burger is amazing, and it’s always bumping. No other city has a place like The Spotted Pig, and we like it that way.
Go to any major city in North America, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a restaurant that’s a lot like Momofuku: modern interiors, modern takes on some ethnic cuisine, lots of bar seating, and probably even a pork bun on the menu. David Chang probably even owns some of them. But they’re all weak imitations of Ssäm Bar, which is the restaurant that basically started it all. Whether you go for a ssäm wrap at lunch, book a large format dinner with friends, or roll in late night, there’s no wrong way to do Momofuku Ssäm.
Upland is the youngest restaurant on this list, but it’s one we know will be around for a very long time. Why? Upland is universally appealing. The space is fantastic, the California-style food (including the best Caesar salad you’ve ever had) is fantastic, and the location is fantastically convenient for so many people. It’s proof that doing everything just a little better than your peers is a pretty sure way to succeed.
Another Italian entry to the list, and not just because L’Artusi makes great pasta. L’Artusi makes the list because sitting at the bar here is one of the greatest two-person dinner moves you can make. If you walk in and are willing to wait, you can usually secure a spot in under an hour, which you should spend waiting at the front with a glass of wine from L’Artusi’s excellent list. Once you sit, eat several bowls of pasta and finish with olive oil cake. Then congratulate yourself for knowing how to live right.
There might be “better” sushi places in New York - more refined places where you won’t be sitting next to a rich teenager from Long Island who’s wearing a gold Rolex and downing toro hand rolls by the dozen. But Sushi Seki has always been something of a death row meal for us. Open until 2:30 a.m. and serving perfect pieces of fish topped with everything from sauteed tomato to tofu sauce in a hole-in-the-wall space on the Upper East Side, Seki is the New York sushi experience you never get tired of. A few non-negotiables: sit at the bar, and finish with a spicy scallop hand roll.
There’s actually something very sad about Raoul’s. It’s the fact that no restaurant like Raoul’s will ever open in New York again. Raoul’s is classic Soho - frozen in time from the Ghostbusters era of Manhattan, when fish tanks and waterbeds were a sign of opulence and Sigourney Weaver was still a babe. Raoul’s is still an excellent restaurant to this day, and it’s still a great place to hang. Expect to leave full of steak, high on life, and drunk on martinis.
In NYC, it’s always good to have a backup restaurant - a place you can keep in your back pocket if your first intention doesn’t work out: Lil Frankie’s is kind of just like Rubirosa. You’ll have similar experiences at Il Buco and L’Artusi. Emily isn’t all that far off from Speedy Romeo. But there is no backup restaurant for Uncle Boons. This is a tiny underground clubhouse serving some of the best Thai food we’ve ever eaten (and a giant coconut sundae that is the stuff of legends).
Carbone is probably the best Off-Broadway show in New York City. Opened by some big time restaurant people back in 2013, this restaurant is a perfect reproduction/exaggeration of the great American red sauce Italian restaurant. The food is incredible - from spicy rigatoni to veal parm to table-side caesar salad, and the whole experience feels like being on the set of a big budget movie that Chazz Palminteri should be in. Speaking of big budgets, bring a suitcase full of money with you. The Carbone experience doesn’t come cheap.
People love to say that NYC has terrible Mexican food. It’s like pointing out a supermodel’s snaggle tooth - it makes all the other cities feel better about themselves. The problem is, it’s mostly true. Mexican food is not our strong point, and if you’re here for the first time, you should most definitely not seek out a burrito. That said, Casa Enrique is not only our best Mexican restaurant, it’s one of our best restaurants in general. This Long Island City establishment has been a favorite of the neighborhood for years, but the smart people in other boroughs also know it’s worth crossing a bridge for. You should too.
Roberta’s is a game-changer of a restaurant, and not just because it meant the first time a lot of people who live in Manhattan took the L Train past the Bedford or Lorimer stop. Roberta’s is a game-changer because it took the idea of eating pizza and hanging out, and made it a lot more awesome. This establishment has grown up (yes, you did just see a Roberta’s pizza in your supermarket’s freezer section) but the Bushwick barn/garage/tent/garden complex is still very much worth that hop on the L Train. Be sure to order some vegetables, pastas, and/or meats too - they’re just as good as the pizza.
Is there a restaurant in Manhattan that’s more fun than Mission Chinese? Please tell us if you find one. Dinner here always feels like a party, and that’s even if you don’t order the prime rib drenched in butter with a side of crab legs, that gets rolled out on a huge silver cart. Other things they serve here: a full wooden tray of uni, the spiciest chicken wings around, and a General Tso’s flavored Old Fashioned. As we said: party.
Honestly, we could have done a Greatest Hits list that only included legendary New York Italian restaurants, but that’s not the exercise here. This is about picking out the places we’d send you to before all the others, and Il Buco is that for Italian in this town. The room, once an antique store, is dark and inviting, and below the restaurant is a wine cellar that Edgar Allen Poe used to hang out in. And if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for you. Do you even write poetry?
It’s about time someone invented words better than “cool” and “hip” to describe cool, hip restaurants. We say that now because there aren’t better words to describe Charlie Bird, and yet those words don’t really do it justice. So just know that if you want eat excellent, modern, light-ish Italian food (think farro salad, not duck lasagne) while listening to almost-too-loud Beastie Boys and Biggie while drinking a perfect glass of wine that a server you’re convinced is going to be your new best friend suggested, this is the best place in NYC for it.
Does Lil’ Frankies serve the best pizza, the best pasta, or the best anything else? Not the point. Not at all. Lil’ Frankies earns its spot here because when people ask us where to go out with a group of friends, we almost always send them here. Right in the middle of the East Village, Lil’ Frankies has heart and soul and red brick walls, and is simply a place where it’s impossible to have a bad time. Get some pizzas, some lemon spaghetti, some roasted eggplant, some red wine, and leave for under $40 a head. Everyone’s gonna be happy. We promise.
In a city saturated with great Italian food, it’s almost impossible for an Italian restaurant to prove it’s something special. But over in Park Slope, Al Di La’s been at it since long before Manhattanites realized Brooklyn existed. This place isn’t fronted by a celebrity chef, nor is it trendy. There’s no “buzz” around it, and you’re not going to see it on any internet lists (except this one). But this is simple, rustic, Italian cooking at its very best, and one of the most charming environments you can eat in in.
There are a million places to eat ramen in New York City. Many of them are excellent. None come close to Ippudo. Yes, the waits at this Japanese import are insane, and no, you probably won’t get in unless you show up at 5pm. But sometimes real love takes sacrifice. And this ramen is worth the sacrifice.
It’s the million dollar (or at least $3) question: what makes an ideal New York slice joint? First, the slice has to be perfect. And second, it has to be there for you when you need it. Joe’s checks both boxes. The slices are everything a New York slice should be: hot, salty, crispy, chewy, always consistent, and a little bit greasy. Open until 4am every night, Joe’s is the answer when someone asks you where to find the best slice of pizza in this town. It’s always the answer.
Gramercy Tavern is well known for being one of the best fine dining destinations in New York City, and we’re not here to dispute that. But we will say that we enjoy eating in the bar area far more than we do a full sit down tasting menu in the main dining room. In this part of the restaurant, they don’t take reservations, you order a la carte, and the service and food is just as good as what you get from the main event. It’s also one of the best rooms in the whole city.
It’s 2:30am, you’re a little bit drunk, a lot hungry, and looking for something other than a slice from Joe’s. What do you do? Head for the most legendary late night eating this (or any) city has to offer. Blue Ribbon stays open until 4am and it started out back in 1996 as the place where all of the chefs in town would visit for a proper meal after their shifts ended. These days it’s a place where all of the best New Yorkers come when their night has ended - the ones who appreciate a nice bottle of wine and some bone marrow before climbing into bed just before dawn.
There are many places we would send you for bagels and lox. Some of those places would be excellent. But none would be quite like Russ & Daughters. Open since the beginning of time (1914), owned by the same family, and always selling the same comfort food, Russ & Daughters is the quintessential place for the quintessential New York tradition. Show up prepared to wait along with everyone else, grab a ticket, and fight for a square foot of personal space.
There are burger joints, and then there is the Corner Bistro. This West Village institution is basically a gross old bar from the late 1800s that smells like stale beer, and that is exactly why it’s awesome. Yes, you can find other amazing burgers in this city, but you cannot find another Corner Bistro.
Marlow & Sons is arguably the restaurant that started Williamsburg (it was an English colony previous to their opening), but history isn’t enough for us to put an establishment on this list. Marlow & Sons makes it because it’s one of our favorite places for a dozen oysters and a few drinks. The brick chicken is a menu staple and should be ordered, but you really can’t go wrong.