Dear Hannah: A Restaurant Advice Column
“What’s the deal with TikTok restaurants? Are any of them actually good?”
Hi Extremely Online,
You can find me glued to TikTok every weeknight from 10:30pm-10:59pm. On the off chance I’m able to peel myself away from the app earlier, it’s only because my hand has started to fall asleep or I heard a voice in my head that sounds a little like Malala saying: “Do something with your life, idiot.” Sure, this ritualized scrolling time might just be the mental-health equivalent of slowly sipping on Clorox. I do it anyway. It’s fun.
Other than videos of goats or hit-or-miss millennial WFH humor, much of my TikTok feed is dedicated to NYC restaurant recommendations. To be clear, the superficiality of NYC restaurant TikTok annoys me, since it’s difficult to showcase what makes a restaurant special in less than 30 seconds. Another TikTok annoyance: a lot of the people seem to care about style and hype over substance. And that's a weird way to choose where to eat dinner.
I’d be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t fascinated by which spots gain traction on the platform. More and more people seem to be using the app to find new restaurants, and there are 34.3M views alone associated with the TikTok search term “restaurants in Manhattan.” The woman who cuts my hair is responsible for at least 1,000 of those views. And so am I.
So what makes a restaurant famous on TikTok? Places that have a clear aesthetic—like an Italian cafe that’s completely pink from floor to ceiling—typically garner coverage. TikTok restaurants are also usually known for one or two things, whether that’s a bottomless brunch deal, a shawarma tower, or a rooftop carousel near Times Square where you can drink grapefruit tequila out of IV bags. Lastly, spots on TikTok flourish when they have an exclusivity factor. Sharing an experience at a restaurant that’s hard to get into–the Carbones of the world–gives a TikTok creator clout. And clout runs the internet.
If you come across a restaurant on TikTok, it’s likely going to look like a stupid place to spend your money. And some of them are as unthinkably dumb in person as they appear online. But what if, under that distorted Sex & The City theme song and monotone text-to-speech narration, there’s a TikTok-famous restaurant worth seeking out in real life? Find my verdicts below on this non-exhaustive list of TikTok restaurants in NYC.
THE TIKTOK SPOTS
Verdict: Depends on your capacity for fake flower walls and people you went to high school with on Long Island. So, probably not approved.
Any rooftop bar near Times Square is going to be popular on TikTok. Many of them are said to have “immaculate views,” actually. That sounds nice, right? Well, it’s not nice. More often than not, rooftop bars act as direct portals to hell for DJs and people who weren’t hugged as children. This particular rooftop from the TAO group dedicates 10,000 square feet to an “urban amusement park” theme. I’d rather be trapped in a subway car with a rat king who is blackmailing me than drink a $23 grapefruit tequila cocktail out of an IV bag while sitting on a rotating carousel at Magic Hour. They also have a putt-putt course called “Foreplay” where, inexplicably, you’ll see voluptuous, life-size sculptures of Lola Bunny in compromising positions. “Foreplay” and carousels aside, Magic Hour ultimately feels similar to other rooftop bars in NYC. Which is to say, you’re going to have to wait in line for a sh*tty bar that just so happens to be lifted high in the sky.
Verdict: An unabashedly-gimmicky restaurant with a $28 prix-fixe deal. It's pretty great.
A server at this recently-opened steak spot in Chelsea told me the restaurant had to double the number of staff on the floor since the place blew up on TikTok in December 2021. So if anyone is feeling skeptical about the influence TikTok can have on IRL dining experiences, take them to 6th Avenue and point out the 50-person deep Skirt Steak line–which begins to form around 4:15pm every day. Like the now-closed Ikinari Steak or Le Relais de Venise L'Entrecôte, Skirt Steak pretty much only serves one thing. (Guess what it is.) For $28, you get a salad, sliced skirt steak (cooked rare, medium, or well-done), and unlimited French fries. There are no reservations available and no ordering decisions to be made here, aside from whether you want to add drinks, a couple sides (like some very good garlic bread and cauliflower gratin), or dessert from a roving cart. Some people aren’t going to want to wait 45 minutes on a sidewalk to eat skirt steak with peppercorn béarnaise and unlimited fries. That’s a reasonable stance. But if you’re at least a little bit curious about an unabashedly-gimmicky restaurant with a $28 prix-fixe deal, you’ll love it here. The food is not only edible, it’s pretty freakin’ good.
Verdict: Save yourself.
Drinking the espresso martini flight in Starbucks Reserve Roastery was genuinely the strangest research I’ve ever done for The Infatuation–and I've been working here longer than a presidential term. Unlike the Starbucks on Route 17 or Canal Street, the Reserve has multiple floors and cafes, as well as its own bar with boozy coffee drinks. In short, it’s a capitalist game reserve. You’ll find merchandise for sale every six feet, $9 focaccia that tastes like it was made in 2018, and three separate tourists filming you to be in the B-roll for their travel vlogs. I waited in a line to get inside, which was not so inconvenient as it was embarrassing. And then I waited 30 minutes for a bar seat at The Arriviamo Bar, which was not so embarrassing as it was demoralizing. For $27, you can get three extremely sweet mini espresso martinis mixed with various fruit syrups and candied garnishes. The original is the best (followed by a cherry limone and orange cacao). But that’s sort of like saying the Titanic is the best shipwreck. It’s still a shipwreck, and all the booze has gone to waste.
Verdict: Approved only If you’re obsessed with clout.
Carbone is for tourists, Rihanna, or someone who desperately wants to eat next to an NBA player. You pay for restaurant theater here. You’ll see servers cutting mozzarella with scissors tableside, dark rooms with circular tables, and people referring to pasta as macaroni because they heard someone do that once in Goodfellas. It all feels a little like paying to go to Disney World even though the rides are kind of a let down. Despite the fact that tables are always booked on Resy 30 days in advance, there are sometimes one or two last-minute, same-day reservations on weeknights. (They release indoor dining table reservation slots at 10am 30 days in advance and outdoor reservation slots 24 or 48 hours in advance, depending on the weather. Also lunch is way easier to get into than dinner.) If you take the “omg I’m at Carbone” feeling out of the equation, you’ll be left with overcooked lobster in your ravioli and $32 spicy vodka rigatoni you could get at another Italian restaurant for about half that amount. A tip: Carbone serves their spicy rigatoni at Parm on Mulberry Street–so you can actually eat it anytime you like.
Verdict: Approved emphatically.
Au Za’atar is famous on TikTok for their tableside shawarma towers. Even if you generally shy away from anything with a Foodie hashtag attached to it, don’t let that deter you from coming here. Au Za’atar’s Lebanese classics are the sorts of things you’d want to eat if social media didn’t exist. I especially like the creamy labne topped with olives and a slick of olive oil and the grilled mix platter with sumac-dusted fries. If you’re eating with a couple of people, opt for a bottle of Lebanese wine and the shawarma tower on a vertical spit, which comes with fries, grilled tomatoes and onions, herb salad, plenty of pita, and enough food for leftovers. You’ll have a great time if you’re looking for a fun, meat-filled group dinner that just so happens to be popular on TikTok.
Everything at Pietro Nolita, and I mean everything, is millennial pink. Even if you were to somehow forget about all the pink in the restaurant, the napkins that read “Pink As F*ck” will remind you. (So will the t-shirts and bandanas available for purchase.) Pietro Nolita’s commitment to pink is not what makes this Italian cafe upsetting, though. There's nothing inherently wrong with pink or a fierce dedication to a theme. But this restaurant is only pink to distract you from its oily, acid-less kale salads, gluey cacio e pepe, and gin cocktails that taste as Pepto-Bismol-like as the walls look. Of all the restaurant’s details, my favorite was the unboxed Hillary Clinton action figure doll resting on the shelf by the door. In the corner of the box it says “2016 Or Bust.” No better metaphor for this sunken Girlboss place exists.
Taiyaki’s internet fame precedes TikTok by about three years, but their fish-shaped cakes full of soft serve still pop up online regularly. This is not so surprising, considering everyone on planet earth likes to hold small things shaped like small animals. Are you saying you don’t want to eat a colorful dessert that looks like a fish but isn’t actually a fish? That’s why Taiyaki is still popular on TikTok. (Unlike some of the spots on this list, Taiyaki has their own TikTok account–presumably run by a sophomore at Gallatin who designed their major around the Psychology of Going Viral. More importantly, the soft serve at Taiyaki has a real, developed flavor that isn’t just “cold.” I usually order the black sesame soft serve with red beans. You could also just get some ice cream by itself in a cup. Similarly, you could also get an apartment with no windows or a car without a speaker system. The choice is yours.
Verdict: One of the better TikTok spots we’ve encountered.
This Upper West Side bar serves $5 fried chicken sandwiches and $14 rum cocktails that come with gummy candy in a ceramic shark’s head. Regardless of its TikTok fame, Tiki Chick’s prices are lower than most fun spots uptown and that makes it worth seeking out. They commit hard to their tropical theme here, but not so much that it takes away from the quality of the food and drinks. By all means, bring a date and eat a crispy hot honey fried chicken sandwich or the Stiki Tiki with upside-down pineapple chicken and shaved spam. (OK, yes, this particular sandwich costs $7.)
photo credit: Rebecca Fondren
I couldn’t get into Saint Theo’s. But Senior Staff Editor Bryan Kim could. Here's his take.
Verdict: It could be (much) worse.
Saint Theo’s is from the same people who run American Bar (also in the West Village), and both places look like if Soho House got into the country club business. They each have white tablecloths and big leather booths, although Saint Theo’s—with its parquet floors and elaborately tiled ceiling—is going for more of a let’s-drink-spritzes-on-the-Italian-Riviera vibe. I’ll be honest, I did not have high expectations. And now I’ll be honest once more: I sort of like Saint Theo’s. First off, they give you complimentary bread, and this complimentary bread is squishy and delicious. As for the rest of the food, it’s mostly fine. The mozzarella in carrozza gets by purely on the strength of being fried, breaded cheese, and the ricotta gomiti feels like an attempt to mimic the simplicity of Carbone’s spicy rigatoni vodka. It gets a tad boring after a few bites. So why do I (and so many other people) like Saint Theo’s? I think it’s mostly about context. Sometimes, you look at a restaurant and think, “That’s the right context for me.” Other times, you see a restaurant and think, “It would be hilarious if I put myself in that context.” When it comes to Saint Theo’s, I fall into the latter camp—but if you’re looking for a scene and this feels like the right context for you, see if you can snag a table.