Here’s the situation: Your sister showed up unexpectedly from out of town. Your friend who had previously canceled your dinner plans due to having “way too much work” decided he actually does want to go out. Or the week simply got away from you, and it’s Friday night and you’d like to go out for a great dinner, despite not having made any reservations.
Sure, you could panic and book ’La Cerveceria or 111AAA Trattoria or whatever restaurant alphabetically shows up first on OpenTable. Or, you could take the opportunity to go to one of the great many restaurants that don’t take reservations anyway. Provided you’re willing to wait a little, these are some of the very best meals in New York, and you’re missing out if you don’t give them a try. Considering you probably will have to wait, we’re also telling you where to drink nearby while you do.
If you’ve already worked your way through this list, we’ve also updated it with some new spots.
Vini E Fritti feels a bit more special than most wine and cocktail bars, but it’s still a casual walk-in only spot that’s great for everyone. Well, anyone who likes fried small plates and excellent drinks. So yeah, everyone. This Roman-style spot in Nomad has a gold bar and marble counters, but it also has black and white photos of Italy on the wall and a casual layout where you can eat pizza dough with prosciutto and drink spritzes at standing tables. You’re a spritz person, even if you don’t know it yet.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Vin Sur Vingt.
Al Di La has been around since 1998, which means that people don’t hate it. This is a near-perfect neighborhood restaurant, and it’s hard to go wrong with anything on the menu. Have some pasta and risotto and some pork with sage and prosciutto. They do Northern Italian food, and the space is nice without feeling too stuffy. So bring a date the next time you were supposed to make a reservation somewhere but got distracted by an online quiz about which wild animal is most likely to eat you.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Blueprint.
Sugarfish is a popular, relatively affordable sushi chain from Los Angeles, and, so far, they only have one location in New York. It’s in the Flatiron District, and it gets extremely busy. That’s probably because New Yorkers aren’t used to pretty-good sushi that isn’t super expensive. There’s some in NYC, sure, but Sugarfish is consistent. Also, gratuity is included. So if you’re willing to endure a long wait, come here. You can enjoy one of the benefits of being in LA without having to deal with all the smog and traffic and droughts and earthquakes.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Wined Up.
When you want a dinner experience somewhere between cooking at home with your “may the forks be with you” apron and going to a restaurant where your server is the fourth lead in Jersey Boys, check out Pheasant. It’s a low-key neighborhood spot that’s ideal for a Wednesday catch-up dinner with a friend when you don’t have time to make a reservation. You can have some wine or cocktails and share a couple small plates along with a burger or some quality chicken. You don’t need to change out of your work clothes and you can sit at the bar if the tables are all taken.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Richardson.
Some of the best pizza spots in the city are walk-in only - Lucali, Roberta’s, Paulie Gee’s - but Ops is at the top of our list for a last-minute dinner. Not only are the waits here shorter than at those other spots, but Ops also has one of our favorite wine situations in the city. You just tell them what you generally like to drink, and they bring out natural wines (all at the same price) for you to try until you find one that you like. The thin sourdough crust pizzas, which get cooked in a big oven behind the bar, are all excellent as well.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Three Diamond Door.
Kaia would be one of our go-to spots no matter where it was located, but it deserves a special shoutout for being the best walk-in option in a neighborhood full of white tablecloth places where you go when you pass the bar exam or when your aunt has a new boyfriend to introduce to the family. Whether you need a date spot or a place to grab drinks and food after work, Kaia is a great move on the Upper East Side. They have a solid raw bar, good shareable plates that range from mac and cheese to elk carpaccio, and over 50 types of South African wine.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: DTUT.
Wildair is an excellent restaurant for non-committal people, and a concept we wish were more common in New York: a walk-in only wine bar, connected to a more serious restaurant. If you’ve considered going to Contra, but couldn’t quite commit to the tasting menu, try Wildair. The food is a little weird and generally very good.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Hill & Dale.
Frankies 457 has been around since 2004 in a neighborhood full of good restaurants, but it’s packed every night because the cavatelli with house sausage is one of the best plates of pasta you can eat, and this small Carroll Gardens spot has about as much Feel Good Factor as any place in the city. The open kitchen fills the small space with smells that make you confident you’re in for a good meal, and sharing affordable Italian wine in the backyard basically guarantees it.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Minibar.
At Thursday Kitchen, you won’t find any food over $20. Plus, you can get a cocktail that comes in a glowing pouch. So it’s a good place to eat and drink with a bunch of friends. You can all sit around and share some soft shell crab and fried chicken (it’s kind of like Korean tapas), and everyone can get their own shiny pouch drink. They’re pretty much liquid candy, however, so have one then spend the rest of your money on food.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Ten Degrees.
You know Red Farm. It’s that place that does pastrami egg rolls and dumplings that look like the ghosts from Pac-Man. The Chinese food is fun and creative, and there are two locations to choose from. One in the West Village and a second, larger location uptown. We prefer the one in the one in the Village because it’s the original and it’s in a townhouse we’d like to own.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Otheroom.
If you spontaneously decide that you want to spend money, try Blue Ribbon Sushi. It’s in a basement in Soho, and you won’t have to book three months in advance. Because you won’t have to book at all. Unlike some other Blue Ribbon spots, these guys don’t take reservations. They do, however, make some solid sushi. It’s a little expensive, but that’s why you come here. Come celebrate something with a giant platter of raw fish that you probably can’t afford but refuse to not have.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Handy Liquor Bar.
There are lots of French bistros that try to remind people of the spot they dropped into for mussels and white wine on a side street in Paris, but actually put prosecco in their bottomless mimosas and charge $37 for coq au vin. While it won’t take the place of that spot in Paris, Tournesol is everything you want from your neighborhood French restaurant. The dark, casual space is a great place to share things like escargots, goat cheese croquettes, and the mussels, along with anything from the long list of reasonably-priced French wines. There’s rarely a wait, and almost everything on the menu is under $20.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Jackson’s.
Over a decade in, this place is still packed every day. And, unless you’re willing to book a large-format meal (the only reservations they accept), you still have as good a chance to get in as everyone else. So roll up, put your name down, then go wait at a nearby bar. This is the original Momofuku, and it’s the one that does ramen. Is it the best ramen in the city? Probably not. But if you’re into bacon, you’ll like the broth, and the pork buns will never not be worth eating. Bring some friends from out of town. They’ll be impressed.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Immigrant.
Because it’s walk-in only, the bar at Via Carota tends to be filled with people drinking negronis and wine until their names are called, which makes it seem a bit cooler than some other more low-key Italian spots in the West Village. The big, open space is mostly packed with two-tops, and this place works well for a relatively upscale last-minute date night. You can also come with a group and share things from the long list of vegetable appetizers and some classic Italian pastas.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Garret.
Calling Jeffrey’s Grocery a “neighborhood restaurant” is like calling Emma Stone “a girl next door.” It’s not... wrong, but it’s also like... imagine if Emma Stone were actually your neighbor? Point is: Jeffrey’s Grocery is a place we stop into regularly, for reliable and excellent raw bar, salads, and so on. There’s definitely a wait at peak times, so head over to Bar Sardine (183 W. 10th St.), operated by the same owner, for a drink.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Highlands.
Okonomi is basically three restaurants, and two of them don’t take reservations. Let us explain. By day, it’s Okonomi, serving an incredible, healthy Japanese breakfast. On weeknights, it’s Yuji Ramen, which serves a la carte ramen - also awesome. On weekend evenings, it’s also Yuji Ramen, but serving a tasting menu. The first two are first-come, first-serve, and both are highly recommended.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Huckleberry Bar.
If you’ve been reading The Infatuation for any period of time, you’ve probably heard about Upstate by now. This East Village spot always has well over a dozen varieties of always excellent oysters ready for your consumption, as well as some other great seafood-focused items like fettucine with clams. It’s a tiny spot with less than 20 seats, so waits are a regular occurrence at peak hours.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Good Night Sonny.
There are ramen shops all over town now, but only some of them are worth waiting in line for. That “some” is Ippudo, and in this case, the lines will be very long. But if you have a night with nothing to do (really, nothing, because you’re going to want to go to sleep afterwards), Ippudo is a great place to spend it. For first timers, try the Akamaru Modern and the pork buns.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Black & White.
If you’re roaming the Lower Lower East Side, bring the crew over to Kiki’s, an almost too-cool-for-school Greek restaurant on Division Street. The food is good, the scene is nothing but entertaining, and they serve carafes of wine in vessels that could be used to water plants.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: 169 Bar.
A trip to Roberta’s is required reading at this point, and not just for the pizza, which, thanks to the constant stream of Madison Square Eats-type situations, is pretty easy to find all over the city. But a trip to Roberta’s is all about the environment, and sampling the entire menu. The vegetables are always amazing and the meats and seafood tend to be exceptional as well. Waits can be long, but if you come in a small group, you can usually grab a first-come-first-serve seat in the back garden or at the bar, where they serve the full menu.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Narrows.
Here’s a fun fact: Diner opened on New Year’s Eve 1999, a time when most current Williamsburg residents were in elementary school, asking their parents whether the Y2K crash would break their GameBoys. Fortunately, it didn’t, and Diner is still around, serving great food and a fantastic burger. Not just from an anthropological perspective, it’s one of the great Williamsburg restaurants that never seems to get old.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Loosie Rouge.
See that piece of steak? It could be yours for $18. Now you know. Of course, so do a lot of other people – the waits are long at this Williamsburg bar/steakhouse, but where do you have to be? A rave in Bushwick? Didn’t think so.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Commodore.