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.
Mr. Donahue’s was modeled on an early-20th-century lunch counter, and it feels like your grandparents’ house in the best way possible. Here, you pick a protein, a sauce, and two sides, and it all arrives on a plate that looks like it was bought at a garage sale forty years ago. There are only a few tables inside (and a couple more outside when it’s warm), but it’s still a great option for a fun last-minute meal. They do root beer floats, the decor is convincingly retro, and you get a free hard candy at the end of your meal.
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.
Some surf shops sell t-shirts, others have tacos. Tygershark has a full sit-down restaurant. It’s a store up front and a restaurant in the back, and it feels a little cooler than your average neighborhood spot. The food is mostly Korean (but not so traditional), and there’s an emphasis on seafood. Have a corn fritter with crab or some octopus with bacon and egg. The dishes here tend to have a lot going on, but don’t worry. They work. Bring a few friends the next time you want to mix things up.
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.
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.
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. It’s also near the Spotted Pig, so you can use it as a backup if that place has a three-hour wait.
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.
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.
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. And while you wait? Grab a glass of wine at the bar at Contra (138 Orchard St.), or hit up the underground bar Nitecap (120 Rivington St.).
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.
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. While you wait, grab a drink (or coffee) at The Blind Barber (524 Lorimer St.).
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 you like bitter drinks and don’t mind standing, head over to Amor y Amargo (443 E. 6th St.) while you wait. Or, if it’s early enough before things get crazy over there, stop into Death & Co. (433 E. 6th St.).
Running the Brooklyn Half Marathon, trying to see Louie at the Comedy Cellar, and eating a burger at The Spotted Pig: all things that were probably on your New York bucket list at some point. It’s hard to do a more perfect New York night than one at The Spotted Pig. Where to drink if you have to wait? The Otherroom (143 Perry St.) or The Rusty Knot (425 West St.)
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. Hit up Black & White (86 E. 10th St.) for beers and well drinks while you prepare for glory.
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.
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. While you wait for your table, hitt the garden or bar in the back. Afterwards, The Narrows (1037 Flushing Ave) or Tutu’s (25 Bogart St.) are great spots.
Somehow, the best new pizza and the best new burger in New York live in the same home. #WorldsMostTalkedAboutCouple. The Colony Pizza and the Emmy Burger are must trys, and heading to Emily in Clinton Hill to try them both is strongly advised. The space is small and casual, and we’d suggest going early as they do sometimes run out of the burger. Where To Drink If You Have To Wait? Sisters (900 Fulton St.) or Hot Bird (546 Clinton Ave.)
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. Where to drink if you have to wait? Loosie Rouge (91 S. 6th St.)
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. Where to drink if you have to wait? Spuyten Duyvil (359 Metropolitan Ave.) or The Commodore (366 Metropolitan Ave.)