Where To Have A Unique Dining Experience In NYC
photo credit: Ben Hon
Maybe you have a friend who thinks that they’ve been everywhere and done everything, or maybe you’re planning a night out with someone you’ve been dating for five-plus years and want to try something new. Here are some places that are unlike any others. A few have entertainment, some have themes, and a couple are BYOB spots where you can attempt to make new friends. All of these restaurants are as much about the experience as they are about the food, and each one of them will make you want to start a Tumblr about your new and interesting lifestyle.
At Ilis, every server is also a cook, and the hyper-local ingredients are often hand-foraged. Equal parts fine dining and Ph.D thesis, the Greenpoint restaurant is like a nerdy dinner party hosted in a candlelit warehouse. Meals start at five courses, with offerings that include smoked eel meant to be eaten like corn on the cob, and a whole trout with miso butter baked in birch bark. The food as seasonal as it gets, and the employees will gladly answer any questions, such as “Can I eat the flower that I just used as a paintbrush?” (The answer is yes.)
When you feel like you’ve seen, done, and eaten all that NYC’s overwhelming omakase scene can offer, go to The Office of Mr. Moto. This St. Mark’s speakeasy is filled with eclectic Japanese antiques and requires you to decode an email before your visit. The 21-course meal ($195) is focused on hyper-seasonal ingredients flown in daily from Japan, so expect pieces like shirako, or rare red gurnard that you don’t get at other sushi spots in this price range. Stop by the lounge for a drink after your dinner and listen to the vintage player piano.
Au Za’atar is justly famous on social media for their tableside shawarma towers, and it’s pretty damn satisfying to slice the chicken or lamb off the vertical spit yourself, again and again. Au Za’atar’s other Lebanese classics are also excellent, especially the creamy labneh topped with olives and a slick of olive oil, and the mixed grill platter with sumac-dusted fries. Go with a couple of people, get a bottle of Lebanese wine, and call ahead to order that shawarma tower, which comes with fries, grilled tomatoes and onions, herb salad, plenty of pita, and enough food for leftovers.
You aren’t technically dining at Calabria Pork Store, since you take your sandwiches to go, but just entering this Arthur Avenue salumeria is an experience. Hundreds of soppressata hang from the ceiling, with a sweet, musky smell that shocks the system every time. Any meat you pull from the sausage chandelier will be your new favorite food. We tend to go for the store’s specialty, hot soppressata, served on ciabatta or a hero roll.
This little Egyptian seafood market and restaurant in Astoria has a counter in the back where you point at exactly what you want to eat. The daily selection usually includes a few types of whole fish as well as baby octopus, squid, and a few kinds of shrimp. Specify how you’d like them cooked (baked, fried, grilled, etc.) and wait patiently for some of the best food you’ve eaten off of plastic plates. Abuqir doesn’t have much ambience—the decor consists of a dolphin poster and furniture that looks sourced from Office Depot—but that doesn’t really matter. It’s a seafood lover’s seafood place, and if you just thought, “Hey, that sounds like me,” you should start planning a trip here immediately.
Kono is a sleek, serious yakitori restaurant with a crown-to-tail approach to serving chicken. Once the skewers start rolling in this omakase meal, you’ll get everything from heart and liver to inner thigh and chicken oyster, each with a distinct flavor. A resin model of their chochin skewer—a dainty stack of fallopian tube, liver, and an unfertilized egg—will appear mid-meal with several other interesting add-ons. Order at least a few. Almost everything in the space is black (even the toilet paper), keeping the spotlight squarely on the golden chicken skewers.
It’s tough enough to find an apartment large enough to host a family-only bat mitzvah for your cat, let alone a quality group meal. So book a spot at this Fort Greene restaurant instead, and mingle with friends and strangers over an unpretentious, pre-fixe menu at a communal table with taper candles and mismatched cups of wine. Sure, you might wind up with the dreaded NFT Guy at your table instead of your new crush, but that’s part of the fun. Bring a friend you can exchange covert glances with when NFT Guy starts getting into how much his crypto wallet is worth.
This Bed-Stuy restaurant serves a four-course, prix-fixe meal twice nightly in a room off of Nostrand Avenue where you’ll eat regional Nigerian food at a communal table with strangers. Before each course, the chef comes out to set the scene like he’s narrating Forrest Gump, with a few funny stories and insightful anecdotes thrown in. Nigerian records spin, and people share their BYOB selections with the table, making this one of our favorite dinner parties in the city.
A meal at Tokyo Record Bar is only partially about the food. Mostly, you come for the experience. There are several seatings here every night, and the first thing you do when you sit down is help pick the playlist. Everything is on vinyl, and you’ll get to choose a song that you want to hear. Then, a seven-course tasting menu will begin, and you’ll eat some izakaya-type food while you (and roughly 20 other people) listen to a collaborative playlist in a small basement on MacDougal Street.
If you go to the second floor of Freemans (a restaurant at the end of an alley on the LES), you’ll see an unmarked door. Open that door, and you’ll find Banzarbar, a speakeasy with 20 seats and a menu that includes a whole tempura-fried octopus called “The Kraken.” Pair your octopus with a flight of rum or a cocktail served in an urn with four different kinds of alcohol.
Not every restaurant gives you the option of closing yourself off from the world, but Ichiran does. In addition to a more straightforward dining room, this ramen spot in Bushwick (and Midtown) has some one-person stations where you can eat your food in what is essentially a sit-down voting booth. You also write your order on a slip of paper and pass it to your server through a window in front of you, so you don’t actually have to interact with anyone while you eat.
At first glance, La Caverna seems like the Rainforest Cafe offshoot no one asked for. It’s a restaurant and dance club on the Lower East Side built to look like a cave with stalactites on the ceiling. Come cosplay as the Flintstones for Happy Hour guava margaritas and a solid selection of classic Mexican cantina food. At night, it turns into more of a party with music blasting out of speakers embedded in the fake rock walls and big groups ordering hookah at the bar. If that’s not your thing, come before 8pm for a fun, low-key spot when you want to do Taco Tuesday somewhere a little different.