Where To Have A Unique Dining Experience In NYC
The best restaurants for when you need karaoke, an interactive experience, or a margarita in a cave with stalactites.
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 are hidden, 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.
photo credit: Kate Pauley
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.
photo credit: Teddy Wolff
At Dr. Clark you’ll find a certified scene, full of internet ingénues and downtown nightlife fixtures. But more importantly, it’s one of the only places in NYC exclusively dedicated to serving food from Hokkaido, and you can eat your food at a covered kotatsu table on the sidewalk. Order salmon jerky, squid stuffed with uni rice, and jingisukan, a BBQ dish that involves thinly-sliced mutton or lamb cooked tableside on a skillet shaped like an upside-down bowl (said to mimic a warrior’s helmet).
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photo credit: David A. Lee
This Bed-Stuy restaurant serves a four-course, prix-fixe meal twice nightly in a room off of Nostrand Avenue where you’ll eat new takes on Nigerian food at a communal table with strangers. Before each course, the chef comes out to set the scene around what you’re about to eat 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 for one of our favorite dinner parties in the city.
photo credit: Jehovy Santiago
A restaurant with an all-chocolate menu seems like the sort of thing you’d find in Times Square trying to recruit diners from the M&M’s store. But this Mott Haven outpost from a fourth-generation Puerto Rican chocolate company pulls off their concept without feeling like an Iron Chef challenge. Go for a lively brunch spot where you can sip on chocolate Bloody Marys, or come by for one of their popular salsa nights to eat chalupitas de mofongo served with chocolate-flecked guacamole and find someone special on the dance floor to buy dessert for.
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, but you won’t be greeted by servers in Flintstones outfits. A simple cave painting leads you to a basement with stalactites on the ceiling where you’ll find strong 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, lowkey spot when you want to do Taco Tuesday somewhere a little different.
Taking a date to a comedy club is always a risky move. You could get stuck sitting in front, where the comic can call you out and trap you in some twisted form of couples therapy, and your only food options are usually chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks. At this East Village Latin vegan restaurant, there’s a full-on comedy club in the back called St. Marks Comedy Club, where you can order platanos maduro supreme and plant-based crispy chicharron to stuff in your mouth when the comic asks you if you’re together together. Take a vegan who’ll appreciate the comedian-owner dropping in to do a very plant-based standup routine about his meat-loving family.
Tokyo Record Bar
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.
Astoria Seafood is part fish market, part Greek restaurant, and part plausible location for a non-terrible team-building activity. Here’s how it works: You fill plastic bags full of scallops, shrimp, octopus, and whatever else you want to eat from the fish counter, then hand your selections over to be cooked however you’d like (grilled, fried, etc.). Then you find a table (which might involve a wait), get your plates of excellent, simply prepared seafood, and open the wine you brought. This place is BYOB.
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
There are lots of Korean barbecue places in the city, but Cote is just a little bit different. It’s on the upscale side (but it's not prohibitively expensive), and they serve cuts of meat that you’d expect to find in a steakhouse. They also do a “Butcher’s Feast” that comes with banchan, soup, and dessert, and the cocktails are excellent. Plus, it looks sort of like a nightclub where the tables happen to have grills in the middle. So if you need a fun place to eat with a group, make a reservation here.
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
Niche Niche is from the same team as Tokyo Record Bar, but dinner here is a completely different experience, with wine and food menus that are based around the guest sommelier’s specialty. We’ve been here on a night featuring Greek wines and lemon-oregano chicken, and we've also stopped by and had American wines and a San Francisco-ish cioppino. Check the calendar to see what's coming up, or just book a table and let yourself be surprised.
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 about 10 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.
In the summer, Brooklyn Crab is kind of like an adult playground. This Red Hook spot has a few different levels where you can sit, eat steamed seafood, and drink cocktails, and there are also games like mini golf and cornhole. It feels like the kind of place you’d have lunch in the middle of the best beach day of the summer, and, even though you’re more likely to come here after a trip to IKEA, it still can’t hurt to pack some sunscreen.
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Grand Central Oyster Bar is naturally a little touristy, because it’s in the basement of one of the biggest transportation hubs in the entire city. But it’s worth visiting even if you haven’t left NYC in 20 years. The giant space has low vaulted ceilings, a few different bar areas, and a lot of tables where we imagine many business deals took place in the 1930s. Come here (whether or not you have a train to catch) for a dozen oysters and a martini.
This is a Korean barbecue place in Gowanus, and it has karaoke rooms that you can rent out before or after your meal. It’s also got some huge tables (and a bar off to the side), so it’s great for groups or possibly your next birthday dinner. Share some Korean barbecue (or some à la carte things like bibimbap and bulgogi), then force all of your friends to sing to you as tribute.
To get to Sakagura, you walk through the lobby of a very normal office building in Midtown, pass a security guard, then head down a flight a stairs. This place is an izakaya from the same people behind a bunch of other Japanese spots like Sake Bar Decibel and Rai Rai Ken, and most of your friends will impressed that you know how to find it. The food here consists of stuff like sashimi, udon, soba, and small plates like Japanese fried chicken, and it’s all surprisingly affordable. This might be why it can be tough to get a reservation. Be sure to book in advance.
photo credit: Noah Devereaux
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 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.
photo credit: Michael Tulipan
Not long ago, the only foods you could get at a movie theater were hot dogs, candy, and popcorn covered in a warm liquid inspired by butter. Now there are a bunch of places around the city where you can eat a full meal while you watch something, and Syndicated is our favorite place to do so. It’s in a renovated warehouse space in East Williamsburg, and it has a dining room with a bar where can watch movies like Miss Congeniality or whatever recently-released indie film is being projected on the walls. (There’s also a small theater where you can continue to eat and drink.) Syndicated has several screenings every day, and tickets always cost around $9.