Did you forget to reserve a table for tonight? Or did you make last-minute plans with someone who'll judge you based on your choice of restaurant? Don't just panic and book whatever place alphabetically shows up first on OpenTable. Try one of these spots that don't take reservations. Some of these places might have a wait when you stop by, but they aren't especially tough to get into (except for the last), and they're all worth leaving your house for.
Astoria Seafood is part seafood market, part restaurant, and it's one of our favorite places for a casual group meal in the city. When you get here, you walk to the big seafood display in the back, bag what you want (squid, razor clams, a whole branzino, etc.), then hand everything to a cashier and tell them how you want it cooked. Do this correctly, and you should wind up with a massive spread of grilled, fried, and olive oil-splashed fish and crustaceans. Be sure to bring a bottle of wine (since this place is BYOB), and get here early if you don't want to have to wait for a table.
photo credit: Kate Previte
Bernie's feels like the kind of place where everyone should know your name. Unfortunately this Greenpoint restaurant stays pretty busy, so the staff here can't possibly remember the name of every person they encounter. If you haven't been yet, come for a burger at the bar, or eat some mozzarella sticks and baby back ribs in a booth with your friends. Bernie's is pretty much a better, alternate-universe version of TGI Fridays, and you should make regular appearances in the dim, tavern-like space.
photo credit: David A. Lee
For a casual sit-down meal on the Upper West Side, you could always go to The Smith—but if you'd rather not eat the same burger for the millionth time while listening to some young professionals discuss key metrics, try Bánh. This bright, friendly Vietnamese spot serves some of the best bánh mi in the city, in addition to phở, bún chả, and a bunch of daily specials that are always worthwhile.
For All Things Good is one of our go-to spots for a daytime meal. This casual Mexican cafe in Bed-Stuy makes its own masa, and you can stop by and have a breakfast tlayudita before grabbing a pack of fresh tortillas on your way out. But there's also a dinner menu with a bunch of tacos, quesadillas, and sopes. Order at the counter, then take your food to a table on the sidewalk, and feel free to supplement your meal with a cocktail (such as one of the frozen ones).
Do you like chicken and wine? If so, you'll enjoy The Fly. This Bed-Stuy wine bar from the people behind Hart's and Cervo's mostly just serves rotisserie chicken (as well as a few sides), and you should pair that chicken with a chilled red from Slovenia. Bring a friend or a date and hang out at the big U-shaped bar, or come with a group and see if you can claim one of the booths. This place always feels like a party, but in a non-rowdy, Ina-Garten sort of way.
photo credit: Emily Schindler
Noodle Pudding is one of the most charming restaurants in NYC, and it happens to be on one of the most charming streets in Brooklyn. The next time you want to feel like you're on the set of a '90s sitcom in which the main characters frequent the same spot and have alarmingly few concerns, try this old-school Brooklyn Heights Italian place. Bring cash, order the fritto misto, and pretend that you're a regular.
photo credit: Sugarfish by Sushi Nozawa
Sugarfish is a popular, relatively affordable sushi chain from Los Angeles, and it now has a few locations in NYC. The one in the Flatiron District was the first, and it gets extremely busy—probably because New Yorkers aren’t used to pretty-good sushi that isn’t super expensive. Also, gratuity is included. Provided 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.
photo credit: Teddy Wolff
Le French Diner
Le French Diner is secretly one of the best restaurants on the Lower East Side, and it's the sort of place you should casually mention in conversation if you want to be able to say, "Oh, you've never heard of it before?" The space is tiny, with about ten bar seats and three tables, and it feels like a bistro that only you know about. The French food is simple but excellent, and this is a great option for a last-minute dinner with a friend or date.
Wu’s is one of our favorite group dinner options in Chinatown. It’s BYO, so feel free to put a bottle (or a case) of riesling in an ice bucket next to your big, lazy-Susan-topped table. You’ll definitely want to share a lot of dishes here, because the menu is huge and everything—from wonton soup that comes in a massive bowl to whole fried crabs—is very enjoyable.
photo credit: Teddy Wolff
This little spot in Prospect Heights is of our top places for a last-second solo meal, especially when you want something other than a burger. Sit at the bar, drink unusual craft beers while watching servers shuck oysters, and eat some really good New Orleans-inspired food, like a spicy etouffee or a surf and turf po' boy.
Kiki’s has some of the best people-watching on the LES, and it also has some very good, straightforward Greek food. Come with a date or a group, share some octopus and pork chops, and definitely explore the house wines, which are generally affordable and come in carafes that could be used to water plants. There'll be a wait when you stop by, but just kill some time at one of the million bars within walking distance. That's what they're there for.
At Thursday Kitchen, you won’t find any dish that’s over $20. Plus, you can get a cocktail that comes in a glowing pouch. So this is 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 (or other Korean small plates), and everyone can get their own shiny pouch drink. They’re pretty much liquid candy, though, so have one, then spend the rest of your money on food.
Lucali is walk-in only. But you probably already knew that. This is one of the top pizza places in NYC, and if you want to eat here, you should arrive at 4pm and put your name on the wait list. It's worth it. Just don't forget to bring cash, and keep in mind that Lucali is BYOB.