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.
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. In fact, 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.
Right across the street from Al Di La is Haenyeo, which serves really good Korean food -- from traditional options like kimchi pancakes and bibimbap, to more fusion-y dishes like rice cake fundido (the best thing on the menu). The corner space feels fancier than most other spots in the neighborhood, and is a good option for date night or a group dinner. There tend to be waits, but they’re not as long as the ones at Al Di La.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Blueprint.
Sugarfish is a popular, relatively affordable sushi chain from Los Angeles, and this is the first of their two locations in NYC. It’s in the Flatiron District, 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. So 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.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Wined Up.
Sure, your significant other has reminded you every day for the last two weeks to make a reservation for date night, but you just never quite got around to it. Instead of risking a polite argument like the one from Valentine’s Day two years ago, head to Fiaschetteria Pistoia in the West Village. Dinner at this tiny Italian spot kind of feels like a romantic meal in your apartment, except for the fact that the food isn’t burnt or delivered from somewhere else. Split some small plates, cacio e pepe, and a $30 liter of wine, and it’ll seem like it was your plan to come here all along.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Marie’s Crisis.
What Fiascheterria Pistoia is to Italian food in the West Village, Le French Diner is to French food on the Lower East Side. It’s a tiny space, with about ten bar seats and three tables, and it feels like a secret bistro only you know about. The French food is simple but excellent, and it’s a great option for a last-minute dinner with a friend or date.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Bar Goto.
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 are cooked in a big oven behind the bar, are all excellent as well.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Three Diamond Door.
Besides waiting your turn to address the UN, there aren’t a ton of things worth killing time for in Midtown East. But that’s exactly what you should do when you’re faced with the inevitable wait for a table at Cafe China. This place serves some of the best Sichuan food in Manhattan, and you’ll want to try as many things as possible from the long menu, so bring a group and get drinks at The Shakespeare or The Ginger Man until your table is ready.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Ginger Man.
When you’re looking to have a night out in Meatpacking, you probably want a reservation for dinner. After all, you’re a bit too dressed-up to kill time drinking margaritas with tourists at the bar in Dos Caminos. But RH Rooftop is an exception, and even though the waits at this American spot on the roof of Restoration Hardware can be long, there’s plenty to keep you entertained without even leaving the building. Take the all-glass elevator to any of the huge store’s five floors, and try not to cough up your wine when you peek at the price tags on the plush couches and giant mirrors. Once you do get a table, you’ll eat some good food, like a deluxe version of a fast-food burger or some roasted chicken drenched in jus.
If There’s A Wait (And You Want To Leave The Premises), Drink At: The Biergarten at The Standard.
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 both affordable and very enjoyable.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Forgtmenot.
You were planning on just heading home after work and eating half of a meat-lovers’ pizza or some two-day-old pad thai. But then your super told you that he’d be testing out the new fire alarms sometime between 6 and 10pm. One of our favorite spots for a last-second solo meal, especially when you want something other than a burger (and you’re by yourself), is this little spot in Prospect Heights. 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 that’s packed with crawfish, or the $16 special that includes gumbo and a po’ boy.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Covenhoven.
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, get a drink next door at Franks Wine Bar, where you can also order from the whole Frankies 457 menu.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Franks Wine Bar.
Kiki’s has some of the best people-watching on the LES, and it also has some very good, affordable Greek food. Come with a date or a group, share some octopus and pork chops, and definitely explore the house wines, which are $24 per liter and come in carafes that could be used to water plants.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: 169 Bar.
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 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, though, so have one, then spend the rest of your money on food.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Ten Degrees.
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: to celebrate something with a giant platter of raw fish that you probably can’t afford but refuse not to have.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Handy Liquor Bar.
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. The ramen here is delicious, the pork buns will never not be worth eating, and keep an eye on whatever specials they have on the board. Bring some friends from out of town. They’ll be impressed.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: The Immigrant.
Because Via Carota is walk-in only, the bar 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, operated by the same owner, for a drink.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Bar Sardine.
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-served, and both are highly recommended.
If There’s A Wait, Drink At: Huckleberry Bar.
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-served seat in the back garden or at the bar, where they serve the full menu. Needless to say, you can’t go wrong with any of the pizzas, but the Bee Sting with soppressata, chili, and honey is a must-order.
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 $24. 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.