Sometimes, it’s good to look like you’re trying too hard. Like when you’re at work. Or when someone’s telling you about a dream they had recently, and you’re pretending to care. But there are also times when you want to seem a little more nonchalant. When you’re going out with someone and you aren’t sure if it’s a date, for example. Or when you’re meeting up with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and you want to prove that you're still as cool as you were in 2013. Here’s where to do that. All of these places are fairly casual - but they serve food that pretty much anyone should find impressive.
When you suggest Le French Diner for dinner, the person you’re talking to will probably say, “What’s that?” At this point, you can either laugh a little bit or take the high road and explain the fact that Le French Diner is a tiny restaurant on the Lower East Side that more people should know about. It’s in a narrow space on Orchard Street, and despite the fact that it looks more like a semi-divey wine bar than a restaurant, you can get some great steak, escargots, and octopus here.
Windmill is from the same people behind Le French Diner, and like its sister spot, it’s pretty small and unassuming-looking. But its food - like Le French Diner’s - is good enough to make you do whatever the mouth version of a double take is. The menu here is a little shorter (it’s really more of a cocktail bar), but they have things like seared foie gras, crudo, and various grilled skewers. Just keep in mind that it’s cash-only.
Kopitiam looks and feels like a coffee shop, but it has the menu of a full-on restaurant. You order at the counter, choosing from Malaysian dishes like sugary French toast, noodles in anchovy broth, and sweet sticky rice desserts. There are plenty of little tables where you can sit and eat, so it’s a great spot for a casual meal when you want to show someone that you know the Lower East Side better than they do, without having to explicitly say so.
A friend wants to meet at a perfectly fine neighborhood spot where you’ve both been several hundred times. This is an excellent opportunity to suggest Okozushi instead. It’s an omakase-only sushi place in Williamsburg with three options that range from $25 to $45. The sushi here is box-pressed (in other words, it’s rectangular), and they use the same fish for every piece of the omakase, but change up the garnishes to keep things interesting. Also, it’s BYOB - so pick up a bottle of sake on the way to show that you’re trying just the right amount.
Davelle looks like a tiny railroad apartment that was converted into a Japanese restaurant overnight. It’s a charming space with brick walls and chipped white paint, and when you walk inside you’ll see a few big metal contraptions sitting on the bar. These are filled with different types of oden, a Japanese street food cooked in broth that makes up most of the menu (although you do have some other options, like a rich pork curry and a pasta with enough uni to make you feel like a sea otter). If you can get one of the few tables up front, this is a great spot to impress someone who’d rather be in Japan.
Abuqir isn’t the most impressive-looking place. It’s really just a little shop in Astoria with a seafood counter in the back, a couple tables up front, and a few nice dolphin posters on the walls. But you don’t come here for the atmosphere - you come for some of the best seafood you’ll ever eat off a plastic plate. To order, you walk up to the counter, pick out exactly what you want, and then specify how you’d like everything cooked (baked, grilled, fried, etc.). Get shrimp cooked a few different ways, and split a whole fish with someone who didn’t previously know about this place.
There are over 40 different types of skewers at Nonono, and they range from chicken thigh and chicken heart to cherry tomato and a bacon-wrapped soft-boiled egg. Most of them cost $3 or $4, and there’s also a binder full of other reasonably-priced options ranging from ramen to sushi (all of which come out of the kitchen at lightning speed). So bring a date or a couple of friends and cover your table with lots of different things. There might be a short wait when you stop by, but you shouldn’t need a reservation.
Counter-service places are, by definition, casual - which means if you plan a dinner at one, it’ll make you look casual as well. And if you’ve ever seen someone leaning on a car with their hands in their pockets, you know that it’s cool to look casual. So take someone to Glady’s Jerk Center. It’s a counter-service Caribbean spot in Prospect Lefferts Gardens with loud music, a full bar, and two big interconnected dining rooms. They have things like jerk chicken, curry goat, and plantains, and you can have a very good, fun, casual meal here.
Zizi Limona isn’t new or trendy, but it does have great food. It’s a little spot in Williamsburg with a dining room that looks like someone’s apartment, and they serve Mediterranean dishes like falafel, shawarma, and salmon with yogurt and cauliflower. It’s the sort of place you know about if you live in the area - although if you don’t live in the area, now you know about it anyway. Bring a date who thinks they’re aware of every good NYC restaurant, and observe the look of surprise on this person’s face when they try the hummus and realize that they do not, in fact, know everything.
PQR might just be a slice shop, but it’s an exceptional slice shop - and there aren’t too many other places like it in the city. This place serves rectangular, Roman-style pizza, and they usually have around 20 different kinds, with toppings ranging from prosciutto to pumpkin to tuna. While it’s nice to have so many options to choose from, the very best thing about this pizza is the crust. Much like the Grinch or a well-cooked marshmallow, it’s crunchy on the outside and softer on the inside - and you’ll want to eat it plain. There’s also a little back dining room, so stop by for a quick lunch.