Where to eat in New York? It's a fiendishly difficult question, always asked by travellers and debated endlessly by locals. For New Yorkers, it's a question freighted with an unseemly number of variables. How many in your party? Cheap or expensive? Hip or otherwise? Are there vegetarians? (And to self: do I want to tell this person about a place I keep secret for fear it'll be overrun?)
There is no definitive dining list, for there are too many intriguing options for a one-size-fits-all approach. The list obsession ignores the constant bubble-up of new talent and venues in the city, the steady tectonic movement of neighbourhoods from outliers to hotspots, and the sheer extent of quality in the quantity.
But still the question is asked and asked again, and so here's my entirely subjective, thoroughly digested and exhaustively researched non-list. In other words, my favourites at this moment.
For the adventurous
Getting the right people in the right place can make you feel like a matchmaker in a minefield. I might not send my parents, but I'd certainly send anybody with even a modicum of adventurousness to M. Wells Dinette at MoMA PS1, the Museum of Modern Art's experimental outpost in Long Island City. Chef Hugue Dufour hails from the Québécois hinterlands north of Montréal, and conjures French-inflected food that manages to walk a tightrope of urban sophistication and deep rural gutsiness. A perfectly executed and generous portion of bacon-wrapped rabbit terrine, luscious and flavourful and cold, is served with a smear of mustard (classic) and pistachio purée (who knew?). The pork chop is better than the name implies: a crépinette with a bone stuck in it, not a bland slice of loin meat. It's something that's either very old school or oddly new but, regardless, very good to eat. Salads are aggressively fresh, larded with herbs and bitter leaves. Desserts, typically in a throwback mode, teeter on the edge of abandon. Lunch - the meal you will most likely eat at M. Wells - might take care of your caloric needs for the day.
PS1 is an old public school turned into a museum for the newest of new art; its dinette faces a courtyard and is fashioned as a school room, in which smaller parties sit side by side at school desks stocked with crayons and paper for doodling. Wander up to the third floor after lunch for some contemplative digestion while gazing at the sky through a square hole in the ceiling of a room called Meeting, a permanent installation by the artist James Turrell.
But maybe you're eating with folks who want to eat pork chops that are pork chops - it happens to all of us. Maybe there's business to be done and a steak is in order.
For fancy meat
New York is an epicentre of aged-beef consumption. Want a classic, brusque New York steakhouse experience, with Martinis cold enough to freeze a baby penguin and large enough to bathe one in? Peter Luger, in Brooklyn, is widely recommended for such an occasion (though get the burger at lunch), but Keens Steakhouse, near Madison Square Garden in Midtown, is more handsome and, as the kids say, more better: the menu pitted with fewer potholes, the vibe more congenial. The hulking mutton chop is a thing of ovine legend; get the half portion.
The best steakhouse in the city at the moment isn't exactly a steakhouse, but the vaguely Germanic restaurant Prime Meats in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The cocktail guys here are part of the bespoke-moustache/steam-punk-revivalist wave, which means the drink names will be arcane (Ziggy's Lament and Friend of the Devil come to mind) and the tipples themselves will be stiff and bracing and fascinating and easy to knock back. At the table, start with briny, fresh oysters from a few hours east of the city, because oysters prime the body for steak like nothing else, and just-baked soft pretzels, which you will eat ravenously, tempering their oven-fresh hot-alkaline tang with dollops of spicy-sweet Dusseldorf-style mustard. And then there will be steak: a giant côte de boeuf, dry-aged into mineral funkiness, as black and blue as you can take it. The fries are a worthy sideshow and, should your ranks be numerous enough or your gullet unfillable, there is a sausage of dry-aged trimmings that's excellent for nights when the $142 steak is too much for the wallet to bear.
Things Americans eat a lot of
Prime Meats also serves my favourite hamburger in the city. It's a cartoon-perfect example of a US hamburger: beet-free, on a sesame-seed bun baked in-house, with a sour house-made pickle or three. It's smaller and less ostentatious than the very estimable steakhouse burger at Minetta Tavern. This lacquered brioche bun with a "secret blend" of minced beef from a local purveyor costs as much as an actual steak at other restaurants. I wouldn't deal with the prime-time reservation hoopla but after 10pm it's a fine place to have on your radar.
The original location of Shake Shack, in Madison Square Park, serves the city's finest fast-foodish burger: the Double Shackburger's thin patties are stacked between two halves of a potato roll from Martin's in Pennsylvania, the nation's - possibly the world's - finest manufacturer of the squishy and slightly sweet rolls.
America does not subsist on hamburgers alone. In many Southern pockets there is a patriotic adherence to barbecue, which, just to be clear, is not a reference to the grill but to secondary cuts transformed by low and slow cooking over wood. Brisket Town, a small and austere eatery at the southern end of Williamsburg's main drag, serves a version of Hill Country barbecue that a Texan purist couldn't fault: brisket tamed into quivering tenderness, lightly smoky and crusted with peppercorns.
Fried chicken, another Southern staple, has become about as common as yellow cars in New York in recent years, and the best to be had is from The Commodore, a rock 'n' roll bar in Williamsburg. There's no reason to suspect it would be worth eating here - you order from the bartender and the crowd has generally come to drink, not dine - but chef Stephen Tanner runs a guileless kitchen. It's simple, it's great, it's cheap. I once asked him the secret to his fried chicken and he told me: "I shake it in a bag with some flour." Get the greens.
The best place in New York to get what I'd call "American cuisine" - seasonal cooking, unhitched to any particular culinary heritage but drawing freely from them all - is not in New York at all but across the Hudson River at Thirty Acres in Jersey City. Kevin Pemoulie, who headed Momofuku Noodle Bar and worked at Tom Colicchio's Craft Bar before that, takes the classic American Thanksgiving holiday spread of turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing and distils it into a dish of quail - all the flavours of the holiday in a portion small enough to allow dessert. He composes raw fish dishes that are pristine and gorgeous and very often include some sort of quotidian ingredient that shows off his talent to balance flavour and humour.
On the wild side
I've been warned there's no reason to send an Australian gastronome out for Chinese food in New York City, but Mission Chinese Food is something else altogether, and one of the best flavour-to-dollar propositions going at the moment. Though the "design" of the restaurant brings to mind an abandoned communist Chinese strip club crammed into a municipal bus in disrepair, the food makes everything else melt away - sometimes literally, as is the case with fried chicken wings dusted in a fiery Sichuan peppercorn/five-spice powder. The menu changes frequently, pulling in influences from wherever chef Danny Bowien's head is at that moment: Nordic nods to René Redzepi, a batter for fried crab borrowed from Heston Blumenthal, sticky sweet 1950s Polynesian flavours, all glued together with a faux Sichuanese accent. And if you go, I want to implore you with eyes as glassy and demanding as Dennis Hopper's in Apocalypse Now to "get the salt-cod fried rice, man".
It's poet-warrior fried rice in the classic sense… Go up the river.
For special occasions
Maybe that's not the trip you want. Perhaps you will want to visit the sorts of places that my Roman Catholic upbringing makes me want to lump together as the Stations of the Cross, places included in guide books as reliably as John 3:16 is in scripture, and that are, for some, places of necessary pilgrimage. (These are what I think of as honey-anniversary-birthday-moon restaurants, where New Yorkers rarely eat or send their friends.) Some are to be avoided entirely: the depth of regret you will experience after visiting One if by Land, Two if by Sea for a "romantic dinner," or Carnegie Deli for a deli sandwich, or the neighbourhood of Little Italy for anything other than a trip to the Di Palo dairy store, could be paralysing. Instead, replace One if by Land with Prune, Carnegie with Katz's, and opt for a sandwich at Parm or a banh mi at Saigon Vietnamese Sandwich Deli.
At the top of the food pyramid are the city's temples of haute cuisine, the ranks of which change about as frequently as the Sphinx's expression. Daniel is New York's connection to the upper echelons of Lyonnaise gastronomy. Le Bernardin is a variant with a seafood focus and a more inclusive view of international ingredients; the sommelier, Aldo Sohm, is a hero to the vinously inclined. Jean-Georges is the lightest and most international "French" cuisine of these three French restaurants, with a dining room that is particularly airy and elegant at lunch.
Thomas Keller practises an east-coast version of his French Laundry cooking at Per Se in one of the more stunning restaurants opened in a mall. Eleven Madison Park offers rich French food spiked with modernist touches and playful nods to New York, and is situated in an Art Deco room that would be worthy of hosannas of praise even if all they gave you were a folding chair, a stale bagel and a bottle of cream soda. Glorious, my mother might call it.
I have an active dislike for the décor at Del Posto, a hyper-fancy and widely celebrated Italian restaurant owned by Mario Batali. The nouveau riche dining room is sumptuous and exceedingly comfortable, but it looks a little too much like a place where Meadow Soprano would have celebrated her débutante ball for my taste. No matter. If eating well is the goal and frippery is a desired side course, it's the top of the top of the heap, a place with jaw-droppingly delicious food that is made with meticulous and masterful technique.
I like to sneak in and sit at the bar, sans reservation, for a meal that is less structured and formal than the seated extravaganza. Either way, the highlights are the same: chef Mark Ladner prepares a near visionary take on Italian cuisine all his own. There always seems to be an interpretation of vitello tonnato around - make sure you have it - and his pastas are uniformly exceptional. Brooks Headley, the pastry chef, makes desserts that are as subversive as they are seasonal, finding ways to turn a salty rhubarb confection into something as craveable as chocolate chip cookies. Meals at Del Posto end with a stunning finale of petits fours and mignardises and such a threatening flotilla of little sweet things that I'm not sure the French even have words for them all.
Another fine option in the fine dining realm is WD~50, a restaurant at the vanguard of creative cooking in New York City for a decade. Wylie Dufresne's food remains boundary-pushing even after all this time; the kitchen has an insatiable drive to create new techniques and possesses an open-mindedness about flavour combinations that borders on the unhinged. And so eggs appear with a texture like a soft caramel or, one of my favourites, a sturdy cylindrical tower of foie gras torchon arrives, from which issues forth a gush of liquid - sometimes nori-flavoured - when you cut into it. That dish and other cherrypicked favourites from past menus are available on the shorter "From the Vault" menu. There are two tasting menus and à la carte is available at the bar.
Alex Stupak was the pastry chef of WD~50 for a year before he dismounted the high-wire of modernist cooking and tumbled into Mexican cuisine. At Empellón Cocina in the West Village he cooks taquería food in a traditionalist vein; this is where Stupak marries the kind of cooking he did at WD~50 and Chicago's Alinea to his passion for Mexican cuisine and gets the most interesting results.
Mario Carbone spent time at WD~50, too, though you'd never guess it at Carbone, one of the newer restaurants in the growing list of places he operates with his co-chef Rich Torrisi. (I like both of Carbone's predecessors: the aforementioned Parm for hearty sandwiches and fried mozzarella sticks; and Torrisi Italian Specialties for inventive modern Italian-American). Carbone is a throwback to an era of Italian-American cuisine that may or may not have existed: upscale, tony takes on trencherman gutbusters. If you want to eat what they ate in the Godfather movies, in the era when the mob was sexy and powerful and dangerous, then this is the place for you. The waiters are decades older than at any other place on my list, gruff gentlemen who know how to orchestrate a meal. The menu is a list of the sort of dishes that end up on airline menus - rigatoni with vodka sauce, veal parmesan and the like - cooked with finesse and enough amore to make them memorable.
For coffee and breakfast
Both Torrisi and Carbone worked under Andrew Carmellini while he ran the legendary kitchen at Café Boulud (still there, still good). Carmellini has three restaurants of his own now, including Lafayette, a grand brasserie. The rôtisserie chicken for two at dinner is simple, comforting and herbaceous, served with excellent potatoes that soak up all that rendering schmaltz. I'm in love with the room, lined with windows, tiled and painted and woodworked in a way that places aren't any more; it looks a million bucks in a city full of million-dollar restaurants. My daughter and I wander here at 7.30am when the café opens for coffee, glassine croissants, refined breads and other baked goods from the boulangerie.
Abraço Espresso, a shop that's only a little bigger than the average glove compartment, is my favourite coffee shop. They have some kind of black magic formula for iced coffee; the cappuccinos and its cousins are always perfectly proportioned. Elizabeth Quijada, the baker, cook and co-owner, makes an ethereally rich potatoless variation on tortilla Española that is sold by the wedge. They serve an ever-rotating selection of mature and not overly sugared sweets, often flavoured with Levantine ingredients such as olives, rosemary or rosewater.
The quality of coffee in New York has skyrocketed in the past decade and quality shops have proliferated. Download The New York Times's app The Scoop and let it guide you to great caffeination near you.
On particularly penitent mornings, or days when I feel like I need a power dose of fruits and vegetables and have cash to spend, I head to Melvin's Juice Box, possibly the world's most expensive rasta-themed snack bar. A steady stream of models and their ilk files in, juicing and nodding their heads to the music, which is streamed from the attached reggae shop, record shop and radio station. My move here is always the Rise Up: $10 of bananas, strawberries, pineapples, honey and wheatgrass, puréed and served with a straw.
The more classic approach would be to break the fast in a bastion of Jewish cuisine. Russ & Daughters offers no seating, but what it does offer - bagels, lox, pickled herring and chopped liver - is pretty much the best of the best in the category of morning noshes. On the Upper West Side, reasonably close to the American Museum of Natural History, Barney Greengrass is an older spot that wears its age beautifully. It has all the standards plus a dish of smoked sturgeon and scrambled eggs married with a tangle of sweetly cooked-down onions that is just so much more than the sum of its parts.
Mile End Sandwich Shop's Beauty - a cream cheese and lox sandwich served on a bialy (the bagel's lesser known but more intriguing sister) - is another worthy entry in the category.
The worldwide proliferation of pizza has as much to do with New York as it does with Naples, and so it makes sense there are worthy places to visit. DiFara is a one-man show.
Dom DeMarco makes the pizze one at a time at his cornershop pizzeria, as he has for decades, moving with all the speed of a marble statue. The wait can be interminable, but the pizze can be transcendent: each hand-picked, hand-placed basil leaf lending perfection to the pizza.
The waits can also be interminable at Roberta's, though here the attraction is pizze with dirty puns for names and creative combinations of toppings. The larger menu is overseen by Carlo Mirarchi, whose smart and seasonal cooking has won him awards and attention. Roberta's started out as a cinderblock building in a liminal neighbourhood and grew to take over a vacant lot next door, then another industrial building next to it, and now the place is a mutant hipster campus with a beer-drinking tent, shipping containers with herbs and lettuces growing on top, an internet food radio station and a 12-seat showcase for Mirarchi's cooking called Blanca.
The set-up and the impossibility of finding a seat at Blanca bring to mind Ko, the fanciest of the ever-growing tangle of eateries owned by David Chang. The bowl of roast duck on rice for lunch at Ssäm Bar is the Momofuku meal I eat the most frequently (no lines, no waiting!): it's made on a rôtisserie, with forcemeat stuffed between skin and flesh and soaked in a maltose-and-soy Cantonese-ish glaze. And the high-tech wizardry that goes on behind the bar at Booker and Dax, at the back of Ssäm - such as the wanton deployment of liquid nitrogen and the use of a scorching cattle prod of a gadget called a "red hot poker" - pays off with staggeringly strong and delicious drinks.
Tørst will quench the thirst of Euro-beer geeks. Terroir and Pearl & Ash will tickle the fancies of wine geeks. Attaboy is the new incarnation of the space that was once Milk & Honey, the bar that put the speakeasy trend on the world map and launched a generation of cocktail-makers on their mixological path.
Sam Ross, an Australian, was a bartender at Milk & Honey and is one of the folks behind Attaboy. Belly up to his bar, order a Brooklyn, and have him tell you what else has opened since this story went to print, and where I went wrong in my recommendations. If there's one thing that's eternally true about New York and eating out, it's that everybody has an opinion.
+ Peter Meehan is an editor of Lucky Peach magazine and lives in New York.