Where should we have dinner?
Because I was a restaurant critic for many years, I get asked that question all the time. Those asking aren’t generally looking to be told about well-known or trendy spots where the prices are high and, sometimes, the attitude obnoxious. They want to know about comfortable, well-priced establishments that attract a following of regulars.
So, for anyone interested, here is my first list of ten favorite places in New York to have a reliably good meal in a pleasant atmosphere. As other places are discovered or as I remember some I’ve forgotten at the moment, I will add further postings in this category. And I’ll also be suggesting places of note wherever I happen to find them outside of Manhattan.
Le Veau d’Or
129 East 60th Street (between Park and Lexington Avenues)
Opened in 1937, Le Veau d’Or was still, in the early seventies, one of the most glamorous spots in Manhattan. It was popular with the then-current cognoscenti, the Women’s Wear Daily, ladies who lunch crowd of that moment. By the mid-eighties, however, those seeking to see and be seen had moved on and so had a lot of other people. If truth be told, the place had gotten a little sad, a little dreary.
But never underestimate a golden calf.
Thanks to a relocated Bostonian pal, I revisited this classic French restaurant and now I can’t return often enough. Owner Robert Treboux presides over a room that still maintains the traditional bistro style it had in the past. The menu, although perhaps not as inventive or ambitious as in the glory days when Craig Claiborne awarded it four stars, delivers some of the most pleasant traditional French fare in town: celeri remoulade, artichaut vinaigrette, escargots in lots of garlicky butter, bœuf bourguignon, saumon froid. Mmmm. Delicious. Indeed, this menu transports you instantly to the most comfortable and tasty corners of French cuisine.
Also worth noting: Catherine Treboux, the good-looking, charming, and vivacious daughter of the elderly propriétaire, adds a real sparkle to the place. She welcomes people to the restaurant with sincere warmth and a twinkle in her eye. Interestingly enough, celebrities can still be spotted from time to time: Neil Simon, I. M. Pei, Liz Smith, Iris Love.
My Boston friend was right. Le Veau d’Or recently received the James Beard award in the classic restaurant category. It’s good and, most importantly in these economic times, reasonably priced.
1748 First Avenue (between 90th and 91st Streets)
This small and cozy old-fashioned Italian restaurant is presided over by Mark Petrillo, whose father opened the original Pinocchio Ristorante at 168 East 81st in 1975. That Pinocchio evolved into a large and comfortably elegant place, popular with a well-heeled and well-dressed Upper East Side crowd. In 1995, Mark and his wife decided to follow their own dream: to close the restaurant, move to Tiburon, California, and open a place in San Anselmo.
Alas, after two years, Mark discovered what many others had: there’s no place like New York.
Unfortunately, the old space was not available (it’s seen several incarnations since) and Pinocchio resurfaced in a long storefront ten blocks north and three blocks east. But the good news is that the food is as wonderful as it ever was, the welcome is as warm, and if anything, the current setting, albeit less glamorous, is even more gemütlich: gentle lighting, a soft soundtrack of opera in the background, and well-prepared regional Italian food. What could be more comforting than a smoked Sicilian tuna appetizer followed by penne with Italian sausage and broccoli rabe? The eggplant parmigiana is sinfully good and when meatballs and spaghetti are on the menu it would be foolish to ignore them.
And by the way, Mark’s homemade Italian cheesecake may be the best in town. It’s well worth every calorie.
386 Third Avenue (between 27th and 28th Streets)
Started in 1992 by the affable businessman Ilgar Peker, this restaurant charms as much today as when it first opened. With its lipstick red walls and flattering lighting, the ambience is both exotic and romantic. And the food! Delicious. The fried calamari is arguably the best to be found on the island of Manhattan and all the Turkish specialities are consistently first-rate. My personal favorites: homemade yogurt with chopped cucumber, mashed eggplant with herbs, and the chargrilled cubes of chicken breast and mushrooms on a skewer. There’s also a splendid Akdeniz Levrek Izgara (Mediterranean whole sea bass). For dessert, try the almond pudding.
By the way, for those who enjoy trying specialty cocktails, this restaurant pours two which are particularly delicious: Turkish Kitchen Martini and Bosphorus Martini. Invented by long-time maitre d’ Hakan Ercenik, these drinks go down as easily as health-giving fruit juice. Be careful. They can be lethal.
Garden Court Cafe
Asia Society and Museum
725 Park Avenue (Between 70th and 71st Streets)
This may well be the most beautiful and tranquil spot for lunch in all of Manhattan. With its towering ceilings, tall, sinewy trees and hushed ambience, it is the perfect island of serenity, far from the madding crowd. The food, presentation, and service are all deserving of this setting. Worth sampling: the bento box with its curried chicken salad, jasmine rice, and two chef’s selections; and what just might be the most delicious turkey burger you’ve ever tasted.
Pure Food and Wine
54 Irving Place (between 17th and 18th Streets)
The idea of a restaurant that serves only raw vegan food may be initially off-putting to some but that prejudice should be shed. Particularly in fine weather, when the gorgeous and huge back terrace is open, Pure Food and Wine is one of the most satisfying and pleasant places to eat in town. Consider just some of the offerings: zucchini, local roma and heirloom tomato lasagna; sweet corn and cashew tamales with chili spiced portabella mushrooms; and, for dessert, lemon cheesecake with blackberries. Everything tasted has been exquisitely delicious and, amazingly, both raw and vegan.
688 Columbus Avenue (between 93rd and 94th Streets)
Crowded? Yes. Noisy? Yes. But how could you have an authentic Mexican fiesta without those two ingredients? And Gabriela’s is a Mexican fiesta. The story goes, and I’ve no reason to doubt it, that the original Gabriela was the cook for a well-to-do gentleman and that he encouraged her to open a restaurant. This incarnation is the current result of that encouragement and although now run by the real Gabriela’s nephew, it is still delightful.
Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecote
590 Lexington Avenue at 52nd Street
Salad, steak (cooked according to your instructions), and dessert. That’s the menu at this pleasant midtown restaurant and since you’re offered second helpings, there’s plenty of time to reflect on what a good deal you’re being given before deciding on dessert. For vegetarians and those who don’t fancy steak, there’s a pleasant cheese platter.
309 East 83rd Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues)
In 1998, when Donguri first opened and was run by a charming Japanese couple (Shuji Fujita was the chef and his lovely wife Michiko served the guests), it was truly special–a tiny Asian country restaurant that somehow materialized on the Upper East Side. Unfortunately, the chef had severe back problems and he and his spouse returned home to Kyushu, Japan in 2005. Little Donguri was then bought by prestigious Ito En, a multinational beverage company specializing in tea production. Although perhaps no longer quite so special, the restaurant is still very good and certainly worth seeking out by those interested in excellent Japanese fare.
26 East 84th Street (between Fifth and Madison Avenues)
The perfect place for really very good contemporary Italian food in the neighborhood of the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim. The appetizer salads, thin-crusted pizzas, and assorted main courses are all first-rate. Personal favorites: a tropical salad of romaine lettuce, hearts of palm, corn, avocado, and tomatoes; first-rate gazpacho; a prosciutto di Parma pizza with sliced tomatoes, pesto, and mozzarella; and organic salmon on a bed of lentils. Caffe Grazie manages to be both stylish and comfortable.
Tea & Sympathy
108 Greenwich Avenue at Jane Street
Shepherd’s pie, Welsh rarebit, bangers and mash, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding for Sunday dinner. This tiny West Village gem is a bit of home (more Huddersfield than London) for transplanted Brits and serious Anglophiles hungry for a taste of Her Majesty’s island kingdom. They don’t take reservations, and the entire party must be assembled before they’ll seat you, but if you can manage to go at slightly off-hours, this should present no problem. And for those who fancy a real afternoon tea, their offering at $35 per person is brilliant!