We've all felt the status anxiety of listening to tales of some magical place that everybody but us seems to have been to. But really, how much would you really enjoy it? It's a lacuna, not a luxury. So here are a bunch of places I give you permission to not return to once you've done the obligatory meal there.
Mario Batali's flagship hasn't lost its fastball; its vivid, ballsy take on Italian food continues to constantly change and impress.
There are Nobus all over the place now, and they are no different than the New York original -- because the original wasn't very New York. But then, it wasn't Japanese or Peruvian either. It was and is a unique vision of one man, and the flavors don't taste like anyone else's. And if you aren't into the ceviche, the sushi is some of the best in town.
Anita Lo's critically lauded Asian food takes aim for, and hits, the sensibilities of serious gastronomes. The food is mature, delicate, elegant, and not that much fun. The cooking is calibrated to be just so perfect in every bite, to look beautiful, to make sense (foie gras soup dumplings = east / west, luxury / poverty). But it comes in tiny portions and doesn't deliver the kind of whallop a certain kind of vulgarian (i.e. me) likes most at dinner. But it's a great place to take a lady of a certain age, or a visiting chef or food writer.
The most ambitious, elaborate, and expensive of the Mario Batali group of restaurants, Del Posto offers superb food, wine, and service, but there's no question that the room's size and formality are more than a little intimidating. It looks, and feels, like nothing so much as the main dining room of a vintage ocean liner. Eating at the bar is the way to go here.
The odd name dates back to its origin as a fairly unambitious kind of Korean Chipotle, but those days are long gone. David Chang's culinary atelier has become a creative force in New York, and while not everything it serves is sure to be great, you won't find anyplace else like it. Go for the fried chicken if it's available; the "bo ssam" pork shoulder is overpriced.
The food, like the room, is somewhat austere here, but if you are a serious student of gastronomy, you probably can't afford not to see what chef Paul Liebrandt is up to -- such is his influence and reputation among New York chefs.
The city's coolest vegetarian restaurant is wholly a product of Amanda Cohen, the spunky chef who redefined what meatless cooking could be like through her embrace of modern technique and the liberal use of butter and cream. (Don't ever mistake Dirt Candy for vegan.) It's small to the point of being cramped and by no means cheap, but if, like me, you have vegetarian food, come here and change your mind.
Widely regarded as the best of that large body of ultra-artisanal pizzerias dedicated to the Napoletana style of small, wood-fired pies, Motorino is great (if you like that style.)
Universally hailed as one of the greatest exhibitions of culinary genius in the USA, this small chef's counter (there are only 18 seats) showcases Cesar Ramirez's exquisite food, but it also asks a lot from its customers, who are required to sit in reverential silence for hours, barely talking, never taking pictures, etc. etc. By all accounts it's the sort of meal nobody goes to twice -- more a touchstone for gastrocrats than a meal to look forward to. At the same time, by all accounts Ramirez is a genius.
David Bouley hasn't been in the news much lately but he's a titan of New York dining, and has continued, through lo these many years to present some of the most elegant and precise food in the country at his flagship restaurant. He has a special affinity with seafood and vegetables, so it's a great place to take light eaters, but the meats are great too in their own way.
The title "best Thai restaurant in New York" has been Sripraphai's by default for many years, but is it really? It's very good, but not too challenging, and its best days are behind it.
Atera is far and away New York's most advanced venture into the world of foraged modernist cooking, of the kind found at European chef meccas like Mugaritz and Noma. Not everybody likes it but everyone has to go once.