The best restaurants in any city are frequently booked up days or even weeks ahead; but you don't need any special juice to eat at many on short notice. Especially if you're alone and don't mind sitting at the bar.
It's immense popularity (tops in Zagat, year in and year out) Union Square Cafe has tended not to change much over the last decade. The service is Danny Meyer hospitality at its best, and the food is never less that solid, if not especially edgy or interesting. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, which is why so many people continue to go there. It's hard to get a reservation, but eating at the bar is a great way to enjoy the place without committing to a whole trip.
Whether you swoon for its 4 star food, or find it, as I do, somewhat over manicured, there is no question that this is one of the great restaurants in America. The room itself has a grandeur that is unmatched and the level of service is unparalelled. So is the price, so maybe come here on an expense account or with a wealthy uncle.
Combining Keith McNally's flawless art direction with co-chefs Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson's equally accomplished cooking, this elevated take on old New York outdoes both its models and its rivals.
Small, swank, and classy, it's hard to believe that a place like this would go to great lengths to make great sushi. Most customers can't tell the difference between good and great if their live depended on it; so why bother? And yet they do, with transcendantly fresh fish, prepared as expertly as anywhere outside a handful of New York sushi temples.
Small and cozy, but with an urbane nonchalance that has become the trademark of Gabriel Stulman, aka the Danny Meyer of the West Village. Like all of the bearded savant's restaurants, it features idiosyncratic, meat-heavy food from a talented young chef, presented alongside a swanky cocktail program in a dimly lit, romantic atmosphere. If on a date, though, a warning: don't order the fried chicken. You'll thank me.
A very fine seafood restaurant in midtown, Oceana largely caters to corporate clients, but it's worth a special trip at night. The room is not exactly bewitching but the place is usually full, and the reason is that it's a kind of Le Bernardin lite, an extremely refined kitchen that spares no expense in sourcing fish from around the world. You can usually get a seat at the bar.
The food at this, the sexiest and least ambitious of Jean Georges Vongerichten's restaurants, is sometimes uneven, under-executed under its veneer of sophistication. But the sheer glamour of this underground lair, peopled with models and the bon vivants who pursue them, is pretty much what you imagined Manhattan restaurants to be like when a child. More movie set than restaurant, this is no place to pop into after shopping. It's date night (or pickup night) all the way.
In a city where wood-burning ovens and rustic Italian food are common, Peasant has an unusually large number of devoted admirers. Maybe because it was the first, or because the atmosphere and food, under the direction of Frank DeCarlo. Getting in can be a hassle, thanks to all the regulars, but you can usually get a seat at the bar.
For many years Ouest has a reputation as "the only good place on the Upper West Side," which, while true, did an injustice to a wonderful restaurant. Ouest was years ahead of its time in serving a richer, more rustic kind of American food in an urbane environment -- not that different, if the truth be told, from what Tom Colicchio was doing downtown at Gramercy and Craft. The neighborhood has come a long way, but Ouest hasn't lost anything in the process, and remains the first choice in the area for a lot of locals.
Jimmy Bradley's The Harrison is more or less a downtown mirror image of his famous Red Cat in Chelsea -- only bigger, better, hipper, and more refined. Bradley, one of the city's great old-school restaurant guys, is an expert hand in both front and back of the house management, and as a result the food -- high quality, nice looking, unadventurous American -- is totally reliable, along with the service. The big bar makes a great place to stop in and have a solo dinner without anybody hassling you.
Craft's first and arguably best spinoff, this restaurant is misnamed. Yes, it has a very big and very accomodating bar but the room itself is gigantic, just as big as Craft, and the menu could by no stretch of the imagination be considered bar fare. It's actually the same kind of simple, painstakingly sourced food as its parent, but a little edgier and a little more dressed down.
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.
Brooklyn's best, more or less, Dressler is a full-on restaurant, complete with a gorgeous, dramatic room, refined greenmarket cooking, and the kind of service you rarely see in the 718. While the Michelin star it received might be a bit of a stretch, there's no question that it's worth the money, given the (non-) competition in Brooklyn. At the very least, you will get service far beyond the borough's famously shitty standards.
Yes, Le Cirque is wildly expensive, and yes, it's not the same Le Cirque that was the center of the universe in the 80s. That said, there is a unique place in New York City for this institution, which defines power dining among the city's deep-pocketed elite. The service is flawless and the food far better than advertised, but if you're not an East Side grandee, you'd do better to eat in the lounge area, where you can experience the place's best qualities without comitting to a major splurge.
It's been through more chefs than Paris Hilton has boyfriends, but this swanky, sexy West Village restaurant has more than enough style to make anyone forget that. The upstairs is gorgeous and the back garden even more so; but even at the bar the "talent" is of stratospheric quality, and both the drinks and the dishes more than worthy.
April Bloomfield seafood sibling to The Breslin next door make for a potent one-two surf-and-turf punch, but they really have very different characters. Where The Breslin is dark and romantic, the John Dory is bright and buzzy, more a place to meet for drinks and oysters than for a romantic dinner for two. In fact, all the dishes are small plates, so as to keep the tables turning and accomodate diners who just want to stop in for some swanky shellfish.
A collaboration between the city's most succesful and stylish new restaurateur, Gabe Stulman, and arguably the most talented young chef in town, Perla manages to be both uninhibitedly meat and also somehow romantic. It's a place you can take a girl on a date and still eat beef tongue and tripe pasta. It can be a little loud but who cares. A must-visit for New Yorkers interested in modern Italian food.