My Favorite Manhattan Restaurants

20 March 2014

Whenever I tell someone new that I like food (or one of my friends calls me out on it), I almost always get asked what my favorite restaurant in the city is. I never know exactly how to answer this question, because the answer depends on so many different variables. So inevitably, I make a weak excuse about how there are so many restaurants I like, and then try to quickly change the subject.

Well, no more: this post has my favorite restaurants and bars based on the kind of experience you might want in a meal, or by taste within a certain cuisine. This only covers Manhattan (except the "Favorite Foodie Adventure" category), because I admit that I haven't explored the other boroughs of NYC enough. And, my categories definitely reflect the kinds of food I like (and hence eat a lot), so no value judgments are intended when I include or omit certain types of cuisines.

By Experience:

Favorite Foodie Adventure: Smorgasburg

It's probably telling that I call going one stop into Brooklyn an "adventure", but Smorgasburg is a lot of fun and feels just far enough to be exotic (maybe it's all the hipsters?). The entire lot is buzzing with an energy that is only produced when foodies are confronted with too many choices and have the frantic realization that they can only try so many different kinds of foods. A trip is not necessarily cheap for food from stalls, but to maximize the experience, I suggest bringing a couple of friends to execute the divide-and-conquer(-and-share) technique.

Favorite Date Spot: ABC Kitchen

This restaurant wins points for really cool decor / atmosphere (they're affiliated with a designer furniture store), great service, and really creative combinations of flavors in their dishes. It feels nice enough (and is pricey enough) to impress, without completely breaking the bank. It's the best possible outcome for "New American" cuisine - familiar ingredients put together in novel ways that work.

Close 2nd: Socarrat Paella Bar - Notable for some of the best paella I've ever had, plus tapas options for the daintier eaters. More affordable, and better for a more casual date.

Favorite Weekend Afternoon Hangout: Teariffic

Tucked into one of the busiest streets in Chinatown, this cafe has a wide menu of tea, bubble tea, and creative mixed tea drinks. They also have tasty snack-sized Taiwanese dishes. It's a great place to hang out with a small group of friends (no more than 6) for an afternoon drink and snack.

Favorite Splurge Meal: Eleven Madison Park

For that rare special occassion, New York City has way too many choices for restuarants where the price tag makes you feel like it should be super extra tasty, but you leave with a vague unease that you're not sophisticated enough to "understand" the food. Eleven Madison Park (a Danny Meyer restaurant) is in that price range, but makes the experience a lot more fun and approachable - at one point, we had a picnic table on our table, and there's supposedly always an 'interactive' course. It also doesn't hurt that every single dish will be amazing. (Don't forget to try a drink from their Manhattan menu.)

Favorite Guilty-but-I-do-it-anyways Dessert: Levain Bakery

I try to stop by this renowned cookie shop almost every time I walk by, and I always end up buying at least 2 cookies (ostensibly to gift to a friend...and to me). There are only four types of cookies, but all are addictive. There is not really enough room to stay and enjoy, which is unfortunate because the cookies are amazing when they are warm with a cup of milk. The line can get long, even though it moves fairly quickly.

Favorite Guilty Meal: Shake Shack

Shake Shack needs no introduction. And what's even worse is that their single burgers are just small enough that you feel like you can put away two of them. (This is another Danny Meyer restaurant.)

Favorite Happy Hour: Lobster Joint

Because it's in a sort of awkward residential neighborhood and the happy hour ends at 7pm (weekdays only), this is not the easiest place to get to. But if you do, it's well worth it: $1 oysters, $4 sliders, and a fairly wide selection of cheaper cocktails. It has a very chill atmosphere, and does not seem to get super crowded.

Favorite Group Restaurant: Ilili

Organizing a dinner for a large-ish group of people (8+) is always a bit of a headache in NYC: there are not that many places that have lots of seating, have a diverse menu to satisfy different diets, and is affordable enough to accommodate all kinds of spenders. Ilili is a surprisingly perfect middle ground on all of these dimensions. An extra bonus is that they have some interesting cocktails as well.

By Food:

Favorite Dim Sum: Golden Unicorn

Slightly edges out its main competitors (e.g. Jing Fong) in terms of taste, but also gets crazy crowded during peak weekend hours. Come before 11:30am or after 1:30pm for the most reasonable brunch wait times.

Close 2nd: Nom Wah Tea Parlor, for a more cart-less and Westernized dim sum experience.

Favorite Drinks: Dead Rabbit

Who knew the Financial District could be home to such a cool new bar? Everyone can find a cocktail they like here; there's great bar food to boot (on the 3rd floor only). Its fame is catching up to it though - it gets really packed.

Close 2nds: Experimental Cocktail Club for having really unique cocktails, and Lantern's Keep for having really well-balanced drinks.

Favorite BBQ: Mighty Quinn's

Hands down some of the most addictive BBQ you can find in the city, especially if you like brisket. Lots of waiting in line though, but at least you can get a beer while waiting (ingenious!).

Favorite Steak: Club A Steakhouse

Basically just as delicious as Peter Luger's with an almost identical menu and at the same price point. Club A has more of a date vibe with the dim lighting and live music, but offers great service, reservations that are relatively easier to get, and even great Groupon and Restaurant Week deals.

Favorite Chinese Sit-Down: Han Dynasty

They must put something addictive in their food; that's the only explanation for how much I eat here. Definitely not enjoyable unless you like spicy food, this is the first branch in NYC after the food was so well-received in the Philadelphia area. Hint: come here for lunch if you work close by, because it's much easier to get a table then.

Close 2nd: Noodle Village - A bit more casual and in Chinatown, this restaurant has the best soup dumplings you can find in New York City.

Favorite Sushi: Sushi Yasaka

Best quality-to-price ratio I've found in Manhattan, meaning fancy-restaurant-level quality with just slightly-above-average prices. They have some really tasty non-sushi options, including great tempura.

Favorite All-You-Can-Eat + Drink: Mudville 9

Although the Ashiya-type all-you-can-eat-sushi + all-you-can-drink-sake-bombs is always entertaining, I found the unlimited wings and beer option at Mudville 9 to be a bit more fun. There's something that really hits the spot when you have a whole array of boneless wings in different kinds of sauces in front of you, and you're with a group of great friends at a fun, casual sports bar.

Favorite Korean: Arirang

Arirang is kind of hidden away in KTown on the second floor of a building, but their noodle soups will fill that lonely, empty spot within your stomach that yearns for hearty, home-cooked food. And, they feed you in portions that would make any grandmother proud - in bowls that are bigger than your face. This restaurant also has some of the best kimchi I've found as part of their small banchan appetizer dishes.

Close 2nd: Kang Suh, with some of the tastiest and heartiest stews you can find. Definitely recommend the beef with chestnuts stew (kalbi chim) and the whole chicken stew (samgae tang).

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