By Joanne Lusted
Showing up at a hot restaurant without a reservation is like restaurant roulette. A risky move, especially in NYC, unless you’ve discovered the dirty little dining secret of seasoned restaurant-goers… eating at the bar. I can’t express how much I love having dinner at a great restaurant bar. Unless a quiet, romantic dinner is what you’re after, given the choice, playing barfly is the way to go for a party of two. The bar is a constant flurry of activity and your server is no more than 10 feet away at any given time. There’s also a good chance that your bartender is a chatty sort, and will be more than happy to give you lots of advice on local haunts and the best shopping in the area. If you’re lucky, a glass of wine or complimentary course may also find it’s way over to your barstool. My only advice is to make reservations when you can. That way upon arrival you can assess and opt to sit at the bar anyway. You never know when a bar will be jam-packed three people deep with parties waiting for tables. No one needs an elbow in the back while attempting to savour a plate of homemade Agnolotti.
I spent four days in Manhattan, and was happy as a little clam to sit at the bar for almost every meal. Next time you’re headed to NYC, these five delightful eateries should be on your list. And don’t worry ladies, they all have hooks under the bar for fancy purses and shopping bags… no one puts Louis on the floor.
Grand Central Oyster Bar
First stop after your obligatory arrival cocktail is to get a 1-week subway pass at Grand Central Station. Passes are available at the New York Transit Museum and come with route maps. For just over $30 you can scoot around without spending a small fortune on cabs. After getting your subway pass, celebrate with a big plate of freshly shucked Oysters and a steaming bowl of New England Clam Chowder at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Grand Central has perhaps the largest selection of oysters I have ever laid my eyes on. Service is fast, albeit a little cold, but for some reason eating oysters in the belly of Grand Central station is one of my favourite things to do in the city. Watch your bartender fly around, dish up bowls of soup and yell back confirmations to guests as he rings in their orders, while you cool off with an ice cold beer in the middle of the afternoon. It’s a little tacky, it’s underground and it’s awesome.
Head to Gramercy Park’s Maialino, an inviting Roman-style trattoria by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. From your perch you can watch bartenders craft cocktails like the Zampanó, a boozy combo of Rittenhouse Rye, Pampero Rum, Lucano Amaro, Campari, and Cherry Bark Bitters and ogle the pricey selection of wines by the ounce beautifully displayed in a modern Enomatic wine system. Huge Bonus points for a special Bar Menu with lots of scrumptious little snacks in addition to the full offerings. Don’t miss the Fiori Di Zucca (Fried Zucchini Flowers, Anchovy & Mozzarella), and the Peperoni Alla Piastra (Charred Shishito Peppers). The Salumi and Formaggi selection is fabulous, much of the salumi is made-in-house, the rest brought in from some of the best producers in the USA and Italy. Portions are great value, and the bartender explained each and every one in detail with no problem expressing his favourites. Primi (pasta) dishes are perfectly al dente and not swimming in sauce. The Spaghetti alla Carbonara has just a thin coating of egg and pepper tossed with crisp guanciale and fresh spaghetti. Much lighter than one would expect and was very similar to a version I had in Italy.
Manzo (inside Eataly)
You could spend an entire NYC trip eating your way through Eataly, likely the only grocery store where you can browse a dizzying array of top-notch goodies while sipping a glass of prosecco. Eataly just might be my favourite concept of all time. Basically it is a city-block-sized store containing 6 restaurants and 7 take-away outlets. Each restaurant and outlet features a different speciality, so you may wish to have a little nibble at several; the musical chair game is well worth it. There are often line-ups, especially at La Pizza & La Pasta, so grab a bevvy and browse while you wait. It is an open-concept space, with restaurants sitting like high-end cafeterias in the middle of the hustle and bustle. Each outlet has a counter or bar to sit at, which are hot ticket seats right in front of all the action.
I must admit I broke my travel rule and went to Eataly twice in one trip. The first time I opted for dinner at Manzo, their more formal restaurant of the bunch. Even if full, a seat at the bar will come up in no time, so have a little patience and you will be rewarded. This is a great spot to hit for an unpretentious pre-Broadway show dinner; not only is the food simply perfect, the service is lightening fast, and it’s a quick subway or cab ride to Times Square chaos. Cold antipasti is prepared behind the bar, and service is executed with the same grace as if you were sitting at a table. Share a few antipasti and one Primi and you’ll be perfectly content. Dishes such as their made-in-house Mozzarella di Bufalo Campana and Crispy Calf’s Brain are showstoppers. The calf’s brain is pillowy soft on the inside with a thin and crunchy coating set atop a little Blood Orange Citronette, adding the perfect touch of acidity. Tangy spheres of mozzarella are made-in-house at the mozzarella bar, and served with crisp guanciale, toasted almonds and nutty brown-butter. Heaven on a plate. Manzo also features Razza Piemontese Beef, a lean, muscular breed of cattle from Vercelli with rich, tender meat and very little fat. This beef is best enjoyed in it’s purest form, and Chef Michael Toscano offers several mouth-watering options. I loved the Carne Cruda al Coltello, similar to steak tartare, served with raw enoki mushrooms, farm-fresh egg, and truffle crostini.
Momofuku Noodle Bar
I am sure their legendary Fried Chicken is to-die-for, but reservations for this meal come with strict rules, including a table of four as a requirement. The ‘bar’ counter seats are the best in the house, offering a bird’s eye view of the immaculate and efficient kitchen that cranks out pork-stuffed buns and steaming bowls of ramen like a well-oiled machine. The buns are completely addictive, and come with several filling options. The shrimp bun is the Asian version of a lobster roll; fluffy steamed flour buns stuffed with the best shrimp cake I have ever tasted, crisp iceberg lettuce, spicy mayo, and pickled shallots. Check out the daily specials for unique treats, and be sure to take your server’s advice on their must-haves, because if you’re like me you’ll want to try everything on the menu. Our server raved about the rice cakes, a special of the day, so how could I resist? These soft, puffy little sticks, or mochi, are soft and chewy on the inside, crisp and toasty on the outside, tossed in a Korean-style hot sauce, and topped with sesame seeds and green onion. What a perfect bar snack! I could have noshed on these all day while sipping ice cold Orion beer. Noodle bowls are big enough for sharing, especially if you’re having a few other dishes. After about 20 minutes of checking out OPF from my prime vantage point, I decided on the Momofuku Ramen , a fragrant menu staple reminiscent of chicken noodle soup with a perfectly poached egg, nori, pork belly, and tender shredded pork shoulder. If I lived in NYC I might be found here every weekend.
Established in 1917, Fedora has recently undergone a facelift including new ownership and a bright new Chef, Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly former of Au Pied du Cochon in Montreal. Located in the basement of a brownstone-style building, and marked by a vintage neon sign Fedora is literally a hole-in-the-wall. Inside the space is completely gorgeous and cozy, not what you’d expect when entering a basement. Low ceilings, bright white walls, dark wood accents, and loads of candles are the perfect backdrop for a boisterous bistro vibe with an eclectic mix of upbeat funky music thumping away in the background. Our bartender is flawless, energetic and full of passion. The short and sweet cocktail list is his creation, and one of the most creative and exciting I’ve ever seen. After a little persuasion I start with a Songbird (Gruet Sparkling, St. Germain Elderflower, Crème de Violette, Fresh Grapefruit topped with Fedora Lavender Bitters), which he explained came to life when a patron wanted something ‘floral’. Fedora has a distinct bar-vibe as the evening progresses and people stop in for a standing-room-only cocktail. Dinner is served until 11:30pm, then late-night fare from 11:30pm-2am. You really can’t go wrong on the menu here, which Chef Brunet-Benkritly professes is just what he wants to cook. Not French, not seafood, not steakhouse, just flavours he likes. Wagyu Tongue with celeriac remoulade, apple, and peanuts is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. The Lobster Salad had me at ‘Herring Dressing’ and is garnished with a panko egg, a light and crispy version of a Scotch egg. Save room to share a dessert, especially if ice cream sandwiches are still on the menu. Massive homemade double chocolate cookies sandwich Van Leeuwen’s Artisanal Vanilla Ice Cream and offer the perfect finishing touch.
Described as a veritable bundle of creative energy, Jo Lusted is the Resident Chef for Clean Eating Magazine, regular guest Chef on CBC’s Steven & Chris, and avid Food & Travel Writer. A Toronto native, Jo loves to travel, and is always on the hunt for a food-driven adventure. Follow Jo’s antics:twitter.com/chefjolusted