Like most serious eaters, I've been searching for deliciousness my whole life, but sometimes, in more reflective moments, even I acknowledge there's often more to eating out than great food. Obviously for me the food is paramount, but there are other factors that go into judging great restaurants. How welcome do I feel? Do I feel well taken care of? Am I having a good time? Does the restaurant make my dining companions and me feel special? Can I easily hear what the people I am with are saying? Is the service personal without being intrusive? Does the energy in a restaurant match or even elevate my own? How does the restaurant's look and feel affect how its customers look and feel?
Most of all, I want the restaurant experience to be about the food, the people I'm eating with, and me—not about the chef or the server or the sommelier.
So taking all these factors into account, what are my favorite restaurant-going experiences in New York? If going to a great restaurant is, as the restaurant designer David Rockwell once told me, like taking a vacation from my life, what restaurants in New York are my five favorite respites from a busy life?
Note: Two restaurants on my list, Per Se and Masa, are very expensive, and some serious eaters may decide they are in fact too expensive. A more moderately priced, just-as-special dining experience can be had at lunch at Jean-Georges, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's flagship restaurant. $14 a course to eat in a most cheerful, light-filled space is the greatest serious food bargain in the world.
More than anything else, I love how welcome I feel at Gramercy Tavern. The flowers, the artwork, the overall look and feel of the restaurant, and, yes, the service, all combine to make eating at Gramercy Tavern a terrific, satisfying experience. Chef Micheal Anthony's food is almost always spot on (if a little lacking in the crunchy, crisp department), and Nancy Olsen's sophisticated, homey desserts ensure that diners leave happy. 42 East 20th Street, New York NY 10003; 212-477-0777; gramercytavern.com
It's hard to get a great dining experience with a view in New York City, but Per Se, in the Time-Warner Center, is one of the few places you can do just that. When I ate at the French Laundry, Per Se chef-owner Thomas Keller's Napa Valley restaurant, a few years ago, I felt that our experience was more about him than me. Of course, this was at a time when Keller had no other restaurants to tend to. But at Per Se my dining experiences have been surprisingly personal, truly pleasurable, and most important, about my dining companions and me. The food is Keller's (and executive chef Jonathan Benno's) unique combination of whimsical, classic, and contemporary, and the kitchen's rare misses are more than offset by its hits and the overall pleasure of dining here. 10 Columbus Circle, New York NY 10019; 212-823-9335; perseny.com
Momofuko Ko is a dining experience unlike any other. Everyone (all 12 diners) sits at a long counter, where they are served by owner David Chang's extremely talented coterie of young chefs. It is an idiosyncratic, deeply personal, oh-so-satisfying experience to be served by a cook. The food in this minimalist setting is relentlessly modern, unique, and rarely if ever silly. 163 First Avenue, New York NY 10003; momofuku.com
How personal is the diner's experience at Masa? If you sit at the counter (and you should), you can get a bird's eye view of chef-owner Masa Takayama weaving his magic using ingredients you won't find anywhere else, including raw and cooked fish from his native Japan. Yes, it's crazy expensive—perhaps $500 a head all in—but eating at Masa is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 10 Columbus Circle, New York NY; 212-823-9800; masanyc.com
At Babbo the dining experience is all about the transference of energy. I have not been to one other restaurant anywhere in the world where I feel the same energy that I do at Babbo. Mario Batali's food is full of energy and passion and big flavors, and the bilevel space, which is not particularly grand or fancy, makes you feel special. Interestingly, Babbo is the only restaurant on my list where music plays a vital role in the experience. Usually I don't much care for music while I'm eating serious food, but somehow listening to Led Zeppelin while eating one of Gina DePalma's desserts makes perfect sense to me. 110 Waverly Place, New York NY 10011; 212-777-0303; babbonyc.com