Editor's note: Here to answer your questions is senior managing editor, former SENY editor, and frequent author of our NYC restaurant reviews Carey Jones. We'll take a few of your questions each week and give you the New York restaurant advice you're looking for. Email email@example.com with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit your question!
Wedding lunches, whirlwind trips to the city, and a quiet venue with great food—some excellent questions showed up in the inbox this week. Let's get started!
Lunch For Two, On My Wedding Day
I'm getting married in New York on Friday 19th April, it's also my [redacted] birthday but we're trying to forget that! I need some advice about where to go for lunch after we marry at City Hall. It will just be the two of us so somewhere beautiful/romantic/quirky. I have tried to do my research via internet but there's nothing like a recommendation. Please help!
First of all, congratulations (and happy birthday!). Love the idea of a romantic lunch for two on your wedding day, and New York certainly has you covered in terms of celebratory restaurants.
And, in some ways, a fancy lunch is an awful lot easier to orchestrate than a fancy dinner. You're in a position to take part in one of NYC's best dining deals. The best way to appreciate the city's best restaurants without breaking the bank: go at lunch. A meal that could cost you hundreds at dinner could cost less than half that, earlier in the day.
If it were my birthday-wedding? (Or even just one of those.) Personally, I'd make a reservation at Gramercy Tavern. Danny Meyer is one of New York's most respected restaurateurs for many reasons; one is his unwavering dedication to service. It's a place you can truly feel taken care of, and chef Michael Anthony is as talented as they come. Classy but not stuffy, it's my choice for celebrations where I want to get dressed up, but don't want to worry that I'm eating with the right fork, or like I can't relax a little bit.
Another great option: Babbo, the restaurant that brought Mario Batali to the spotlight. The iconic, slightly offbeat Italian restaurant has long been one of the city's most difficult reservations at night, but they just started lunch service about a year ago, and booking a table doesn't require the same effort. Duck egg with truffles, beef cheek ravioli, and Gina DePalma's pumpkin budino for dessert? In a charming West Village townhouse? Sounds like treating yourself to me.
Either one, to me, hits the right balance of celebratory and comfortable. But at lunch, you can go even fancier, breaking into the city's most acclaimed restaurants. Jean-Georges, with three Michelin stars, will serve you a two-course lunch for $38; Del Posto does a three-courser for $39 (note: articles linked are several years old and list lower prices). Both have a slightly more formal feel than the previous options, but the food should be beyond compare. And there's something satisfyingly decadent about a truly long lunch, spending the better part of an afternoon at the table, finishing the last sips of your wine as the sun starts to set.
One other thought: Minetta Tavern, with the feeling of old New York, is a gorgeous place to have a meal, if not necessarily candlelit-romantic. Oysters and champagne, a bone-in strip steak, or one of New York's best burgers—your choice. I mean, if you can't justify a $26 burger on your wedding day (AND your birthday), when can you?
All of these do require hopping a cab uptown a bit, but are far better than the options around City Hall.
One tip—When you call to make a reservation, let the staff know about the occasion. It doesn't mean you're asking for special treatment, only that you're keeping them informed and, in a way, inviting them to join in the celebration. (And maybe that they'll make extra-sure you get seated on time.)
5 Days in NYC, One Carnivore, One Vegetarian
I'm headed to NYC for five days with my husband, with allowances for at least three, but more likely four meals a day. Money and stomach-room will be tight, so I need some bang-for-buck eating. We're adventurous, but different: I'm a vegetarian with a complete passion for Chinese, he eats all manner of meat and is most looking forward to incredible pizza. We live in Chicago, so we have access to plenty, but last time I was there, Xi'an's blew my mind and I've been anxious to get back and keep exploring. Can you suggest more places that will deliver similarly? Diversity encouraged.
This is such a great question—where to eat around town, for not that much money, with an adventurous vegetarian and an adventurous non-veg?—that we'll probably end up writing a whole article about it in the future. But for the moment, let me just throw a bunch of ideas at you.
As far as I'm concerned, travel-eating on a responsible budget is striking a balance of saving and splurging—which is not to say that you're eating hot dogs all week then having dinner at Per Se, but that if you have enough $3 or $4 meals, you can sneak in something more here and there. Like breakfast. Manhattan doesn't have a great bagel shop on every corner (as I expected it would, before I moved here), but it does have decent bagel shops in every neighborhood that'll make you an egg-cheese sandwich for a few scant bucks, or a schmear-ed bagel for even less. You just don't have that in other cities.
Other great options: Even at their most expensive, pastries aren't really that expensive, and Manhattan's French bakery scene just keeps getting better. Stop by Dominique Ansel (Soho), Epicerie Boulud (Upper West), or Bien Cuit (West Village, Cobble Hill) for a pastry and a coffee—or even head to Locanda Verde or Maialino, two of our favorite full-service sit-down breakfast spots; at either, you can order just a pastry while enjoying the eminently civilized feeling of breakfast at a grand restaurant space. Both happen to be in hotels, which explains their early hours; think of it as a way to pretend you're staying in a luxury hotel for an hour while you're really just paying $8 or so for breakfast.
Okay, none of that sounds particularly adventurous, so let's give you a few more options: crullers and soy milk for breakfast in Chinatown, bizarre sweet-or-savory oatmeal toppings at Oatmeals in the West Village, or decent breakfast tacos at Downtown Bakery (which is not a bakery) in the East Village.
Of course, you've got to get in a Chinatown food crawl, where you can both eat yourself silly, and try a dozen different things, for about $20. Rice rolls (with or without pork!), sesame pancakes (with meat or with veggies!), steamed buns (try pumpkin, egg york, or char siu), crullers with soy milk, a visit to Xi'an again, fried dumplings (though the meat-eater might have more fun with these), peanut-sauced noodles... altogether, we're just nudging up to about $15. Heck, do this two different days for two different lunches, and you'll end up happy and full and with more money left in your pockets. (More cheap ideas here.)
Pizza satisfies all of your requirements—cheap, veg-friendly, and (at least, in terms of by-the-slice) better in NYC than Chicago. As you're running around town, consider Joe's Pizza in the West Village, Best Pizza in Williamsburg, Sal & Carmine's on the Upper West Side, and South Brooklyn Pizza in the East Village; and as you sound like folks who are willing to hop on the subway for a good meal, there's L & B Spumoni Gardens, Williamsburg Pizza, and the legendary Di Fara.
While we're talking grab-and-go meals, NYC's great sandwich spots will do you right: Defonte's, where he can get a roast beef and mutz and you'll be well-served with a eggplant-provolone Valentino; Tiny's Giant Sandwich Shop, where he might try the turkey-cheese-bacon Spicy Rizzak and you, the "Veggiest Of Them All" or the Haloumi sandwich; or Parm, the self-consciously retro Italian-American lunch counter, where your eggplant parm will taste as good as his meatball sub. And at least one of your meals should be at Taim, with storefronts in the West Village and Nolita; it's our favorite falafel in NYC.
As another lunch option, head up to Kalustyan's, where after a heaping pita-ful of chickpea-eggplant Moussaka or lentil Mujaderrah, you can easily while away an hour browsing the spices and South Asian specialty foods. Or if you're in Midtown, grab kati rolls from the Biryani Cart, winner of several Vendy awards, and swing by King of Falafel and Shawarma Express for some of the city's best falafel and spit-roasted meat. Or huge plates of crazy-cheap pakora and curries and samosas at Punjabi Grocery and Deli; or awesome chaat and "Nizami Rolls" at Thelewala in the Village.
More ideas! Doubles in Bed-Stuy, where spiced chickpeas in flatbread will cost you less than two bucks. If you loved Xi'an and you're up for a trip out to Flushing, make a visit to their new sit-down restaurant, Biang!. (Exclamation point theirs, not mine, though it's a pretty exciting place, truth be told.) Why not couple it with some more food exploring: the Hindu Temple Society of North America's Ganesh Temple canteen might be right up your alley.
If you need a slightly more conventional and/or centrally located sit-down meal after all that, Mario Batali's Otto is a great bet: an awesome assortment of meats, cheeses, and veggie sides, pastas around $10, an extensive wine list with corners of real affordability, incredible gelato. (Their pizza is quite good, too, though if you're eating pizza elsewhere, stick with pastas and cheese here.)
Various Middle Eastern cuisines tend to be good bets for meat-eaters and vegetarians alike, and if you hop on the subway you'll find prices plummet as you get out of Manhattan. Consider Bab al Yemen, a two-year-old Yemeni restaurant (get the chopped lamb on hummus, or the white bean fasolia), or Tanoreen in Bay Ridge. Mimi's Hummus in Ditmas Park works magic with chickpeas and vegetables; and headed back to Manhattan, Gazala Place in Hell's Kitchen with stuff you with meze and burek. Zizi Limona in Williamsburg is one of the most creative Middle Eastern restaurants going these days.
I'm looking back at the "vegetarian with a complete passion for Chinese" line—ever tried the food of the Yunnan province? On the Lower East Side, Yunnan Kitchen has plenty to offer vegetarians (chrysanthemum leaf salad, excellent tofu ribbons).
And in the same neighborhood, I'm guessing you'd love Mission Chinese, where a huge portion of the menu can be made vegetarian or vegan... but make sure you factor in an hour-or-few of waiting time.
There's also some excellent Thai food in this city: on the less traditional, pricier end, Kin Shop has great options for vegetarians; for straight-up Isan Thai, at a place where $25 can stuff you both, Zabb Elee is excellent (and, we've confirmed, good for vegetarians).
If you do a few "splurge" meals (by which I don't really mean splurge, I just mean paying what you pay at a sit-down restaurant), I'd recommend: Talde, Shopsin's; Dirt Candy; and Motorino or Paulie Gee's.
Talde is not only one of my favorite new openings of 2012, it's a wildly creative, genuinely fun Asian restaurant that's uncommonly attentive to vegetarians and vegans. Several menu dishes are totally free of animal products, and at least a half-dozen others can be made so, if you tip them off. (I did a family meal here with my vegan little brother, my brother's vegetarian girlfriend, and my parents last year and everyone ended up delighted.)
Shopsin's... well, it's a place of legend. Kenny Shopsin has attained some notoriety for his macaroni-and-cheese pancakes (yes, that's mac and cheese in the pancake) and er, his colorful conversation with friends and regulars (expect volleying obscenities as you eat). They've got an endless menu of tripped-out diner food; we love their sliders, their doughnuts, and all sorts of pancakes—or if you're really feeling frisky, a macaroni-and-cheese pancake sandwich with eggs and bacon. It's excessive, but it's not just novelty; the Shopsins can really cook, and their dishes tend to be as delicious as they are ridiculous. It's not diner-cheap, but we dare you to eat again that day; I've never left without being ridiculously stuffed.
Dirt Candy is a wildly creative, anything-but-virtuous vegetarian restaurant where vegetables are really celebrated, and my favorite veg spot in NYC these days. I think Times restaurant critic Pete Wells said it best: "Eating at Dirt Candy can be like going to a child's birthday party in a country where all the children love vegetables."
And, finally: Motorino and Paulie Gee's. Either will give you inspired, more-or-less Neapolitan pies, with toppings you've never thought of and in restaurants comfortable enough to spend an evening. Not as economical as by-the-slice places, but was that we said earlier about a few minor splurges? Go and enjoy.
Quiet Lunch in the East Village?
I am planning to get together with 6 former colleagues for lunch, on a Saturday in February. We need a moderately priced place where we can talk and where we won't be rushed. We have a lot of catching up to do! Our preferred area is below 14th Street on the East Side. I don't know their preferences in terms of cuisine, but I do know that they appreciate good food. What do you suggest?
Believe it or not, "Where can I have a meal with a group, where we can actually hear each other?" is one of the questions we get most often. That really says something about Manhattan restaurants, doesn't it; that it's expected you 1) can't get in with seven people, or 2) will be rushed, or 3) can't hear each other?
But we have a few thoughts. How about Cha-An, a Japanese restaurant-cum-tea house? For a place of its kind, the prices are quite reasonable; they have $13 lunch specials, even on the weekends, including a main dish, tea, and a side. For a few dollars more, you have a choice of several bento box set lunches. They're sure not to rush you. Service is gracious and tea is constantly refilled. And if your party finishes lunch and doesn't want to break up just yet, the desserts are excellent. Added points for the tranquil setting.
For something a bit less structured (and quite a bit cheaper), Zabb Elee on Second Avenue is our favorite Isan Thai spot in Manhattan; share half a dozen dishes and you'll leave absolutely stuffed for $10/head. Informal, but well-staffed and comfortable enough. They're generally not too crowded, and in my experience, have had no problems making reservations for large parties. Their food runs spicy, but if you ask for it to be toned down, they're happy to oblige; just check in with your dining companions.
And if you're looking to go a little more, well, "New York restaurant," consider DBGB or L'Apicio. Both are open during the day on the weekends, both take reservations, and both serve highlights from their standard menu (sausages and such at DBGB, pastas at L'Apicio) as well as more conventional brunch dishes. Neither is too cheap, but in the world of downtown restaurants, neither is particularly pricey, either.
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Have more advice for these folks? Jump in, in the comment thread!