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This week on Ask The Critic: worthy Upper East Side restaurants, the best way to approach a terrible meal, and more.
Upper East Eats
I moved to the Upper East Side after living near Union Square for five years. I feel like everyone talks about restaurants in the LES, Village, and places south of 34th street, but for some reason the UES doesn't get any attention. A lot of my friends live downtown and whenever we go out I end up joining them, partially because if they came uptown I wouldn't know where to take them. What are your recommendations for casual, affordable sit down restaurants and bars in the Upper East Side?
Thanks to the peculiarities of our subway system, the Upper East Side can feel like an unimaginable trek to anyone without ready 4/5/6/ access.* And compared with regions north, downtown Manhattan (and even Midtown, to some extent) is so rich in restaurant options that there's little reason to explore elsewhere if you're nearby.
*I live in Brooklyn and work in Manhattan, and am sitting here trying to remember the last time I was up that way. For Sandwiched at the Whitney? Yikes, that was early 2010. Which year did I take my parents to the Met? That sort of thing...
But that's not your question! If you're looking for places to take your friends once they're up seeing you, you've got options. Mexican? We're big fans of Julian Medina (Toloache, Yerba Buena, Coppelia), and his Toloache 82 is on the Upper East. Indian? Consider the North Indian Moti Mahal Delux, an UES branch of a New Dehli chain. Turkish? Get a huge mezze spread (and plenty of bread refills) at Beyoglu. Persian? Persepolis. A few pints and some pub fare? Jones Wood Foundry (though you might want to avoid peak hours; it gets nutty). Or Earl's Beer and Cheese for, um, more beer and cheese.
Maison Kayser, one of the finest bread bakeries in the city these days, does sit-down meals—we strongly recommend your meal involve bread in every way possible. There's Untitled, Danny Meyer's upgraded diner in the Whitney, for all-week breakfasts and lunches (or an early dinner on Friday. Check the website; its hours have changed since the linked review).
While I haven't been to either, a few recommendations from our ad sales director Jen, an UES resident: Chicken Festival for Peruvian chicken ("It was seriously awesome and not expensive at all... the two green sauces that came with the meal were so good, I could dip everything into that sauce and be happy forever.") and Yuka for all you can eat sushi ("Don't judge me... Is it the best? Definitely not, BUT when you want a huge amount of sushi and don't want to break the bank it does the trick. It's less '123 sake bomb' than the places downtown.") For more sedate sushi, I'd recommend Shabu Shabu 70
And if you have any kind of sweet tooth, the Upper East is your place: Two Little Red Hens and Yura on Madison are two of the best all-around sweets bakeries in the city, and Lady M has its fair share of stunning (if pricey) French desserts. There's also Ladureé for macarons; go crazy.
Other spots I've heard good things about, but haven't visited: Maya for Mexican, central European fare at Hospoda, Burmese at Cafe Mingala. Serious Eaters, have you been to any of these spots? Or do you have other recommendations to share with us?
21st Birthday Restaurant For Food-Loving Son
Coming to NYC (from LA) to see our NYU student in a school production. Coincides with his 21st birthday. Want to take him to someplace special for his birthday on a Sunday night. 6 in our party: Grandparents, parents and 12 y/o brother. All fairly adventurous eaters. Was looking at places like Babbo, Locanda Verde, Mas, Bouley. He likes (loves) Freeman's. Loved Kittichai when he went there a few weeks ago. He likes funky, not stuffy. What could you suggest for a memorable birthday celebration?
Great food, funky, not stuffy—I like your son already. And for a 21st birthday... I mean, it's his choice whether or not to drink, but if he does, let's make sure those drinks are excellent; show him what he's been missing at Down the Hatch or wherever kids drink in the Village these days.
I think you're right on with Locanda Verde; Babbo is a good pick too, though that'll be a little nicer and a little pricier. The first thing that came my mind is Perla: a stately old New York space with a distinctly modern slant in soundtrack and decor; killer pastas and Italian mains; awesome cocktails, extensive wine list, warm service. One of their big booths sounds just right for a party of six. (I probably recommend this restaurant more than any other in New York right now.) It's a little noisy, but on a Sunday it should be all right.
For something a little funkier, perhaps Aska? Scandinavian food is big right now, it's a gorgeously designed restaurant within an art exhibition space, and the restaurant's getting rave reviews.
PS: I try not to recommend the same half-dozen restaurants over and over, but here are a few more I honestly think could be great fits: modern Thai at Kin Shop, modern Mexican at Empellon Cocina, funky farm-to-table ABC Kitchen, sexy American bistro The Dutch.
Dealing With Awful Food
How should it be handled if the food you have ordered is just really terrible? I'm not one to make a fuss, but if I've barely made a dent and I let you know I didn't really care for overdone whatever (only because you asked of course), should my food be comped? Should I send it back and ask for something different? I hate wasting food but I hate wasting my money much more.
My first instinct is to say, "You should always tell the restaurant if something is wrong—more information is better than less." But then I thought about it and realized that, perhaps with the exception of a mis-cooked burger or two, I've never sent anything back in my life.
As for "I hate wasting food but I hate wasting my money much more"—well, it's a sunk cost. If you're not eating the food in front of you, it's wasted either way.
There are a few scenarios in which a diner doesn't want to eat what he's served. Let's assume that it's not partly your fault; no, "Oh wow, I didn't know pig's ears could look like ears" or "When the menu said spicy, I didn't think it meant that spicy" or "Tartare means raw? Gross." If it's a case of a person just making a bad decision for himself, I'm inclined to just say, suck it up.
But let's assume that's not the case. If there's some clear error with the way your dish is prepared—drastically overcooked meat or seafood, say, or dramatic oversalting, or an ingredient that's gone off—it's absolutely okay to say something. You should. It's honest feedback for the kitchen, and it's fair for you, as a diner, to assume your food will be prepared more-or-less correctly.
As for whether it should be comped? If a server at any even moderately nice restaurant asks how your meal is, and you're unhappy, they should offer to replace it or make you something different. You certainly shouldn't be paying for a dish you're not eating, though you'll probably pay for the dish if you do. If a restaurant is really trying to win your favor back, they may comp that dish, or perhaps a round of drinks. Regardless, I'd say that asking for it to be comped is the wrong way to go. (Unless your bill shows up and you're charged for two salmon dishes, the first one inedible. Then you complain.)
A good restaurant will err on the side of making the customer happy; if replacing or comping a $12 plate of pasta will leave a diner with a good impression, that's probably an investment worth making. I visited a new Brooklyn restaurant recently for a review, and received a glass of wine that I would have bet a hundred bucks was corked. It smelled overwhelmingly musty, wet cardboard all day. I politely asked for a replacement. The waitress scowled at me. "There's no way it's corked. We don't serve corked wine. That's just the way the wine tastes." ("Then why do you have a wine on your list that tastes like corked wine," is what I wanted to ask.) Eventually, after a few minutes of very uncomfortable arguing, she brought me a different wine.
But when I think of this restaurant now, in my head it's "that place where the server argued with me about obviously corked wine." Not the spot I got that great apple salad or a really good-looking restaurant I'd like to go back to. And do you really want to be that restaurant?
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