14 Most Important New York City Restaurants of the Last 40 Years: Did Gael Greene Nail It?


Most important? Yes. Photograph by thewanderingeater

Gael Greene gives us her list of the 14 most important New York City restaurants of the last 40 years. Here are the problems:

  • She never defines what she means by important
  • Her list is littered with names of restaurants that have closed, so longevity is clearly not one of her criteria
  • Her list seems irrevocably wedded to the past, as Frank Bruni pointed out in a blog post

That said, all in all, it's a credible, thoughtful list that will generate lots of discussion.

Here's Gael's list (after the jump), with my thoughts—not hers—about each.

1. Lutèce: Lutece defined serious French food in this town for a long time, so it's hard to imagine a list of important New York restaurants of the last 40 years that wouldn't have Lutece on it.

2. The Four Seasons: It may have been an important restaurant (it was resolutely rooted in America and it helped introduce the notion of seasonality in restaurants here), but right now it's not even one of the 25 best restaurants in NYC. And the fact that the power lunch was invented at the Four Seasons does not make it important.

3. Maxwell’s Plum: I never ate at Maxwell's Plum in its heyday, so I can't judge this selection.

4. Shun Lee Dynasty: Yes, Shun Lee introduced serious Chinese cooking in this city, but how many people have actually experienced that serious food there? Plus, it's not as if it spawned many imitators. Serious Chinese food is still not a meaningful part of the NYC dining scene.

5. Le Cirque: The Maccione family's restaurant launched a couple of really serious chefs (Daniel Boulud and Sotthe Kuhn), but does that in and of itself make it important? Perhaps.

6. Windows on the World: A sweet and lovely notion, but did it revitalize downtown when it opened?

7. River Café: If Larry Forgione is an important chef shouldn't his own, now defunct restaurant An American Place be on the list?

8. Quilted Giraffe: I know all about the beggar's purses with caviar, but I was not a serious eater during the Quilted Giraffe's heyday.

9. Odeon: Odeon might have predated Balthazar, but nobody can tell me that the food is better at the former. And if you want to talk about one restaurant that created a unique environment (featuring a glow that's never been replicated in this country again) Balthazar is the choice, not Odeon.

10. Gotham Bar & Grill: Unquestionably. Without Gotham's Alfred Portale New Yorkers would not have discovered gorgeous plates of vertical food grounded in deliciousness and the seasons.

11. Le Bernardin: Yes, no questions asked. No one will ever look at seafood cooking the same way again.

12. Lafayette at the Drake: To the extent that Lafayette led serious eaters to the genius of Jean-Georges Vongerichten it's a good choice. And using the same logic Le Cirque introduced us to the uniquely talented Daniel Boulud.

13. San Domenico: If you want to judge Italian restaurants on who introduced New Yorkers to regional Italian cuisine, you'd have to pick Felidia. And who suffused serious Italian food with casual affect and incredible energy? Babbo of course.

14. Nobu: Yes, yes, yes. Unquestionably. How many Nobu knock-offs are there now in NYC? Too many to count.

Who is not on Gael Greene's list that should be? I've got some ideas.

David Chang: I don't know if Gael should have included Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar, or Ko, but one of them should have made the list. When I have spoken to Gael about Chang, she has never been particularly enamored. We're going to be eating food influenced by Chang for a long time, that's for sure.

Union Square Cafe or Gramercy Tavern should have made the list. USC showed us that serious food can be served with grace and no pretense. There's a little more pomp and circumstance at Gramercy, but it's pomp and circumstance American style. That means they spend a lot of time at Gramercy trying to make diners feel as comfortable as possible.

Daniel: No one fuses classical technique, American ingredients, and earthy, rustic French food quite like Daniel Boulud.

What about Peter Luger's, the granddaddy of New York steakhouses.

Finally, what about the original Coach House? Many people say it was the first serious restaurant serving classic American food in this town.