The “Spend Half Your Paycheck on Dinner” Edition
Below you’ll find my recommendations for the best restaurants in NYC. Don’t get me wrong, there are many amazing restaurants in NYC that don’t cost an arm and a leg. For example, I am very partial to the $2 dirty water hot dogs sold outside of Grand Central Station. But that will be for a different post. This post is to discuss where you should go when you want to enjoy a fine dining experience and make sure that your hard earned cash does not go to waste.
For those of you scratching your head, thinking”I thought this was a travel blog…” It is. But being the lover of food that I am, I would never travel to a place and not want to try the local cuisine. Or find the hole in the wall joint that is the after work spot to gather. And being that this is about NYC, fine dining pretty much goes hand in hand with the city that never sleeps. Amazing chefs meet uncapped expense accounts and corporate cards. Or the wealthy. Or in the case of my husband and I and many of our friends, this is what we wanted to save up and spend our money on. An unforgettable dining experience.
The world’s best restaurant
By the time I ate at the 3 Michelin star Eleven Madison Park, family and friends had already been singing its praises for years. They were not alone. In 2017, San Pellegrino had named EMP the best restaurant in the world. I was skeptical. I had eaten in a lot of amazing restaurants, what made this one so special? It turns out the Michelin man and my friends and family all knew what they were talking about.
Located in the MetLife building across from Madison Square Park, EMP operates under a pay-in-advance model. Patrons prepay for their meal when they make reservations online (1-2 months in advance). I’ll admit it was a little hard to stomach the huge bill without knowing if the meal would even be worth it. However, now that I am on the opposite end of meal I can confirm that the 11-course 3.5 hour dinner was de finitely worth the splurge.
While the food was beyond compare, the service really made EMP one of the best restaurants in NYC. For example, when I asked the hostess where the ladies room was, I wasn’t given directions. I was escorted all the way to the bathroom door. Another example was when the meal was over. I was suffering from the worst case of bronchitis, so in a rare dining moment for me, I spent the night knocking back sodas. Meanwhile, prior to sitting down, Bryan ordered one drink at the bar. Before EMP sent us on our way they gave Bryan a complementary glass of brandy and provided sparkling (non-alcoholic) cider for yours truly. I am still floored by how impressive they were to pay attention to our orders like that.
David Chang’s high-end restaurant
When I first discovered David Chang’s Momofuku Ko it was a twelve-seater counter restaurant in the East Village. Reservations could only be made two weeks in advance and were incredibly hard to come by. Open reservations only lasted three seconds on average. It was rumored that even his parents were not able to score reservations. When I did get reservations at Momofuku Ko back then, I considered it one of my greatest accomplishments.
At the time, there wasn’t even the word “Ko” on the door to let you know you were in the right place, just a little peach in the middle of a lattice door.
However, in 2014 David Chang moved his restaurant to much larger digs. They added a bar option for walk in patrons and reservations can now be made 1 month in advance.
I’ll admit, I miss the coziness of the old location. Like it or not you certainly got close with the other 11 people that would eat with you that day. However, the new setup is much more welcoming to the masses. My father for example, loves the fine dining scene in NYC. He would never have stepped foot in Momofuku Ko back when it was filled with wooden no-back barstools in a cramped environment. But my father would have no issues feeling comfortable in the new setup. When Bryan and I sat at the counter on our last visit it almost seemed like we had our own romantic table for two. Even though they haven’t increased the amount of seats too much, the space between parties have to themselves is significant in comparison to the old environment.
Most importantly, even with the move, the food is still on point. I would be coming to this amazing restaurant in NYC for every big celebration if we still lived nearby.
The restaurant that put Eric Ripert on the map
I’ll admit it, I ate at Le Bernardin because I have a huge crush on Eric Ripert. Eating at Le Bernardin certainly did not damper that crush. The food was so good that I now almost regret eating here. Almost. I say this because Le Bernardin has cost me a lot of money. Not because of the price tag, although like every other restaurant on this list, a meal here is not cheap. No, I would have more money because after eating at Le Bernardin I’ve had to spend A LOT of money on a new and expensive habit, eating uni.
I had heard people gush over uni (sea urchin) for years. So much so that I would give it a try from time to time. No matter where I was, I constantly found uni to be the grossest thing I ever ate. Until the night that my husband ordered sea urchin risotto from Le Bernardin and offered me a bite. From then I was sold on the succulent, creamy little morsels. More’s the pity because I have since spent a small fortune on uni sushi, uni shooters, uni pasta, you name it. From the moment I had that first bite of sea urchin risotto, Le Bernardin was bumped up to foodie mecca and became one of the best restaurants in NYC in my mind.
Allez-cuisine with an Iron Chef
I spent a lot of the earlier years in the 2000s obsessed with the Japanese version of Iron Chef. (The American version was a poor remake of that amazing show in my opinion). I even orchestrated an entire trip to Philadelphia to eat at Morimoto’s first restaurant before he opened this outpost in NYC.
On our visit to Morimoto’s in NYC, we went with the tasting menu but I feel we could have had just as enjoyable a time eating off of the main menu. All of the dishes we had were excellent but some shined more than others, so you might be better off picking a couple dishes you really want to try. For example, this restaurant made the best restaurant list specifically because I have so many dreams of eating the spiny lobster from Morimoto again.
To leave you with an anecdote, while we were there, the waitress showed us the Morimoto cookbook. They were trying to sell copies so we joked that we would only purchase the cookbook if it was personally signed by Chef Morimoto. The joke was on us. I am now the proud owner of a personalized inscription Morimoto cookbook. Additionally, it’s actually not that hard to make a decent dish following his recipes. I used to be obsessed collecting the cookbooks of famous chefs. I would try to replicate their recipes to disastrous failure. But the Morimoto cookbook wasn’t too difficult to replicate the easier dishes), which was a win in my book.
The first of his name
Cleary, I’ve watched too many Game of Thrones episodes this year. Nevertheless, Daniel is the first restaurant that Daniel Boulud opened with his own name in the title. It is also Chef Boulud’s most famous restaurant, located on the upper east side and touting 2 Michelin stars.
The first thing I remember about Daniel is that the moment I sat down a mini chair appeared for my purse to sit on. That is not a typo, my purse was given a chair. The next most memorable event was the specials on the menu, which included tête de veau (a.k.a. calf’s head). Several people in our party jumped at the chance to eat such a delicacy, causing the wait staff to very nicely verify that they truly understood what they were ordering. Not knowing how in the world one cooks tête de veau, I assume you have to be an extraordinary chef to pull it off. Needless to say, their plates were delicious as were my less risky duck foie gras with mango and lamb dishes.
Lastly, I always have to give restaurants credit when they create a fantastic dish out of something I hate. In this case, peas. I hate peas. I used to pick them out of anything served to me as a kid. Nowadays I suffer through them if they are on a dish I like, but I’d prefer to avoid them. I was less than pleased to find out that our amuse bouche would be a trio of peas. However, that first dish at Daniel turned out to be so amazing that I almost licked the bowl clean.
The late, great Anthony Bourdain was my personal foodie god. After I watched the No Reservations episode where he ate a sea urchin crostini covered in a layer of melted lardo, Marea made it onto my “Restaurant Bucket List” list. The next time we were looking for a fine dining night out I quickly opted for Marea. I was not disappointed. Marea is an Italian restaurant that offers a delectable selection of pasta dishes. More importantly than their pasta however, is their seafood dishes that are creative yet still delicious and filling.
But don’t just listen to my opinion on whether this is one of the best restaurants in NYC. A couple years ago there was a big event for the company I work for that resulted in several of our executives flying to meetings in Manhattan. They were looking for a restaurant to eat at together and asked local New Yorkers for recommendations. Fast-forward to the end of this story and the restaurant they celebrated the big event at was none other than Marea. And how did I learn this story? Because it was such a wonderful experience and great food that they came back singing its praises.
The start of Danny Meyer’s career
Without meaning to, this post could be a love letter to Restaurateur Danny Meyer. For those that haven’t heard of Danny Meyer, he is the pinnacle of best restaurants in NYC. He is the owner of Gramercy Tavern (included below) and Shake Shack (worthy of an entry in a less expensive listing of “can’t miss places to eat at” in NYC). He was also the previous owner of Eleven Madison Park (included above). But the restaurant that launched his acclaimed career in the hospitality business was Union Square Cafe.
Union Square brings a homey feel to its patrons with its wooden chairs and opened-collared wait staff. While not as fancy as some of the other restaurants, the level of service and food provided are still top-notch. And the less fancy atmosphere definitely appeals more to people like my husband that went from working in NYC in a mandatory suit and tie everyday to considering an aloha shirt and khakis to be formal attire. Needless to see, he now prefers dinners that don’t require a coat and tie. But whichever way you fall on the fashion spectrum, Union Square Cafe is a wonderful way to spend an evening.
Due to soaring rent hikes, Union Square Cafe actually closed at the end of 2015. Fortunately they opened again a year later in a larger location. And since the new location was only a couple blocks away they didn’t even need to change their name.
The restaurant that taught me to love soft-shelled crabs
Nougatine is Jean-Georges’ more casual sister. It is amazingly nice but still the Café Boulud to the Daniel, the Bouchon to the Per Se, the McDonald’s cheeseburger to the $30 Minetta Tavern Black Label Burger.
In regards to the food, everything was so imaginative. We had an amuse bouche of homemade mozzarella and asparagus soup and an appetizer of foie gras brule with strawberry jam. However, the star of the night was their soft shell crab with sugar snap pea remoulade. This was the dish that put soft shell crabs on the map for me. Similar to my experience with uni, I did not understand the appeal of soft shell crabs until Nougatine. This place certainly changed my mind, earning it a spot on my best restaurants in NYC.
Lastly, the service was impeccable. Note that this high praise is coming from what perhaps might have been their most irritating group in quite some time. Our group of four had a Broadway play to get to so we needed to be in and out of the restaurant as fast as possible. My husband meanwhile was having his own Comedy of Errors production trying to get to the restaurant and was pretty late showing up. The staff handled every request gracefully, did everything we asked, and we made it out the door at Nougatine with a lot of time to spare to get up to the Great White Way.
Gramercy Tavern was perhaps my first foray into the world of expensive restaurants in NYC. Until then we had never really broke the bank to eat out and didn’t really understand why people would do such a thing. This restaurant taught us why.
During one of my visits to Gramery Tavern, I ended up ordering their venison dish for my main meal. Until that moment I never understood reviews that described meat as “melting in [their] mouth like butter”. That statement made no sense to me, what a stupid simile. And then I ate the Venison at Gramercy Tavern and it melted in my mouth like butter.
The last time I ate at Gramercy Tavern I was about 30 minutes late. I showed up as a sweaty mess after sprinting over from my midtown office in the overbearing summer heat. The wait staff didn’t even blink an eye. They treated me to the same excellent level of service as those that arrived with coiffed hair and unwrinkled suits.
One final thing worth mentioning is their drink menu and bartender. I like to drink, plain and simple. However I can be content with a budlight or a $10 champagne from Costco. When it comes to alcohol, I’m easily impressed. Not so much on the mocktail front. For health reasons my husband doesn’t drink too much. Whenever we go out, he’ll be the one person in the group knocking back the iced tea. Until Gramercy Tavern. My father and I ordered the wine pairing during one of our visits. My husband ordered his iced tea. The waiter however countered and asked if he would like to try a non-alcoholic pairing instead. Despite the amazing food dishes we ate, Bryan spent the following weeks raving about all the drinks he got to enjoy.
The best sushi restaurant I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something
Yet again another restaurant recommended by Anthony Bourdain. In my mind, Sushi Yasuda is not just one of the best restaurants in NYC. It has become the sushi restaurant that I compare all other sushi restaurants to. And those other restaurants continue to fall short. That is saying a lot considering I live in Honolulu, a place where a new sushi spot seems to pop-up every month in an already very saturated market.
Chef Yasuda has stated that it takes 10 years to become a sushi chef. It takes years just to learn how to prepare the rice. It shows. Every single bite I’ve ever had at Sushi Yasuda has been incomparable. On one visit I watched a younger sushi chef pass a plate of uncut fish down the row of chefs to the head chef. The head chef sliced the fish into sashimi-sized portions and sent it back down the row. I could only surmise that the young chef was not senior enough to be allowed to cut his own fish. That was the seriousness in which Sushi Yasuda takes their sushi preparation.
I’ve sat next to sushi-eating newbies that have been content with their california rolls and miso soup. But if you are game, I absolutely recommend ordering the omakase (chef’s choice) at the bar. And do not giving your sushi chef any limitations on what to make. My husband is not a big fan of ikura (salmon roe) or uni (sea urchin). He could go on and on to you about why they aren’t his favorite things to eat. But at Sushi Yasuda he orders both because it tastes completely different from anywhere else.
Thomas Keller’s New York Famed Restaurant Per Se
Thomas Keller was such a hero of Bryan’s that if Emily had been born a boy, he would have been named Keller. The price tag to dine at Per Se was outrageous but I knew Bryan really wanted to eat there. I saved up all year and took the 5:30 PM reservation offered on a Tuesday night in February. It was the only time I could get. I presented it to Bryan as his Christmas present. To this day, it might have been the best Christmas gift I ever got him.
That cold night in February was the most amazing experience we ever had at a restaurant. The dishes were one delicious plate after another and the service made us feel like royalty. We came back again to celebrate my father-in-law’s Kanreki and it was the same superb experience.
And then in 2016, Pete Wells from the New York Times knocked down Per Se from 4 stars to 2 stars. It was the demotion heard round the (foodie) world. In a trip back to New York after the review, I was initially hesitant to return to Per Se, but in the end I decided to take the plunge. I’ll admit it wasn’t as wonderful as that first (and second) trip. I actually was very undecided about whether to include Per Se on my list. However, in the end I realized that while Per Se may not be as great as it used to be, it is still one of the best restaurants in NYC. It is just no longer the sure front winner.
If you liked this post, maybe you would like these New York City-related posts from Hawaii Girl Travels:
Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about.