A 9-Day San Diego Itinerary – For the Trip That Wasn’t (Part I)

Here it is, in all its glory. Part I of my nine-day San Diego itinerary, covering Days 1 through 4. I spent the better part of a year writing this itinerary but I never took the trip. I spent a couple of hours (okay, who am I kidding, I spent a couple of days) wallowing over the time I wasted planning this trip before deciding to post the itinerary anyway. Here’s hoping that when all of this craziness is just a distant memory, my trip that wasn’t can help someone plan their own trip that was.

What am I going on about anyway?

For those of you that stumble upon this post months or years down the road, let me take you back to March 2020 and set the stage for you. Kids across the nation are being homeschooled and anyone that can is working from home, 3.3 million Americans just filed for unemployment, many states like my own are in a lockdown, and for some reason, toilet paper is very, very scarce. Oh, and did I mention the very contagious virus creeping (well… starting to sprint) across the nation? Welcome to Coronavirus: the US Edition.

Call me cocky or just plain stupid but I was still set on taking our family’s spring break trip to San Diego well into March 2020. My father had just canceled a riverboat cruise in Europe and a co-worker had just canceled his trip to Disneyland. But I was still going full steam ahead with my plans. I hadn’t left O’ahu in over a year and I was ready to see the world again, or at least see a delightful little town in California with a huge zoo (actually, two of them) and Legoland.

However, towards the end of the second week of March, I finally got a wake-up call. I realized it was time to throw in the towel and call it quits. So with that, I give you my warning. In full disclosure, I haven’t tried out any part of this itinerary to see if it would work or not, although I hope to someday. And if anyone has any comments on what they think would work or not work about my San Diego itinerary, I am all ears!

San Diego Itinerary: Day 0

The plan was to take an afternoon flight and arrive in San Diego late that night in order to start our vacation with a semi-good night sleep before our first full day in San Diego. We would have rented a car from the airport and made our way to our Airbnb in South Park.

San Diego Itinerary: Day 1

Finding a perfect local diner for breakfast

I had a couple of specifications for our first meal in San Diego. 1) walkable to our Airbnb. 2) Delicious (read: good yelp reviews). 3) Kid-friendly (read: very kid-friendly as the baby of the family turns into a monster when he’s not allowed to move around). Cue Big Kitchen Cafe. At the time I picked it, Yelp gave it 4 out of 5 stars with over 700 reviews. Pretty good for a diner! Open from 7:30 AM – 2:30 PM it could function as both a breakfast or a lunch haunt.

Visiting the New Children’s Museum

The first non-food stop on our San Diego Itinerary was going to be the New Children’s Museum. Part of the Gaslamp Quarter, this museum was designed to encourage children to think and play using hands-on exhibitions. Listed by some as being ideal for the 6 and under crowd, there seemed to be so many things that both 5-year-old Emily and 11-month-old Leo would love.

Photo Credit: The San Diego Union-Tribune
Further information:
  • Hours: 9:30 AM – 5 PM
  • Free entrance for Leo, $15.50 for each of the rest of us
  • Included on the San Diego Go Pass
  • Address: 200 West Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101
  • Limited parking in Museum garage: $15 (Fri – Sun), $10 (Mon – Thu)
  • Other parking options:
    • ACE Gaslamp Quarter City Square (421 4th Ave)
    • ACE Westfield Horton Plaza (324 Horton Plaza)
    • ABM Parking Services (352 2nd Ave) ~ 2 hour discount for Museum visitors with code 8792

Shopping for sustenance at Trader Joe’s

In my pre-child life, I was one of the biggest self-proclaimed foodies you’d ever meet. Even after I had Emily, I tried to keep it up. After all, I would be horrified if I didn’t raise mini-foodies. I think to some extent I have succeeded in turning Emily into a foodie. But it didn’t happen overnight and it certainly didn’t happen by 11 months old (Leo’s age now). And Leo is A LOT more rambunctious than Emily was, meaning he is A LOT less capable of a fine-dining (or even casual-dining) experience. So when writing this San Diego itinerary, I decided to stick with fast food / take out options and dinners cooked at our Airbnb.

Photo Credit: Forbes.com

In fact, one of the things I was most excited about on this trip was shopping and cooking food from Trader Joe’s. The California-started grocery chain is noticeably absent in Hawaii. So, this was my chance to try out all the food that my mainland friends constantly rave about.

Return to the Airbnb for food, rest, relaxation, and unpacking

The baby in the family would definitely need a long nap every day, but after the previous day’s late flight, the entire family would probably need a nap on Day 1. So I planned to take it easy on our first afternoon in San Diego. My plans were to feed the family some of our newly purchased Trader Joe’s food and spend the afternoon relaxing at the Airbnb. Note: almost every day in my San Diego itinerary included going back to the Airbnb after our morning activity so that Leo could squeeze in a nap before any afternoon fun.

Dinner by a Top Chef in Little Italy

One of my husband’s and my guilty pleasures is watching Top Chef. We pick a team of 3-4 chefs similar to a sports fantasy league. If the Top Chef of the season ends up being one of the people on your team you win the ultimate prize, bragging rights for life. We take Top Chef very seriously in our household. Even though fourth season runner up and eventual all-star Top Chef winner Richard Blais was on Bryan’s fantasy team, he was a fan favorite to us both. We dreamed of getting a chance to eat his food ever since we watched those early episodes on Top Chef. Once we realized that his restaurant, The Crack Shack, was kid-friendly and in San Diego, it became a must-visit spot on our itinerary.

The Crack Shack in San Diego
Photo Credit: The Crack Shack Instagram Account (@getcrackshacked)

San Diego Itinerary: Day 2

Food prep time

Kidding. Sort of. My plan was to serve breakfast a la Trader Joe’s as well as prep lunches that could be brought along with us in a small cooler.

Torrey Pines State Reserve

Torrey Pines has 2,000 acres of walking trails, stunning overlooks, and unspoiled beaches. There are 8 trails to explore in all, however with the little ones in tow I was interested in either the Guy Fleming Trail (a two-third mile loop listed as the best pick for families with young children) or the Discovery Trail (a half-mile loop near Torrey Pines Lodge that is doable for strollers and wheelchairs). The park is typically open from 7 AM to sunset and offers tons of parking, restrooms, and a gift shop. It seemed like the perfect way to see San Diego and do something healthy for a change.

My only big concern was the State Reserve’s rule that no food or drinks were allowed other than water. Obviously my husband, older daughter and I could survive. But could mini-monster handle it okay if he really wanted to eat and we were far away from food options? Probably not. Hence my decision to bring lunch and leave it in our car. I figured in a worst-case scenario, food wouldn’t be too far away.

Torrey Pines State Reserve: San Diego Itinerary
Photo Credit: sandiego.org

Belmont Park

After returning to our Airbnb for an afternoon nap for the kids and relaxation for the adults, my plan was to hit up Belmont Park. Known as San Diego’s beachfront amusement park and boardwalk, Belmont Park has free admissions and free parking. In looking into pricing options I found out that they have a “ride-as-you-go” option or the option to pay for an unlimited rides pass. I figured we could enjoy dinner at the park and enjoy a few rides before calling it quits for the night.

Photo Credit: Belmont Park Instagram Account (@BelmontParkSD)

San Diego Itinerary: Day 3

Wild Life Safari Park

After another Trader Joe’s breakfast made by yours truly, we were going to pile everyone into the car for a trip to the Wild Life Safari Park. Known as a 1,800-acre wildlife preserve that’s home to over 3,500 animals across 260 species from 6 continents of the world (with an emphasis on Africa), I was more excited to visit this place than the world-renowned San Diego zoo. Its flagship offering is the Africa Tram, which takes guests on a 30-minute safari across the park’s African Plains. In addition to the Tram, I was also excited about the goat petting zoo and the late afternoon cheetah run.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park
Photo Credit: San Diego Zoo Safari Park

Perhaps one of the blessings in disguise about having to cancel our trip to San Diego is that the park has so many amazing options that are not age-appropriate for my children. I would love to experience the Roar & Snore Safari (read: sleep overnight at the zoo) but it is for families with kids 3+ years-old. The Caravan Safari, Cheetah Safari, and Ziplining Safari sound like amazing options as well. Click here for a listing of all the additional tours you can go on (for an extra fee). Maybe in my future San Diego itinerary, some of the above additional tours will get to be added.

Further information:
  • The park would have been open from 9 AM to 6 PM on 03/23/20
  • Address: 15500 San Pasqual Valley Road, Escondido, California
  • Parking is $15 per car
  • Download the “San Diego Zoo and Safari Map” App before you go
  • Stroller Rentals are available – $14 for a single stroller and $18 for a double side-by-side stroller
  • Food is allowed to be brought in (but no large coolers) ~ I heard that the food options inside the safari park were not anything to write home about and was pretty expensive as well, so I had planned to make lunch for the family and bring it into the park for a midday picnic
  • Conservation Carousel: $6 for unlimited rides all-day
  • Playgrounds for the little ones can be found at Samburu Jungle Gym (African Woods), Tiger Trail Play Area (Tiger Trail), Savanna Cool Zone (Lion Camp), and Village Playground (Nairobi Village)
  • Bring Swimsuits or a second set of clothes for the kids if they are going to play at the Savanna Cool Zone waterplay area

S’mores on the Beach at Coronado Island

One of my bucket list items for San Diego was to enjoy s’mores at a campfire on the beach on Coronado Island. I thought it wasn’t meant to be when I looked into it and found that it was an offering at the Hotel del Coronado. A beautiful hotel to be sure, but one that I probably couldn’t afford. Disappointed, I was about to cross it off my San Diego itinerary when I found out that the Hotel del Coronado did not care if you were a guest or not.

Called “The Roast“, the Hotel del Coronado offers a 1-hour firepit on the beach for up to 10 people. While unlimited s’mores is no doubt one of the most popular items, they also offer a full dinner menu. I figured my family could make a night of it out at Coronado Island and so I ordered hot dogs, cheese and charcuterie, and edamame along with our unlimited s’mores. (I might have been really hungry when I placed our order.)

The Roast at Hotel del Coronado
Photo Credit: theresandiego.com

San Diego Itinerary: Day 4

Legoland

No San Diego itinerary is complete without a trip to Legoland. Our plan was to head up to Legoland first thing in the morning in order to avoid as much of the crowds as possible.

Things to know before we go:
  • Bring a swimsuit and change of clothes / dry fast clothes for Pirate Shores and the Legoland Water Park
  • Note: because we were going in March, I was planning on skipping the water park as I thought it would be too cold for us. However, if you are a little more accustomed to the cold than we are, spring break may be a good time to visit as the water park had just opened and wimps like me would still be staying away.
  • Download the Legoland California app before you visit. If you are less technology savvy, they also provide paper maps at the park.
  • To avoid all wait times you can purchase “Reserve ‘N’ Ride” for $35-$100 per person. The difference in pricing primarily relates to how much you want to reduce your wait. My plan was to see how busy the park was once I got there and purchase one of the “Reserve ‘N’ Ride” options once I saw what type of wait time my family would be up against.
  • It is cheaper to purchase admission tickets online in advance than at the gate
  • Parking is $25 or preferred at $35. Since the regular parking is only a row behind the preferred parking, it may not be worth it depending on how empty the park is.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Rides we can’t miss (but not baby appropriate):
  • LEGO Ninjango The Ride (located in LEGO Ninjango World)
  • LEGO Technic Coaster (located in Imagination Zone)
  • Lost Kingdom Adventure (located in Land of Adventure) *Note that Land of Adventure opens at 12 PM
  • The Dragon Coaster (located at Castle Hill) *Note that Castle Hill opens at 12 PM
  • The Royal Joust (located at Castle Hill) ~ This ride isn’t fast-paced like the others and is actually only for kids between 4-12 years old but I thought Emily would adore straddling a pretend horse trotting through a forest dotted with life-sized LEGO knights and other characters
  • Lego City Deep Sea Adventure: Submarine Ride (located in LEGO City Deep Sea Adventure)
  • Driving School or Junior Driving School (located in Fun Town)
    • Junior Driving School is for 3-5-year-olds while Driving School is for 6-13 year-olds. I thought it was pretty cool that at the end of the “school” the kids earn their own driver’s licenses
  • Coastersaurus (located in Explorer Island)
  • The Lego Movie World: A brand new world that was slated to open the weekend we were there (opening day was obviously been pushed back due to the Coronavirus pandemic)
Rides / attractions for the baby of the family:
  • (Imagination Zone) Duplo Play: Giant bins of Lego Duplo Bricks
  • (Land of Adventure) Cargo Ace: Kids become pilots on an airplane (Note: I included this since I didn’t know what milestones Leo would meet by the time of our trip. However, this attraction would have been out for Leo since you need to be able to stand on your own (which he currently cannot do).
  • (Castle Hill) The Hideaways: Multi-level play structure with different obstacles
  • (LEGO City Deep Sea Adventure) Submarine Ride (also touted as a “Can’t Miss Ride” by many)
  • (Pirate Shores) Swabbies Deck: water play in crystal clear waters
  • (Fun Town) Duplo Playtown: Interactive playground with farm, hospital, slides, pretend vehicles and a crawl-through maze
  • (Fun Town) The Baby Care Center
  • (Explorer Island) Dig Those Dinos: An interactive area that will allow kids to dig for “skeletons”
  • (Explorer Island) Fairy Tale Brook: An enchanting boat ride through a world populated by many childhood favorite storybook characters
  • (Miniland USA) Coast Cruise: Leisurely boat ride around the world of animated Lego Models
  • (Miniland USA) Coast Guard Build-A-Boat: Build a rescue boat and race it down a 42-foot long water trail
  • (Miniland USA) Model Shop: Watch Lego Master Builders at work
  • (Miniland USA) Las Vegas, New Orleans, New York, Ferndale, San Francisco, Southern California, Block of Fame, Washington DC – a collection of American landmarks with more than 20 million lego bricks
Eating options that seemed well received by others:
  • Ninja Kitchen in LEGO Ninjango World. Options include:
    • Bánh Mì Vietnamese sandwiches on a fresh-baked baguette
    • Steamed Bao Buns, filled with crispy pork belly, lemongrass chicken or baked sweet chili tofu
  • Granny’s Apple Fries in Castle Hill – one friend told me she goes to Legoland just to eat this and every Legoland review I read raved about this.
  • Knights’ Smokehouse BBQ (note that there is outside seating only)
  • Garden Deli and Café in Pirate Shores
  • Fun Town’s Urban Kitchen in Fun Town. Options at this made-to-order buffet-style restaurant include:
    • Philly cheesesteak sandwiches
    • Oriental chicken stir fry
    • Extensive soups and salad bar
  • City Park Creperie at LEGO Friends Heartlake City
San Diego Itinerary - Granny's Apple Fries
Granny’s Apple Fries at Legoland
Photo Credit: Legoland

Quick fast food option for dinner… a.k.a. Why have none of the good fast food joints made their way to Hawaii?

I’m talking about you Chipotle (amongst others). After a full day at the park and no nap for Leo, the most energy this family would be up to was takeout from one of Bryan’s and my favorite chains that still hasn’t made its way across the pacific yet.

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check back in next week for Part II of my San Diego Itinerary.

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other California-related information, read about how my family rode Rise of the Resistance multiple times at Disneyland on opening weekend.

Tea at 1024: The Perfect Place to Sneak Away for an Afternoon of Fantastic Hats, Relaxation and of course, Tea

I am a huge afternoon tea fan. Huge. I try to sneak in an afternoon tea session any chance I get. The tea service at Tea at 1024 is one of the best places I’ve visited. So, if you come to the islands and want to take a break from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki or get a little too sunburned and want to try something new, give Tea at 1024 a try. You won’t be disappointed.

How to Dress

No, there is no dress code here. You’ll feel just as comfortable sitting around in shorts as you will in a nice party dress. There are, however, things to wear once you get to Tea at 1024. As soon as you enter you will be told that you can pick out your own hat. Easter bonnets and fascinators of every shape, size, and color adorn the many stands located around the restaurant. There are also boas that you can rock as well. As someone that dreams of attending either the Kentucky Derby or a UK event with a fascinator attached to my head, this part of the experience is a dream come true for me.

The second thing you’ll need to do once your headpiece is sorted is to choose your own teacup. This brings us to…

The Tea

The tea menu offered at Tea at 1024 is pretty extensive, including some very interesting flavors. For example, the last time I went I opted for one of their white teas called Ice Wine. It was very tasty but didn’t come with alcohol… haha. Well, at least I find myself hilarious.

Tea at 1024

If you order the kid’s (or “keiki”) afternoon tea option, it comes with hot chocolate. My daughter doesn’t like chocolate at all so I knew she would balk at an entire cup of chocolaty goodness. However, Tea at 1024 is very accommodating. You are able to order tea instead of hot chocolate if that is the preference. The last time we were there, my daughter and her friends opted to share a pot of Strawberry Green Tea. I was a little worried about how the tea would go over with a bunch of 5-year-olds, but those kids drained their entire pot and asked for another round.

The Food

Salad and Sandwiches

Starter Salad at Tea at 1024

The afternoon tea service kicks off with a fresh and delicious plate of berries, feta, and spinach, before moving on to the real star of the show: the tower of sandwiches and pastries.

The one thing I like the most about Tea at 1024 is their sandwich to pastry ratio. I love love love afternoon tea services but I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I really go for the tea and sandwiches. Usually, I end up disappointed when the food arrives and two-thirds of plate is filled with pastries with the mini sandwiches thrown in as an afterthought. Tea at 1024 is awesome in that they heap on the sandwiches, which are usually very interesting, to say the least. Along with the smoked salmon or cucumber sandwiches that frequent many tea services, this place also provides sandwiches filled with shredded cheese and pimentos, braised pork or curried chicken, just to name a few.

Kids Tray at Tea at 1024

Additionally, the keiki food options appeal to kids’ palates, with sandwich varieties such as peanut butter and jelly or egg salad. The sandwiches also appeal aesthetically as well, with pink and purple bread slices cut into little teapot shapes.

Pastries

While I could take or leave most of the sweet treats offered at any afternoon tea, there is one pastry I enjoy: scones covered in Devonshire cream. Okay, if I’m being honest, I really just like the Devonshire cream, but I feel it would look weird to not eat it on a scone. Many places I try scones at are tasteless, requiring heaps of Devonshire cream to cover up the dryness. However, the scones at Tea at 1024 are moist and therefore a wonderful accompaniment to the delicious cream topping. Meanwhile, the restaurant is definitely not chintzy, offering an entire bowl to its patron, half-filled with Devonshire cream and half-filled with jelly.

Throwing a Party

I’ve never thrown a party here but I’ve been to a couple as a guest, including a 5-year-old birthday party that my daughter and I attended a couple of weekends ago. In addition to the tea, the party hostess also had a makeup and hairstyling center. Princess Belle even stopped by for a visit. While all of that needed to be scheduled and booked outside of Tea at 1024, it was nice to see all the different options that could be done in conjunction with the afternoon tea. Another party I attended was for adults only. We were able to play baby-shower games and open presents at the location. So for any of my Hawaii-based readers out there, the sky’s the limit!

Dressing up at Tea at 1024

Parking and location

Tea at 1024 is located in downtown Honolulu. This means parking will be a problem. The restaurant offers validation at the Chinatown Gateway Plaza parking structure. With validation, parking will cost only $3. This is a great deal for downtown! However, the last time I went, I was able to find street parking (free on Sunday when I was there).

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. Want to read about how I gave the Baby Shark Mini-Show Two Thumbs Up? If you need another amazing place to visit with your kid, check out my review on the Funtastic KidZone in Pearlridge.

Our 6-Day New York City Itinerary with a Toddler

When we packed up to move across the country a couple years ago, we knew there was going to be A LOT of things we were going to miss about Connecticut and New York: our friends, the food, the cheaper travel options, heck even the weather (some of the time). But we were shocked to find out just how much we actually missed Manhattan. Sex and The City used to call NYC the fifth lady of the group. It took moving to realize just how much I had fallen in love with the city as well. So we decided to head back to the east coast for a vacation. Below you will find our 6-day foodie loving, toddler bringing New York City itinerary.

Our New York City Itinerary: A Summary

  • Flight from Honolulu to JFK with a 12 hour layover in Seattle!
  • Stay at the Novotel Hotel near Times Square.
  • Enjoy fancy-schmancy dinners at Sushi Yasuda, Per Se, Momofuku Ko and Eleven Madison Park.
  • Eat at all the places we miss going to now that we are in Hawaii, including Ippudo, Pick a Bagel, Chipotle, The Melting Pot, the Halal Guys and dirty water hot dogs
  • Visit Central Park and enjoy play dates, a carriage ride for the whole group, exploring the zoo and hunting for statues.
  • Take Emily to the American Museum of Natural History.
  • Hang out with friends in White Plains (NY), Hoboken (NJ) and Stamford (CT).
  • Return flight from JFK to Honolulu with another 12 hour layover in Seattle.

The Details

Travel Day(s)

Getting out of Dodge Honolulu

Our trip back east started out with a red-eye flight out of Honolulu. Here is my best tip for air travel with a toddler. Book a red-eye flight. These flights were amazing for Emily (and I’m hoping for Leo as well). Toddlers are old enough to have a regular sleep schedule. Therefore, there is a good chance your tyke will conk out for the majority of the flight. However, toddlers are also old enough to be super restless when they are up. There’s nothing like a 5+ hour flight with an awake toddler to make you regret not opting for a flight with a guaranteed sleep time included.

Our NYC Itinerary - Leaving HNL

One of the coolest things happened to us before we even left Honolulu. I’ll admit I have a love/hate relationship with TSA. I love that they are just trying to do their job to keep everyone safe. I just hate that they usually aren’t very pleasant to me while they do that. However, on the night of our red-eye, TSA made Emily’s night (if not year). You see that gold sticker on Emily’s shirt? It identifies her as a “Junior TSA Officer”. When we got to security, an agent took one look at her before quickly promoting her from traveler to officer. Emily took her new role very seriously, making sure that the whole family got through security quickly and quietly. What a change from the usual pushing and prodding that tended to happen whenever she had to walk through the metal detector / scanner. Thank you TSA!

Our crazy 12-hour layover in the Centurion Lounge

My family and I spent both of our long layovers camped out in American Express’s answer to luxury airport lounges. Read more about my experience and my thoughts on whether the Platinum Card is worth the $550 annual fee based on its access to the Centurion Lounge.

I don’t think I will ever spend that much time in the Centurion Lounge ever again. However, the most amazing thing happened to us during our layover in the Centurion Lounge. It wasn’t the bells and whistles that came with the “luxury” accommodations. It was an older gentleman exiting the lounge carrying a dozen roses. He stopped all of a sudden, did a 180-degree turn, walked to Emily and handed her a rose. The gentleman quickly turned and walked away without saying a word.

Our NYC Itinerary - A Rose in the Centurion Lounge

Day 1 in New York City

1. Check into the Novotel Hotel

Twenty-seven hours after we left our home we finally arrived in NYC and were ready to start our vacation. To be frank, I picked the Novotel hotel because it was a) the most cost effective option I could find in b) a great location (Times Square) with c) decent reviews. It had a nondescript street entrance for such a large hotel. However, once you got up to the second floor where the reception was, it was like stepping into a night club with its neon lighting and open area leading directly to the bar.

Novotel

In terms of location it was perfect for us. Located at 52nd and Broadway it took less than 10 minutes for us to walk to Central Park. As you’ll see below, we frequented Central Park ALL THE TIME. Since Times Square technically ends at 47th street, the Novotel hotel was still very close to one of the world’s busiest pedestrian areas and yet not smack dab in the middle of it.

2. Eat bagels and lox – the perfect NYC breakfast

The first year after I moved back to Honolulu, I couldn’t stomach the bagels. It just tasted so sub par to the amazing options in NYC. Nowadays, I have grown accustomed to Honolulu bagels and even have a favorite bagel location. However, I still made picking up a bagel and lox the first thing on our New York City Itinerary. We opted for Pick a Bagel on 8th Avenue but you really can’t go wrong no matter where you end up.

3. Wander through Times Square

Now that we were tourists instead of wannabe NYCers living in Connecticut, Times Square was one of our first stops. With no set plans until dinner we wandered through shops like Hershey Chocolate World, M&M’s World, the Disney Store and the Muji Store.

4. Kick off the week of fancy NYC dinners at Per Se… and Chipotle

Have those two places ever been linked together in the same sentence before? No? Good. I aim to be unique. Sad fact: Chipotle is not in Hawaii. We REALLY miss Chipotle. So there is probably a good chance you will be reading a lot about us visiting Chipotle whenever we travel to the mainland. Case in point, Bryan and Emily’s first dinner in NYC was take out from Chipotle. And now on to the fancy-schmancy stuff…

At first I shied away from posting too much about food on here. I’m a self proclaimed foodie but I did start a travel blog and not a restaurant review blog. However, Anthony Bourdain summarized my way of thinking the best, “food, culture, people and landscape are absolutely inseparable”. I do believe that finding amazing dining options is part of planning the perfect itinerary and typically spend hours researching favorite local establishments before our trips. I figured it would be a shame to cut that part out of my vacation recaps. And after all, eating in NYC was one of the main reasons for this vacation. Therefore you have been forewarned, there are a lot of food pictures to come, starting with my night out with my mom at Per Se.

NYC Itinerary: Per Se

Read my review on Per Se, both when we first went to visit the restaurant when they were ranked one of the best restaurants in the world, as well as how they are doing now.

Day 2 in New York City

1. Head to Norma’s for a decadent breakfast

One thing has always been on any New York City itinerary whenever our family came to visit. Go to Norma’s for a decadent breakfast. If money is no option to you, there is a lobster frittata with 10 oz of servuga caviar. All this can be had for the low, low cost of $2,000. Nope, that’s not a typo. But if you’d prefer to not walk out of breakfast a couple thousand poorer, my favorite options are the foie gras french toast or artychoked benedict.

2. Visit Central Park (Part 1)

I received a card from a family friend when my daughter was born. It said “I’m so excited for you to experience rediscovering the world through your daughter’s eyes”. That line has stuck with me ever since and was especially relatable during our times in Central Park. With a toddler in tow, of course Central Park was on my New York City itinerary… once. Turns out that Central Park is the most popular city park in America for a reason. One time at the park ended up not being enough for any of us and we spent the better part of the week discovering something new we had miss the day before.

I don’t know any other way to describe Central Park than to call it magical. An oasis in the middle of the concrete jungle that is Manhattan, Central Park is three avenues wide and stretches from 59th Street all the way up to 110th Street.  There are so many different places to see and explore, from playgrounds to the Bethesda Fountain, from Belvedere Castle to Strawberry Fields with its black and white Imagine mosaic.

We even became the ultimate tourists and took a horse drawn carriage!

NYC Itinerary: Central Park

3. Eat at Sushi Yasuda… named the best sushi restaurant in America (by me)

I wrote about my favorite sushi restaurant in my list of best restaurants to eat at in NYC. But I’ll shill for them again… (for FREE mind you) go eat there… you won’t regret it!

Best Restaurants in NYC - Sushi Yasuda

Day 3 in New York City

1. Lions and Tigers and Bears… and Mountain Lions at the American Museum of Natural History

When planning this trip, there were two places on my “must take Emily to” list for New York City: one was Central Park and the other was the American Museum of Natural History. Located on the upper west side of Manhattan, AMNH is one of the largest museums in the world. Its collection of artifacts is so great that only a small portion can be displayed at a time. When I was planning our stop here I pictured showing Emily one display after another. I would open up her mind to the vast world on display thanks to AMNH. But kids will be kids and Emily proved that toddlers and labored over itineraries do not often mix. She was so enamored with the animal displays (especially the mountain lion) that we spent most of our time there.

2. Visit Central Park (Part II)

Another great thing about AMNH? It’s across the street from Central Park. So of course our walk back to our hotel from the museum included a stroll through our favorite part of Manhattan.

3. Ellen’s Stardust Diner – a huge win for our little one

Need a place to take the little ones in your party? This place is it. My mom and Emily took the 1-minute walk from the Novotel Hotel to the famed Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Emily loved watching the future stars of Broadway serenading her while she ate. A little kitchy sure, but any musical loving fan will love it.

4. Filling our bellies at Momofuku Ko

While Emily and my mom hit up Ellen’s Stardust Diner, Bryan and I tracked down Momofuku Ko in its new and bigger location. See my discussion on the best places to eat at in NYC for my recap on our experience at Momofuku Ko. Want a spoiler? It was amazing!

Day 4 in New York City

1. Have a play date in… (you guessed it) Central Park

Once upon a time I was a 20-something year old and I had a friend that lived in Connecticut. We would do Connecticut things like go to soul cycle, drink in downtown Stamford, hop the train and drink in NYC, and grab coffee together. Then we both became 30-something year olds, popped out kids and moved away from Connecticut. But the stars aligned and she had moved to NYC for about a year and was still 1 month away from relocating to Miami when I went back to visit. So we grabbed coffee together (some things never change) and took our kids to Central Park.

Now, even before this vacation I had been to Central Park countless times before. However, I remained oblivious to the vast amount of playground structures until this trip. We only made it to the playgrounds in the southern section of the park and still felt like everywhere we turned was one more playground. Here is an extensive listing of playgrounds within all of Central Park.

2. Dinner at the world’s best restaurant – Eleven Madison Park

In 6 days of gorging myself, this was the only restaurant that I hadn’t been to before. Family and friends were singing EMP’s merits for years by this point and San Pellegrino had named this 3-Michelin Star Restaurant the best restaurant in the world. I was skeptical. I was actually cocky enough to think that there was no way that I didn’t already know about the best restaurant in New York. So we went to see what all the fuss was about. And you know what? I’m a big enough person to say when I’ve made a mistake. San Pellegrino, you knew what you were talking about. Read about my experience at EMP along with the other best restaurants in New York City.

3. Taking a (not quite) three-year-old to Broadway

When my mom decided to take Emily to a Broadway show I thought she was crazy. The closest Emily had come to sitting through a feature length performance before then was going to watch Finding Dory. We had to leave 45 minutes in when Emily got antsy. I couldn’t imagine the plan of taking Emily to a Broadway musical going well. But bless my generous mother, she bought them both tickets to Aladdin and decided to give it a try.

The results? They did have to leave at intermission, but not because of any worries that I had come up with. I thought Emily would get bored and want to walk around or that she would start talking loudly through the entire show. But from the moment the actors and actresses took the stage, they held Emily’s rapt attention. The reason they left at intermission was because Emily was scared of…. the Genie. I guess what is jovial and entertaining to adults is scary to a toddler. But other than the Genie she had a great time. In fact, she is now my constant companion at musicals, giving me another example about how amazing it is to let kids experience different things in the world. So a big THANK YOU to my mom for introducing her to the world of musical theater that I love so much.

Day 5 in New York City

1. Can you guess how we started our day? I bet you can. Visiting Central Park (Part IV)

My New York City itinerary had us visiting Brooklyn today. But Emily asked to go to Central Park again, and since she is CEO of our little family, away we went. This time we decided to check out the Central Park Zoo. Bryan and I stumbled upon the zoo one winter and had a wonderful time watching the animals. They were coming to life in the refreshing, colder air. It was a welcome change from the sleepy, wilted-in-the-sun animals at the zoo we were used to. However, given the much warmer temperatures this time around, I was worried if the zoo would hold as much awe for us. I was pleasantly surprised that the added enjoyment of watching Emily at the Tisch Children’s Zoo, where she was able to pet goats and sheep and crawl all over animal statues, kept this low key, tiny zoo as one of our favorites.

One of the things I’ve always loved to do in the park, whether I’m alone, with another adult or with kids in tow, is to search for the various statues littered throughout the 840 acre park. My favorites included the statue of Balto (pictured), Alice in Wonderland and Hans Christian Andersen as well as the austere literary walk where one can find the statues of four literary giants as well as Christopher Columbus.

2. Ippudo – the ramen joint that is well worth the wait

I love, love, love Ippudo. The entire family does. I still haven’t found a ramen place in Hawaii that I love as much as this place. So of course we had to include a trip to Ippudo in our New York City itinerary.

3. The suburbs of White Plains a.k.a. day trip #1 from the City

Fun (unfun?) fact: While part of going on our New York City vacation was to visit with friends, I can probably count on one hand the number of friends I have that still live in Manhattan. And I wouldn’t even need all five fingers. Rewind about a decade and that number would have been much higher. However, over the last 10 years, most of my friends got married, popped out babies and moved into the suburbs. And so, day five of our trip had Bryan and me heading north to White Plains to see our friends. Bryan headed off to a local bar to knock back beers with his old work buddies and I headed off to another one of my favorite franchises that isn’t in Hawaii… the Melting Pot.

Helpful hints for traveling the Metro-North Line

To get to White Plains (and back into Manhattan) we caught one of the Metro-North lines out of Grand Central Station. Here are some helpful (I hope) tips if you ever decide to visit a town on the Metro-North line. While you certainly can buy your ticket on board (and I have definitely done this before when I’ve been rushed for time), they charge you a premium and make you pay cash. The best option is to buy a round trip ticket before getting on the train.

Also, keep in mind what time you are traveling as the difference between peak and off-peak travel can be significant. Peak fares apply to weekday trains that arrive in Grand Central Station between 6 AM and 10 AM or that depart Grand Central Station between 4 PM and 8 PM. Peak fares are also charged for travel on any weekday train that leaves Grand Central Station between 6 AM and 9 AM.

The easiest thing to do is to download the onTime: MNR – MetroNorth Rail app onto your phone, select your to / from locations and quickly get a listing of all the train options and even what track the train will leave on.

One more fun fact to help with your commute: you can drink. For example, I’ve definitely purchased a 12-pack with my friends and took it on board the Metro-North line for some pre-gaming fun as we made our way south to the city. If you are less of a pre-planner and not afraid to splurge, you can grab a beer from the vendor that strategically parks himself in front of the various lines at the end of the workday for the many commuters that will fork over cash for an overpriced bud light in order to de-stress after a long day.

Day 6 in New Jersey and Connecticut

1. Take the ferry to New Jersey and enjoy some breathtaking views

Emily and I started off our day by taking the NY Waterway Ferry to New Jersey to visit friends. While the Path is the cheapest way to get to New Jersey, the ferry is definitely the prettiest. If there is something you want to see in New Jersey, I highly suggest you take the ferry route. Just make sure to verify you are at the correct stop before you get off. Emily and I definitely had to sprint back to the ferry after disembarking one stop too early.

2. Travel up to Stamford… the city that gives you huge tax breaks if you are a trashy talk show

We spent our evening in Stamford. My friend drove us there from New Jersey but the Metro-North Line from Grand Central Station is an easy (and much less trafficky) way to go. I had a great time driving by my old house, spending the evening with friends and eating at a couple of my favorite local joints. However, since I assume a synopsis of those events might not interest anyone that hasn’t spent 11 years living in Stamford, I figured I would talk to you about something that might cause you to visit Stamford: trashy talk shows.

In 2009, the Connecticut governor offered huge tax credits to Maury, The Jerry Springer Show, and The Steve Wilkos Show if they moved to Connecticut. He also offered a new $3 million studio facility in Stamford. Shocker of shockers, they all moved. I’ll admit, watching a taping of the Maury Show was one of the greatest highlights of my time in Stamford. I was just disappointed that no one cussed at me, yelling out “you don’t know me!” When my friends and I went we were the only ones that seemed to be local. The ladies behind us in line had just taken a bus in from North Carolina to see the taping. Let me tell you, a 45-minute train commute from NYC is MUCH closer than that.

3. Commuting to New Jersey by Train

Bryan headed to New Jersey for the evening via Penn Station. Penn Station is the busiest station in terms of commuter traffic but not the most visited (that would be Grand Central). This is the station that services the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and the New Jersey Transit (NJT). While the two stations aren’t connected it’s a very pretty and short walk between the two. And I should know, with an office right next to Penn Station, that used to be my commute every day for 2 years.

Travel Day Home

As it relates to our trip back east, that’s all folks. The next day we woke up early, jumped in a cab and made our way to JFK. We flew to Seattle for another 12 hours in the American Express lounge and then flew back to Honolulu.

NYC Itinerary: Heading Home
Waiting for our flight home

For next time…

Ironically, as I type this, I’m planning my next trip to New York. It’s a much shorter trip (2 days) since the majority of our time will be spent on a cruise ship. However, reflecting back on my last time in NYC certainly gave me a lot to think about in terms of my next itinerary, which will include a lot more kid friendly restaurants but probably the same amount of Central Park visits.

What to see?

Museum of Illusions – Friends recently came back from New York City raving about this museum. The museum’s website reads: “enter the fascinating world of illusions which will trick your confidence in senses, but amaze you by doing it.” All I know is I want my own family pictures to include Bryan’s head on a plate or a gigantic Leo sitting next to a tiny Emily.

Spyscape – Another friends also just came back from NYC (seriously are all my Hawaii friends going to NYC without me?). She never got to visit but one of the places that she intended to stop by was Spyscape, where you can discover your inner spy. Considering that one of my favorite things to do on the annual trips I would take to Washington D.C., was to visit the International Spy Museum (and I have the Spy beanie to prove it), this seems right up my alley.

Hamilton – I am not throwing away my shot. I’ve been dreaming about going to Hamilton since before Lin Manual-Miranda won his first Tony for the musical. I always heard that NYC tickets were still very expensive versus the tour tickets in places like San Francisco and Chicago. However, since I am giving up hope on Hamilton ever coming to Honolulu I figured I could spring for the extra NYC price since it would still be cheaper than flying to the mainland and paying for a hotel room just to see the musical.

Currently tickets for the dates we will be in NYC are not yet being sold… so I’ll just keep searching every day in hopes of catching their next release. In case you were wondering how I was going to see Hamilton with two kids in tow, I’ll let you in on a little secret… Bryan isn’t the other Hamilton lover in the family. Emily is. Although she’s only ever listened to censored versions of the songs and believes that Burn stems from Alexander telling Eliza that he didn’t want to be her friend anymore (very understandable to a 5-year-old).

Where to Eat?

Sushi Yasuda – For our 2020 trip I intend to be with the kids 100% of the time. However, I’ll admit that writing about the high-end eateries that I’ve previously enjoyed in NYC has made me wistful of not getting to experience that level of foodie goodness this time around. But Sushi Yasuda does offer take out.

Ninja New York – Black-clad Ninjas putting on a show for you while you eat Japanese food? What more could you want? Emily is kind of a scaredy-cat so this may not be a good pick for us. However, she is obsessed with PJ Masks and therefore when I broached the topic of eating at this restaurant she jumped at the chance to be among the likes of Night Ninja and his Ninjalinos.

American Girl Cafe – When I was a little girl only the richest girl in the entire school had an American Girl Doll. The rest of us just borrowed the American Girl Series from the Library. Now it seems to be a right of passage that girls go to NYC and obtain their American Girl Doll. However, Emily doesn’t yet know that American Girl Dolls exist so maybe this will be a pass for 1 more year.

Alice’s Tea Cup – In October, one of Emily’s besties is having a princess tea birthday party. Emily is ecstatic. If that goes well I figure a stop at NYC’s most whimsical tea house will be in order.

Dirt Candy – I’m not sure how Emily is my child,the girl loves vegetables. Fish, chicken and meat are all maybes, chocolate is a definite no but vegetables are always welcome on her plate. Considering I’ve always wanted to eat at this vegetarian restaurant that spins out delicious vegetable dishes, I figured this might be a definite option… assuming Leo can behave.

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other New York City related information, read about my Brooklyn weekend getaway, an amazing day at Spa Castle, and my recommendations of can’t miss things to see and do in New York City and the best places to eat in NYC if you don’t mind a hefty price tag.

You can also check out my write-up on some awesome events in the New York area, such as the New York Renaissance Faire and the Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze (coming soon).

The Best Restaurants in NYC: A Foodie’s Report

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.

Eleven Madison Park

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.

Momofuku Ko

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.

The elusive Momofuku Ko entrance, circa 2009

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.

Le Bernardin

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.

bernidin

Morimoto

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.

Daniel

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.

Marea

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.

Union Square Cafe

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.

Nougatine

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

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.

Best Restaurants in NYC - Gramercy Tavern

Sushi Yasuda 

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.

Best Restaurants in NYC - Sushi Yasuda

Per Se

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.

Hawaii Girl Travels…

Check out Destinations to see all the other places I’ve talked about. For other New York City-related information, read about my Brooklyn weekend getaway, an amazing day at Spa Castle, our 6-day trip back to NYC with an almost-three-year-old, and my recommendations of can’t miss things to see and do in New York City.