The city that never sleeps is also the city that loves to eat. As one of the great foodie capitals, New York is where culinary trends are born and bred, tested on one of the world’s most discerning — and fickle — populations. In recent years, NYC has spawned the return of the speakeasy, the farm-to-table craze, and the gourmet reinvention of burgers, hot dogs and ramen. But getting a taste of the real New York City — the places you just won’t find anywhere else in the world — often means veering off the tourist track, getting out of Times Square, and sometimes fleeing Manhattan altogether. With rents in New York at an all-time high, some of the freshest new culinary talent is to be found in parts ungentrified.
The classic steakhouse
Keens Steakhouse is a classic New York City staple
Simply put, you can’t go wrong with Keens Steakhouse (72 West 36th St; +1 212 947 3636; www.keens.com), the oldest steakhouse in New York. The carnivore’s paradise is enjoying a renaissance, perhaps since foodie hero Anthony Bourdain featured it on an episode of No Reservations in 2009. But Keens has long been beloved by New Yorkers for its old-school charm, simple yet expertly done steaks and signature mutton chops. Occupying a prime spot near Herald Square in New York’s old theatre district, Keens Steakhouse was once a hangout for writers, actors and theatre-goers, who flocked to its private Pipe Room to imbibe during intermissions.
Today, the maze-like dining room is spread across several floors, with wood-panelled rooms named after famous patrons past, and the old-fashioned smoking pipes of yesteryear adorning ceilings, lending it the ambience of a private gentleman’s club circa 1885 — the year Keens first opened its doors. For a place to rest your head after a sizeable meal, the elegant Langham Place hotel is just a stone’s throw away, while a short five-minute walk towards Times Square will take you to the Knickerbocker, the newest hotel on the scene with 31 suites and a 700-square-metre rooftop bar from which to take in Midtown’s skyline.
An honourable mention goes to Peter Luger Steakhouse (178 Broadway, Brooklyn; +1 718 387 7400; peterluger.com). This New York institution comes complete with a hefty, months-long reservation waiting list, and shows no sign of losing its Michelin star any time soon. Opened in 1887 by German immigrant Carl Luger and later re-named after Carl’s son and heir, Peter Luger’s serves just one cut of beef — USDA Prime Porterhouse, prepared to your liking and sliced up for you to share with your dining companions.
Freshly shucked oysters are of no shortage at Aquagrill
For platters of the finest fruits de mer (enjoyed with a glass of champagne, naturally) follow the city’s effortlessly cool crowd to SoHo and NoLita. Feast on freshly shucked varieties within the refined elegance of Aquagrill or, if you’re a low-key sea-foodie, brave the rowdy crowds of hipsters at Ed’s Lobster Bar, an unpretentious NoLita joint that whispers of a rustic-chic Hamptons beach house and serves chilled oysters and whole steamed lobster to ’90s hip-hop beats. Whichever your choice, both eateries are a short way from Sixty Soho (formerly 60 Thompson), an understated but no less luxurious hotel on Thompson Street with interior designs from Briton, Tara Bernerd.
Black cod and caviar expertly served up at Nobu NYC
New York is considered the nucleus of Japanese cuisine in America; Midtown is littered with Japanese restaurants, from highly regarded upscale traditionalist Sushi Yasuda to modern Japanese-fusion chains Nobu and Zuma, the latter of which just opened its doors in January. But look below street level and you’ll uncover a collection of the city’s best-kept Japanese food secrets. Subterranean gem Sakagura is the place to dine on the softest grilled salmon collar in town, while Japanese expats favour boisterous Izakaya institution Sake Bar Hagi tucked below the madness of Times Square.
Freshly seared wagyu sirloin tataki with black truffle ponzunzu at Zuma
Kyo Ya’s modest all-wood interior sits quietly beneath East 7th Street, with nothing to alert you to its presence but a wooden sign that reads “Open”; take a chance and you’ll be rewarded with an unforgettable meal. Enter Sake Bar Decibel located in the basement of an unassuming building on East 9th Street, not far from The Standard at East Village, and the young, achingly cool all-Japanese staff shout their greetings before leading you to a curtained-off room plastered in graffiti; hip-hop music blares as you sit among groups of arty types discussing politics over bottles of sake and Japanese beers. Thankfully, the food — mostly Japanese snacks that pair perfectly with a Sochu martini — is excellent, too.
A fine art
Artistic dining at Aquavit. A herring dish photographed by Signe Birck
A total of 74 NYC restaurants made it into the 2015 Michelin Guide, but few can challenge the theatrical culinary experience that is Eleven Madison Park a three-star recipient since 2011. EMP’s four-hour lunch and dinner seatings are as much lessons in fine-dining as they are works of art; each dish is created with painstaking attention to taste and presentation, explained in detail by the patient and gracious staff, and paired with exquisite wines, craft beers and aperitifs by the skilled in-house sommelier.
The two-Michelin-starred Aquavit stands quietly on the ground floor of a Midtown office tower. Step inside its sleek Scandinavian-designed interior and taste chef Emma Bengtsson’s boldly creative menu, which delivers its Nordic theme in both taste and presentation: dishes of herring and venison tartare are crafted with minimalist precision and presented beautifully on naturally sourced materials such as shells, rocks, and dried sea kelp.
Eleven Madison Park chefs at work
Cozy and cool interior is what Red Rooster is all about
In 2010, celeb chef Marcus Samuelsson left the aforementioned Aquavit to open Red Rooster, his ode to Southern comfort food with a Swedish twist. People flocked — to Harlem, no less — to sample shrimp and grits served alongside meatballs with lingonberry. Cue the invasion: NYC was soon flooded with soul food restaurants. Some are unapologetically low-key, such as the East Village diner Bobwhite Lunch & Supper Counter. Of course, there are others catering to those who just can’t rough it at a greasy spoon, such as Ducks Eatery where diners flock to chef Will Horowitz’s unique blend of Creole, Southern and Asian dishes, including tender smoked goat’s neck; duck salad with black rice, pomegranate, apple and black garlic; and spicy brisket jerky with black peppercorn and palm sugar.
The Golden Book