Editor’s Note: Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the NYC Greats.
New York is undoubtedly a restaurant city. In a place where most people live in small apartments with even smaller kitchens, restaurants aren’t just a convenience — in pre-pandemic times, they stood in for New Yorkers’ living rooms and backyards, giving residents spaces to gather outside their homes.
But while there are restaurants on every city block, there are some that make such an impact on the city’s culture that it’s hard to imagine New York without them. Some have been around so long that they’ve become synonymous with a cuisine or neighborhood, such as Grand Central Oyster Bar and its 100-plus years inside its namesake train station. Some are newcomers that immediately expand the restaurant landscape, like Rangoon’s singular approach to Burmese food in Brooklyn. And some, like Harlem’s Red Rooster, support their community as much as their community supports them.
These types of restaurants make up The Greats: a list of 22 restaurants, ranging from low-key to fine dining, that have helped define what it means to eat, live, and love in New York City.
Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (Hell’s Kitchen)
This tasting menu restaurant began in a space attached to the grocery store with which it still shares a name (Brooklyn Fare) on then-dark Schermerhorn Street in pre-development downtown Brooklyn. This unorthodox location, combined with chef César Ramirez’s luxurious, truffle-laden menu at a fittingly high price point, forced recognition that the borough could finally compete with Manhattan’s fine dining restaurants and earned the restaurant three Michelin stars. It has since moved to Manhattan, but the experience is the same — an expensive ticket that pays off in plates of uni, lobster, and a front-row seat to watch the chef at work.
Dining at the restaurant: The best seat in the house is at the chef’s counter, where you have a front-row view of the action.
Takeout: The restaurant is currently offering a takeout tasting menu experience, available to order via phone.
Combining the service standards of a fine dining restaurant, the meticulous sourcing of a steakhouse, and the flavors of Korean barbecue, Cote is a thoroughly modern restaurant that embodies what a modern Michelin-starred restaurant looks like in New York. Expertly trained servers grill house-aged beef on custom, table-top grills which diners then eat with pickled vegetables and lettuce, all while enjoying the restaurant’s stellar list of wines, often offered in large format bottles.
Dining at the restaurant: Cote is open for indoor dining, as well as outdoor dining in private cabanas that are decked out with the same table top grills used in the dining room.
Takeout: Much of the restaurant’s menu along with a few comfort food specials are available for takeout and delivery via Cote’s website. The restaurant also ships meal kits nationwide.
Empellon (West Village)
One wouldn’t have expected a Massachusetts-born pastry chef to open one of New York’s best Mexican taco spots, but that’s what Alex Stupak did. Rather than focusing on authenticity, Stupak prized creativity, taking inspiration from Mexico’s ingredients and leveraging the skills he gained from stints at Michelin-starred Alinea and the influential but now-closed wd~50. The result is a wholly original, Mad Hatter take on the cuisine, such as sopes with quail eggs, or the smoked cashew salsa.
Dining at the restaurant: Empellon Taqueria is currently open for indoor dining, and seating diners at the restaurant’s covered, heated outdoor area.
Takeout: The restaurant offers taco kits, salsas, cocktails, and sides of beans and tortillas for delivery or takeout via third party apps.
Grand Central Oyster Bar (Midtown East)
There are few restaurants more iconic than Grand Central Oyster Bar, located in New York’s equally iconic Grand Central Station and sharing the building’s grand scale and dramatic vaulted tile ceiling. With U-shaped lunch counters spanning end to end in part of the room and red-checked tablecloths covering wooden tables in the dining room, the place feels much as it did when it opened over 100 years ago. And while the clientele might dress differently, all come for the reasons people have for a century: for a quick bowl of chowder before exploring the city, or a dozen oysters and a cocktail before catching a train home. And while the restaurant is currently closed due to the decline in commuter traffic after COVID-19 hit, this familiarity will be a comfort when it finally reopens.
Dining at the restaurant: Grand Central Oyster bar is currently in hibernation.
Takeout: The restaurant does not offer takeout at this time.
Hearth (East Village)
Hearth, with its single word name, unadorned East Village dining room, and farm-to-table philosophy, helped usher in an era of many similarly ingredient-driven small dining rooms after it opened in 2003. But Hearth’s faithfulness to simple Italian cooking, along with its excellent service, has ensured that it outlasted almost all of them. (And if you’ve had bone broth in the last few years, you have Hearth chef Marco Canora to thank.) The restaurant’s appeal endures in its consistently excellent, simple food: here, the cacio e pepe polenta is freshly milled, the beef and ricotta meatballs are grass-fed, and the vegetables are green market fresh.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for indoor dining, as well as outdoor dining in its heated huts.
Takeout: Ready-to-eat dishes are available for pickup or delivery via the restaurant’s website; Hearth also offers frozen meals and provisions such as the restaurant’s soups, pasta kits, and “laptop dinners” that include a main and two sides to reheat at home.
Ivan Ramen (Lower East Side)
You may recognize the name Ivan Orkin from Netflix’s Chef’s Table, which tracked his obsessive pursuit of perfect noodles from his time in Tokyo to his opening of Ivan Ramen on the Lower East Side. Orkin’s odyssey has paid off; his noodle shop is consistently listed as one of the city’s best for both its technical execution of the dish and sheer variety. Diners can choose from six different types of ramen, differentiated by broth, as well as equally delicious sides and starters such as steamed pork buns or Japanese fried chicken.
Dining at the restaurant: Ivan Ramen is currently accepting reservations for heated outdoor seating in the restaurant’s backyard as well as inside the restaurant.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery is available via the restaurant’s website; Ivan Ramen also ships ramen kits nationwide.
Nippon (Midtown East)
When you dine at Nippon, you dine at a place where history was made — the restaurant rose to fame as the first in the country to serve traditional sushi preparations when it opened in 1963, introducing the wonders of meticulous raw fish to an American audience. And even among the omakase spots that it paved the way for, Nippon is still going strong: The restaurant remains a hub for traditionally crafted sushi and sashimi, along with original inventions that have now become classics such as beef negimayaki, where marinated strips of beef are rolled around grilled scallions.
Dining at the restaurant: Nippon offers indoor dining, as well as heated outdoor seating.
Takeout: The restaurant’s full menu is available for takeout and delivery via third-party apps.
Red Rooster (Harlem)
James Beard Award-winning celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has written that “…restaurants are the soul of a neighborhood,” a belief that drove him to forgo fine dining and open up a community-focused soul food spot in Harlem back in 2010. From a menu that nods to the neighborhood’s culinary history, to the space he made for local artists to showcase their work and local musicians to play, Red Rooster always went beyond just serving food. When the pandemic struck, Samuelsson immediately partnered with World Central Kitchen to serve free meals to anyone who needed it. Now that the restaurant has reopened, New Yorkers can once again head uptown to enjoy the famous yard bird (fried chicken), deviled eggs, and other comfort food favorites.
Dining at the restaurant: Red Rooster is currently open for indoor dining, as well as outdoor dining on the restaurant’s heated, covered patio.
Takeout: Takeout is available via the restaurant’s website, and delivery is available via third party apps.
Shun Lee Palace (Midtown East)
When Michael Tong opened Shun Lee Palace in 1971 with his partner, the late chef T.T. Wang, most of the city’s Chinese restaurants were serving Cantonese cuisine. Wang began implementing flavors from his background in Yangzhou and Shanghai, along with China’s Sichuan province, introducing New Yorkers to a new range of regional Chinese flavors. Most famously, Wang also adapted dishes for American palates, introducing now ubiquitous dishes such as chicken lettuce wraps and popularizing General Tso’s chicken. These dishes are still on the menu today, served in an elegant throwback dining room alongside satisfying accompaniments such as crispy XO prawns and crispy Beijing duck.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is currently only open for takeout.
Takeout: Shun Lee Palace’s entire menu is available for takeout and delivery via third-party apps.
Smith & Wollensky (Midtown East)
In a town dripping with beloved classic steakhouses, Smith & Wollensky manages to stand out. Everything about the restaurant points to vintage luxury, from the presence of a doorman, to the white-coated servers, to the menu of pitch-perfect steakhouse fare such as a full raw bar, sides like creamed spinach and potatoes au gratin, and of course, lots of beef. And the beef is what really sets Smith & Wollensky apart: The restaurant’s dry-aging expertise is still the gold standard, often imitated but never duplicated. Come hungry and order the beloved 26-ounce prime rib, along with several martinis to wash it down.
Dining at the restaurant: Smith & Wollensky is currently open for indoor and outdoor dining.
Takeout: The restaurant is not doing delivery at this time.
To many, Tao resembles a Vegas nightclub. But it might be more accurate to say that many Vegas nightclubs actually resemble Tao — the hybrid club and restaurant that pioneered the genre and exported it all over the world. Now, Tao is the place to have a night, whether it’s for bachelorette and bachelor parties, birthdays, or other celebrations. The restaurant is equal parts show and service, with tables tiered into steps on one end of the dining room so diners can survey the scene below them while enjoying potstickers and Peking duck. Those who want to continue the night can head to the nightclub, hidden away within the same building, where hopes of celebrity-spotting and high-priced bottle service have helped Tao become one of the highest grossing restaurants in New York.
Dining at the restaurant: Tao is open for indoor dining, as well as outdoor dining in the restaurant’s covered, heated patio area that’s fully decorated with chandeliers and lattice-worked walls to mimic the restaurant’s glam interior.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery is available via third-party apps, featuring special dishes such as Tokyo fried chicken boxes and sushi platters.
The Odeon (TriBeCa)
The Odeon has been an anchor for Lower Manhattan since it opened in 1980, long before TriBeCa was a trendy neighborhood. The restaurant has weathered the ups and downs of several recessions, 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and now a global pandemic, all while remaining a symbol of downtown cool that counts celebrities as regulars and whose interior has influenced restaurant design for decades. It is, in the truest sense of the word, timeless: providing a stylish and comfortable room to enjoy comforting bistro classics such as frisée salad and roast chicken while doing some of Manhattan’s best people watching.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant is open for indoor dining and outdoor dining, where sidewalk tables are equipped with rain-proof awnings, wind barriers, heaters, and plexiglass dividers.
Takeout: The Odeon’s menu is available for takeout and delivery through the restaurant’s website.
The Smith (Multiple Locations)
When The Smith opened in the East Village back in the aughts, it didn’t scream “future chain.” And that’s exactly what makes this mini-chain so endearing, even after its expansion in and beyond New York City. The menu, which at dinner includes everything from a solid burger to a pot of mussels to a blackened pork chop, is reliable, reasonably priced, and served in a well-designed room. In normal times, it works for client lunches in Midtown, after-work drinks in NoMad, pre-theater dinners near Lincoln Center, and weekend brunches in the East Village; all reasons why it’s become a vital part of New York dining life.
Dining at the restaurant: The Smith offers indoor dining, as well as heated outdoor dining at all New York locations, and it’s especially stringent about safety precautions.
Takeout: During the pandemic, The Smith launched The Smith at Home, offering heat-and-eat meals, sauces, and meal kits that allow diners to replicate dishes like the restaurant’s popular vanilla bean French toast at home. All items are available for delivery or pick-up at the diner’s chosen Smith location.
Cosme, the first New York outpost from acclaimed Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera, can rightfully be said to have set the standard for Mexican fine dining in New York City. Having already run successful restaurants in his home country, Olvera translated his deep knowledge of Mexican culture and ingredients into a sleek, cool space in Gramercy. The restaurant’s attention to detail is unmatched, even dedicating a position solely to making tortillas so good that they become another element in the dish, not simply a vessel for dishes such as the signature duck carnitas.
Dining at the restaurant: Cosme is open for indoor dining.
Takeout: The restaurant does not offer takeout or delivery at this time.
Honey Badger (Crown Heights)
Owners Junayd Juman and Fjolla Sheholli opened their tasting menu restaurant Honey Badger without prior restaurant experience, seeking to connect diners more directly to the land through a focus on foraging and locally sourced products, some even coming from land they farm themselves. The result is a restaurant whose creativity matches some of the top tasting menu spots in the city, but still manages to remain true to its mission and root itself deeply in the surrounding community. In fact, during the initial city shutdown in March, the owners cooked daily meals for elderly neighbors, completely free of charge.
Dining at the restaurant: Honey Badger is currently serving diners outdoors in six individual, heated cabins that were hand-built by the owners. The menu changes daily and may include dishes such as Jonah crab from Rhode Island over creamed salsify topped with locally grown carrots and house-pickled plums.
Takeout: Takeout is not available at this time.
Nargis Cafe (Sheepshead Bay)
Nargis Cafe isn’t the only Uzbek restaurant in the city, but the restaurant’s perfectly charred kebabs have earned it recognition as one of the best. The wide-ranging menu captures Uzbekistan’s position at the crossroads of China and the Middle East, serving herring with garlic and dill alongside markovcha, a Korean-style marinated carrot salad that’s a distant cousin to kimchi.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant currently offers indoor dining.
Takeout: Nargis offers both delivery and takeout through online ordering on the restaurant’s website.
Olmsted (Prospect Heights)
Olmsted opened in 2016 to a tremendous amount of hype, with critics and diners excited to see how chef Greg Baxtrom translated his fine dining skills (he’s worked at Alinea, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Per Se) to a self-described neighborhood restaurant. Playful dishes such as “tagliatelle” made entirely out of rutabaga and topped with brown butter and black truffle quickly landed Olmsted on many “best-of” lists, with locals and out-of-towners booking up reservations weeks in advance. The backyard is one of the best in town, serving as both a mini-farm that supplies the restaurant, a place to retreat for dessert (pro tip: order the s’mores, which come with an individual can of coals to toast marshmallows), and an idyllic place to wait for your table while sipping a cocktail.
Dining at the restaurant: The restaurant currently offers outdoor dining under a heated tent in the backyard garden as well as indoor.
Takeout: Olmsted currently offers a menu of comfort food such as beef bourguignon for takeout and delivery. Items from the Trading Post, the restaurant’s grocery, are also available to order online for pickup.
Rangoon (Crown Heights)
One of the city’s best spots for Burmese food almost didn’t open through a combination of delays compounded by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (more on that here). But fans of Burmese cuisine and the newly converted are glad that the creativity and grit of owners Myo Moe and Daniel Bendjy has kept the restaurant afloat, serving a small menu of modernized Burmese dishes that includes dishes such as the seasonally available tea leaf fried rice and tamarind-laced fish curry.
Dining at the restaurant: Rangoon recently opened its doors for indoor dining for the first time since the restaurant opened. Outdoor dining is also available in the custom built, covered, and heated structure, which was built to resemble a Burmese temple.
Takeout: Takeout and delivery are available through Rangoon’s website.
River Cafe (DUMBO)
When owner Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe opened The River Café in 1977, DUMBO was a desolate neighborhood, full of underutilized waterfront warehouses, but he saw potential in the sweeping views of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge (now making it a must for romantic occasions). In many ways, the restaurant has always been ahead of its time, with chefs (among them, over the years: Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, and David Burke) basing fine dining menus off locally sourced and foraged ingredients. As the neighborhood has grown around it, the Michelin-starred restaurant has kept up, remaining a destination for dishes such as pan-roasted venison served over soft chestnut polenta and dressed with ruby port natural jus.
Dining at the restaurant: The River Café is currently open.
Takeout: Takeout is not available during this time.
Shalom Japan (Williamsburg)
In a stroke of genius, Shalom Japan owners and married couple Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel combined two cuisines with no shared DNA: Japanese and Jewish. Since opening in 2013, Shalom Japan has combined the two disparate cuisines in creative ways that paint a cross section of New York’s food cultures. For instance, the matzah ball soup veers into ramen territory with the addition of the Japanese noodle and an optional soy-marinated egg. Similarly, the house-smoked pastrami starts with wagyu beef and is served on Japanese milk bread — but with a dill pickle, of course.
Dining at the restaurant: Shalom Japan is open for indoor dining, and also seats diners on the restaurant’s patio, where heaters, blankets, and hot cocktails are available to keep warm.
Takeout: The regular menu is available for takeout via the restaurant’s website, along with meal kits such as the hot pot for two.
Rice & Beans (Woodside)
The border of Astoria and Woodside is home to several Brazilian spots, but Rice x Beans stands out for its warmth, feeling more like dining in someone’s home than in a restaurant. Owner Carlos Roberto Inácio focuses on the food he grew up eating, serving top-notch feijoada — the rich pork and black bean stew that’s often held up as Brazil’s national dish — alongside snacks such as jerk beef croquettes. The dishes are frequently brought out by Inácio himself, whose personal involvement with every aspect of the restaurant lends the brightly lit dining room a familial air and immediately made the restaurant an indispensable local spot.
Dining at the restaurant: Indoor dining is available in the restaurant’s newly renovated dining room, where the layout was tweaked to allow extra space between tables. Rice x Beans also offers covered, heated sidewalk seating for those who’d prefer to dine outdoors.
Takeout: Takeout is available through the restaurant’s website.
Mario’s Arthur Ave (Little Italy)
Owned by the Migliucci family for five generations, Mario’s is a deeply personal restaurant. he interior is decorated with Italian landscapes painted by a distant relative, and until his passing in April, diners could expect to be greeted by patriarch Joseph Migliucci when they arrived. Which explains why for more than 100 years, neighbors and regulars from all over the tri-state area have flocked to the restaurant for hearty portions of Italian classics such as chicken parmigiana and homemade lasagna. Now in the care of Migliucci’s daughter, Regina, very little has changed except for one menu dish: the restaurant’s pizza, long a well-known, off menu-item, has finally found its place in print.
Dining at the restaurant: Mario’s recently reopened for indoor dining and also has outdoor seating available under heated tents.
Takeout: The restaurant’s menu is available for takeout by calling Mario’s directly.