After my infamous Summer in Sandwiches, I needed a new eating quest. It’s in my DNA; if you did some oddball personality test on me my “must complete lists” and “likes food” traits would be off the charts. After a few minutes of wandering across the Internet desert, I came across the Eater 38, a list of the 38 most relevant restaurants of the moment. One of the great parts of the list is that it’s dynamic; every 3 months it’s reassessed and 3 entries get cut and 3 new spots take their place. It’s a constant quest, and they try to keep expense account places off the list so it’s not horribly expensive.
The first version of the Eater 38 that I saw was was the July 2010 one. And luckily I had already been to 6 entries on the list:
This was my first fine dining experience in New York. I went with a friend (now my boss) and a couple he knew (now married, boy am I old as shit). I went to school down South and knew little about New York City, even though I had grown up in Connecticut. My grandparents lived in Queens, so my version of New York growing up was more Coming to America than Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Gramercy Tavern helped me realize just how wondrous New York could be. And what a hassle it could be as well. The back room was booked well in advance so we had to eat up front in the parlor. But no matter, sneaking onto the list sideways is accepted. The pork chop I had was amazing. I joked with my friend that he got a portobello mushroom dish (lame) instead of a protein but he told me that in New York they can make vegetables so good that they taste like meat.
During the meal the waiter noticed that a little string was on the portobello mushroom plate. His discourse with my friend went something like this:
“I’m so sorry we left that string on your meal”
“No, that’s OK”
“You know if you don’t like it we can comp your dessert”
“Oh man, this is terrible, is there any way you can rectify the situation?”
That peach cobbler was delicious.
In case you don’t know, being a law firm summer associate is the tits. Especially if you get to be a law firm summer associate before Lehman crashed (yes, I realize I was born with a horseshoe up my patoot) and were not particularly worried about getting an offer. One of the perks is that the firm takes you out to really nice lunches all summer, and Balthazar was the first place I went. I was so excited that I Googled it to the hilt and bragged about going there to my sister. A week after moving to the city I got to have lunch there, and its French brasserie fare did not disappoint. Slowly, I was becoming a New Yorker.
One thing you learn fast about a law firm is that the lawyers are the least cool people there. The marketing folks are the ones who really know what’s going on. For the rest of my summer I went to steakhouses and other expense report-friendly venues. But when I returned to the firm they set up a dinner at the newly opened Locanda Verde, and my class had its midyear dinner party at Peasant. The two have similar vibes and cuisines, but what stands out was what happened after each event. Locanda Verde dinner was on possibly the coldest day all year, and the restaurant is situated unfortunately close to the Hudson. Our attempts to expense report drinks after failed due to lack of interest. At Peasant I gorged myself on the mountains of food, and I had to leave the afterparty because I ended up throwing up in the bathroom of the bar we went to after. Since then, I’ve learned portion control.
I went here with GF1 (note: in the interest of protecting the anonymity of all my girlfriends/dates, they will be listed as GF1, GF2, GF3, etc. even if we never actually had “the talk”) during my sandwich quest. In case you missed it, Momofuku took their listed sandwich off the menu so instead I had a bowl of crispy pig ears. It was one of my many stops on my road to Damascus, if Damascus meant “realizing every part of the pig is delicious and should be eaten.”
GF1 and I went to Diner as a consolation prize before the list came out. We had tried to go to Fatty Cue for the number 1 sandwich but they were closed that day (I think it was Labor Day? GF1 and I drank a lot together so memories with her can be a blur). Diner is as Twee and Williamsburg as Twee Williamsburg restaurants can get. Your skinny-jeaned waiters write the menu on your table as Of Montreal plays in the background. I had the gumbo, which was delicious, but had gumbo-esque after-effects. So beware.
Anyway, I started tackling the list with GF1 in late summer 2010 and early autumn.
Maz Mezcal was about two blocks from GF1’s apartment so it was a no brainer. It was pretty standard Mexican fare, and the UES’s strong presence on this list indicates that someone who writes it lives there and doesn’t want people to think the Upper East Side is only Elaine’s and Dorrian’s (in July 2010 Elaine’s still existed).
Little Owl was a couple of blocks from my old West Village apartment so it was easy for me to get a seat at the notoriously cramped restaurant. And it was worth it. As you know, pork is easier to work with than chicken. There are only so many flavors and different portions of the chicken that a cook has to work with, while pork gives you many more options to create something brilliant. But Little Owl does its chicken to perfection, and might be the best thing I ate on this list.
Right as things with GF1 were going south, Eater unleashed the October 2010 Eater 38. I went from having 8 restaurants to…9 restaurants. They dropped Peasant, but added Torrisi and Salumeria Rosi, two restaurants that I had gone to on my sandwich quest. Yes, this means I have not had dinner at Torrisi, but this isn’t the top 38 restaurants to eat dinner at. And my quest picked up where it left off:
I had a closing dinner at Raoul’s, which meant I was both the youngest and poorest person there. Still, hearing about other people’s trips to St. Bart’s and Hong Kong is pretty fantastic when they do it over some pitch-perfect steak au poivre.
If I lived blocks from Little Owl that also means that I lived blocks from Joseph Leonard as well, so I went here with GF2 right after it reopened (it was closed for a while after a fire). It was good, but I think Gabe Stulman’s more expensive and ambitious Fedora is more deserving of inclusion on this list. Joseph Leonard does its best version of home-cooked food, but I’d rather see Stulman spread his wings (and claws) a few blocks away. The fact that I have an opinion means that I’m becoming a New Yorker, right?
As I was becoming a New Yorker, and as GF2 was moving to Philadelphia, the January 2011 Eater 38 came out, and I went down from 11 to 10 with the loss of Diner. Luckily, GF3 came into the picture and we started knocking out a ton of these
GF3 and I had a fantastic time at Lupa. My saltimbocca was glorious, whatever she had was fine, and Lupa’s mixed drinks got us loaded. This list is dominated by Mario Batali, but Multo Mario is worthy of the accolades: his restaurants do not miss a step. You just have to ignore the doofy ponytail and clogs.
Blue Ribbon Brasserie
Blue Ribbon Brasserie has no reservations and is tiny, so it’s legendarily impossible to get a table there. Luckily, after a couple of tries GF3 and I finally got a table, where we got to sit next to none other than Billy Crudup. The food was fantastic as well. I’ve been back a few times, but nothing beats eating your oysters next to THE Billy Crudup.
Fette Sau is another 38 member that does not take reservations, and ergo I needed multiple tries to cross it off the list. The second time I went was part of a perfect Williamsburg day. Went there with a few friends, went to the Momofuku Milk Store to get cookies, filled up growlers at Duane Reade and played Monopoly all afternoon. Basically, it’s a day that goes into the How To Live In Williamsburg handbook.
Since I lived near Little Owl and Joseph Leonard, I also lived near Spotted Pig. GF3 and I tried a couple of times to go there, especially since she worked nearby as well. But we never got to because I couldn’t get out of work on time; whenever we got there it was an hour wait. Then, finally, I was in a minor car crash and I missed a day of work. I sprained my neck and got a concussion, but otherwise I was fine. It also meant that we could go to Spotted Pig for dinner since I didn’t have to worry about getting back from work by 6 pm. We finally got a table, and their famous burgers, but I did miss out a little. They were giving out free prosecco to celebrate getting an A from the Department of Health, but you can’t drink on a concussion. Luckily, GF3 was more than willing to drink my glass.
My cousin is a stereotype; went to UVM, plays jazz guitar, in a band, lives in Bushwick. When visiting him out in the shwick we’ve been to Roberta’s a few times. It’s been packed ever since the New York Times gave it 2 stars, but we knew it as a place where you could get transcendent pizzas, good beers, and make Simpsons references all night in their outdoor patio space.
Drama! I went here with GF1 to say goodbye as she was moving to Chicago, and GF3 was pissed even though I was more than willing to text her my exact whereabouts at all times. My first misstep of many in that relationship. Especially since JG Melon is pretty meh and doesn’t really belong on this list.
I’m not totally averse to including Upper ___ Side institutions on this list, with Bar Boulud being a prime example. I had Sunday brunch here with my Upper West Side-dwelling friendboss. Not only was it great, but their bathrooms are fantastic too. Which is good because I put an epic gutbomb into the Boulud toilets. Sorry, DB.
GF3 was really game for knocking out restaurants on this list. So I wasn’t daunted when the April 2011 Eater 38 came out, removing Little Owl (better than Joseph Leonard!) and Maz Mezcal (not better than Cascabel!) and knocking my total from 17 to 15.
GF3 really liked chef’s tables, so we went to the one at Aldea. I think it’s because she got to stare at lantern-jawed George Mendes when we sat at the chef’s table here. We went the same day he debuted on Top Chef: All-Stars too, so it was almost like a second celebrity sighting. And we went in the middle of RAMPS! craziness so I got the skate with brown butter and RAMPS! The skate with brown butter was so good that it didn’t need RAMPS!
Another Batali restaurant that I went to with GF3. Matt Ufford put it best when he said that “eating at Casa Mono is like eating at God’s table.”
Blaue Gans, however, is a bit of a misfire. It’s a cool-looking place but the food is pretty meh. I like the schnitzel truck better. But if you dig Austrian pub grub and like cool artwork on the walls, then this place is for you.
A lot of figuring out New York is the 50/90 problem. You need to find restaurants that are 50% the hassle and 90% of the quality of more upscale competitors. That’s where Esca fits in: 50% the hassle and waiting at Le Bernardin, 90% the quality. Best damn crudo I ever ate.
A while ago a Jewish friend asked me why I don’t like delis. “What food do you like?” “Italian, French.” “So you want to be a boring European?” “No, but I want to eat like one.” So, I kind of groaned upon seeing Mile End on this list, and I took an out by avoiding their most Jewish lunch dishes and settling on a Beef on Weck. Which was a fantastic Beef on Weck. And I got to avoid eating pastrami (I know, I’m a terrible Jew, so sue me. Wait, don’t sue me.).
Anyway, right as GF3 was dumping my sorry ass the July 2011 Eater 38 came out, pissing me off by dumping Blue Ribbon, one of my favorites, and knocking my number from 20 to 19.
Oriental Chinese Garden
Thankfully, bossfriend has a Taiwanese girlfriend who can help make sense of the authentic Chinatown dim sum places. It’s worth going here, but I cannot recommend enough going with an authentic Chinese person so you know just how many chicken feet you’re ordering. By the way, chicken feet taste OK but they’re way too bony for my taste.
Do you like Thai food? Go here. Even if the 7 train isn’t running and you have to hitchhike. This is the best Thai food I have ever eaten, and quite possibly the best Thai food outside of Thailand. If you do go here, email me because I have friends who have made a guide to ordering at Sripraphai to maximize your experience.
GF4 lives on the Upper East Side so this was a no-brainer. She’s a vegetarian but, thankfully, the veggie tacos here are supposedly delicious. I had the lengua tacos (calf tongue) which were also delectable, but they will cause you to have awful calf tongue farts afterward that make your cab driver yell at you to roll down the window. At least I didn’t do that on the date.
GF4 and I crossed this one off the list after we went to Brooklyn Brewery for one of their tours. Oh wait, that was what was supposed to happen, but the fucking L Train wasn’t running that weekend. At least we got to eat at Rye, which also supposedly has a great veggie dish (according to GF4) and some strong cocktails that will make you pass out during a football game you watch later that night. Oh, and motherfucking Pappy.
Upper West Side bossfriend and I had tried going here a few times before but it was always packed. Finally we picked a rainy shitty night where blown out umbrellas litter the streets like dead Japanese at Iwo Jima. No wait, and some amazing Italian food that was surprisingly cheap. Even with appetizers and booze it was only like $40 a man including tip.
La Nacional’s tapas might not as a whole be as good as Casa Mono’s, but their meatballs (pork and veal) are out of this world. Better than the Meatball Shop. Oh man, I can taste them right now /cleans drool off keyboard.
When the October 2011 Eater 38 came out I went from 25 to…26? Yes, they took off 3 places I never went to (including Balaboosta, which is Middle Eastern so I’d never go there, one Jewish place is enough) and put on Lure, where I had my boozy going away party at my law firm. All right! They have some killer seafood as well, but mostly I remember all the wine.
Notes on my iPhone from the night I went to Veselka. “Girl bartender nice butt back tattoo.” That shows you the state you’re in when you go to Veselka. I think they have a good hamburger? I don’t remember.
Went here with friendboss and the guy I’d been to Gramercy Tavern with. Nearly 5 years later, we’re still a bunch of pricks. Danji looks like your first apartment in New York but has a phenomenal mix of traditional and modern Korean dishes served tapas style. Still, I lost a game of credit card roulette here, so I will refrain from giving it a wholehearted recommendation.
Another restaurant where I had a few false starts. My sister and I had a reservation (before ABC Kitchen won a Beard Award and made such reservations impossible) but she had to reschedule because of a hair appointment. Ladies and their hair, amirite? And I had a reservation with my parents, but we had to cancel on account of Hurricane Irene lashing New York that day. I totally know how New Orleans felt after that.
Anyway, I finally went with a few law school friends. Much of the conversation centered around whether the food we were eating was better than sex. I’m not saying that it was, I’m just saying that the debate existed. Also, this was one of the few times where I saw my bill and thought “$100? That’s pretty reasonable!” So, I’d say it’s worth your patronage here.
Keith McNally has had his knob slobbered on by numerous publications. But Minetta Tavern is kind of overrated. The bone marrow is great, the strip is worthy, but it’s $54 and not appreciably better than steaks you could get for less elsewhere. Also, it’s a bitch getting a reservation and the desserts aren’t that great. This would be the best restaurant in DC. But New York? No.
Eater keeps a steakhouse on this list as some sort of duty, I guess. I don’t want to sound like a douche, but I’m beyond being impressed merely by a medium rare cut of meat. Luckily this is still a good place to knock a few back with an old college friend, embarrassing the old couple next to you with your ribald tales of debauchery. But the food is kind of meh.
After a couple of misfires, I was glad to eat at a place that actually belonged on this list. Everything is so good you think the chef is trying to win a competition. Seriously, this is Top Chef food at its finest. I recommend the shrimp and dirty rice, fried yard bird and the Black and White Mud. Seriously, the Black and White Mud might be the best dessert I had on my quest. Also, it cost about half as much as my meal at Minetta Tavern. However, Minetta’s service was impeccable, whereas at Red Rooster we had a reservation for 10:00, we sat down at 10:15, and got our appetizers at 10:45. If you’re not going to have space available until 10:00 p.m. you should at least serve your customers promptly once they get there. But, the live music put me at ease, as did the poori I snacked on before I got there.
That left me with 32 of the 38, and when Eater re-released the list…chaos. Later this week, I address the fallout.