What to Get Instead of Roses This Valentine's Day
An antidote to the Grand Central Station-adjacent post-work pubs
Fashioned after the perennially imitated, somewhat elusive, so-called golden age of Manhattan, Valerie’s decor hits all the expected Gatsby-esque marks in a space formerly occupied by a Jack’s 99¢ store. Chandeliers hang above the expansive, golden-toned dining room, where guests share small plates of smoked crispy duck wings and octopus a la plancha, or commit to mains like the roasted half-chicken, New York Strip steak, and black American sea bass.
A more intimate lofted bar sits atop a sweeping staircase seemingly designed for epic prom dress reveals. Here, the lower ceiling would feel cumbersome were it not for its appealing art deco design. The upstairs bar itself is small, but banquettes line the space, and its broad menu illustrates each tipple’s vessel. Cocktails like the sazerac (rye, bitters, absinthe), penicillin (scotch, lemon, ginger, honey, Laphroaig), and Manhattan (off-menu, garnished with a house-prepared cherry) all run the standard area $15, and the comprehensive gin and tonic list starts at $11.
A sky-high, low-key bar
New to the 40th floor of the Aliz Hotel, Dear Irving brings downtown cool 22 blocks north. The Times Square iteration of the highly regarded Irving Place cocktail bar has '60s mod design elements without veering into Mad Men cosplay. The color scheme ticks slightly more vibrant than sepia, and the large space is deceptively intimate -- seating areas are clustered to accommodate groups smaller in number than your typical bachelor party. Skyline views through floor-to-ceiling windows make Dear Irving a new standard for city-centric Instagram pics, and a terrible place for a bar fight.
The $18 cocktails skew photogenic, too. Dear Irving favorites like the boulevardier (bourbon, Campari, sweet vermouth) and the la paloma (tequila, agave, grapefruit, lime Perrier, salt) survived the move to the Times Square hinterlands, joining new creations like the half moon fix (two types of rye, blood orange cordial), and the aptly named panorama daiquiri (rum, pineapple gomme, toasted coconut, lime.) Expect elevated bar bites like lobster tail buns, wagyu beef sliders, and rock shrimp tempura.
Columbia Waterfront District
A Pok Pok doppelgänger
This Thai spot quietly opened virtually unchanged from Pok Pok -- the location’s popular previous tenant. Blink and you’ll miss the new sign out front, and enter into familiar environs: The same big board with hand-lettered drink specials (Krok did not yet have a liquor license at publication time) is to your left, the spacious-enough bar where seats were hard to come by during Pok Pok’s occupancy is to your right, and the same blue, orange and yellow vinyl tablecloths still give the caramel wood and exposed brick space a pop of color. Even the menu font looks the same to a novice eye.
The operation is a brave endeavor, boldly inviting comparison to Pok Pok’s six-year reign as a critic and consumer favorite. Krok’s fish sauce wings are fine-approaching-good as an app, but lacking in the addictive quality that made Pok Pok’s a meal contender. Where Krok really excels is the heat: Those little chili illos on the menu don’t lie. The pad kra prao (minced chicken or pork, basil garlic, and chili) starts out mildly sweet, brings you to the brink of tears when ordered to its maximum heat potential, and still persuades your palate to power through. Standards like the pad see ew are milder for less adventurous eaters, and can take on an edge with a spoonful of the excellent, house-made chili oil. Krok’s menu repeatedly urges guests to “try it with some beer!” It’ll be quite nice when you can.
An easy new staple in a neighborhood that needed one
It’s risky to introduce new frozen cocktails to NYC’s straw-eschewing culinary landscape, but this addition to Alex Stupak’s mini-empire makes it work. Icy mezcal piña coladas come with oversized bubble tea straws in an effort to spare the sea turtles and avoid the dreaded paper straw dissolution. Rocks margaritas come sans straw, too, in classic, mezcal, cucumber, orange, and super-sized varieties. A dedicated Red Bull refrigerator behind the bar is a physical manifestation of Murray Hill.
The guacamole is guacamole, the tidy, tasty fried chicken sandwich is new to this location and evokes notions of the reportedly delicious, though problematic chain with a cult following, and the generous serving of pork in the al pastor tacos is better than it needs to be. The restaurant drew a substantial crowd even on a rainy recent weeknight, but the main room is large enough to allow a fair amount of space between its high-top tables. A lounge area in the back is anchored by a vibrant praying mantis mural, and cozy couches and armchairs make it date-night appropriate.
Legacy brand Beijing bites turned up to 11
Everything about this subterranean clubsturant beneath the Dream Hotel is amplified. The music is loud, the lychee martinis are sugar-cube sweet, the calamari is as salty as a margarita rim, and the chicken, beef, and shrimp satay are all heavily sauced -- which you might not mind if you are, too. Did this part of town need another flashy, scene-y spot situated in the Chelsea/Meatpacking District cleavage? Sure, why not.
This offshoot of Philippe’s UES location serves a purpose. It would be a bit strange to pop by during daylight hours, but Philippe Downtown will provide some breathing room for the folks who wait on the wrong side of the velvet rope for admittance to similar destinations on Saturday nights. And it offers a kind of recent throwback kitsch. If Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda ever get the band back together again, it’ll be in this dimly lit, white tablecloth-ed, gilded basement.
Lower East Side
Ramen with a twist
What if ramen, but without the broth? You’d have a steamy bowl of comforting mazemen, the noodle dish “Ramen God” Shigetoshi Nakamura’s newcomer specializes in. Nakamura fills that newly freed up space with grilled ribeye, house-smoked salmon, clams, mixed veggies, chicken, egg, and even extra noodles.
Mazemen flavors are as big as the space is small and sparse: Those overflowing bowls are served at one long communal table, which seats little more than a dozen and gets crowded fast once you and your new dining companions are a few rounds into beer, wine, and sake. Niche does not take reservations, so get there early for better luck nabbing a spot.
A new kid on the block’s next act
The second venture from Chef Gérald Barthélémy to hit downtown in as many years is an even more rustic extension of its original West Village location. Exposed brick lines the dining room, rows of wine bottles do the decor’s heavy lifting, and dim lighting casts a romantic ambiance in the unadorned, though handsome space.
Some items that carried over from St. Tropez’s first menu (beet hummus; beef tartare; mussels) are available alongside a whole dorade, mushroom risotto, escargot tart, and daube provencale. Pair your selection from this sliding scale of richness with one of more than 40 French wines by the glass.
Unexpected home-cooking in contemporary environs
The vibrant food and drink at this new addition to the Hôtel Americano bring a pop of color to La Central’s subdued, shades-of-slate space. The sleek design here skews more modern than cozy, allowing Central and South American dishes to really shine.
Some menu standouts are inspired by kitchen staffers’ home countries: A quartet of salsas comes from a line cook’s great grandmother; the arroz chaufa with duck confit is the contribution of a Peruvian sous chef, and the churros waffles are an import from the pastry chef’s native Jalisco. Tequila, mezcal, cachaça, and pisco-based cocktails mixed to natural shades of pink, citron, carrot orange, and fresh cut grass green look as healthy and taste as fresh as your morning juice.
Est. 2018 | Prospect Heights
One of last year’s best openings in the US, right here in NYC
Thrillist named this freshman effort by chef Nasim Alikhani one of the nation’s 13 best openings last year. Alikhani honed her home cooking for decades before bringing Persian fare like kofteh (beef, tarragon, rice, and split pea meatballs), braised lamb in an onion and turmeric broth, and pomegranate beef ribeye kabab to a bright, beachy northwest Brooklyn venue.
Est. 2018 | Tribeca
A neighborhood brasserie suited for special occasions -- if you can get a table
If Frenchette shot to the top of your must-go list when it opened in 2018, the good news is you have excellent taste: it shot to the top of nearly every NYC critic’s ‘Best Of’ list by the year’s end. The bad news is, if you didn’t go then, you may have to wait until the neutral-hued, understated restaurant’s lingering buzz flatlines. Plan a visit for spring, 2021 -- or, try your luck at scoring a walk-in table for a chance to try the rich liver pâté on charred bread, perfectly pink, perfectly fatty duck and accompanying frites, carefully curated wines, and novel cocktails.
Est. 2018 | Greenpoint
Michelin-starred Mexican with one of the city’s best steaks
Oxomoco earned its Michelin star at lightning speed, and it only takes one visit to understand why. The grilled maitake, chicken al pastor, pork cheek carnitas, and lamb barbacoa fillings make every taco Tuesday an affair to remember, and frozen cocktails infuse the tightly packed, but relaxed, airy, space with even more levity. The steak for two cements this as one of the best restaurants in New York City. The star of 32-oz dry aged bone in ribeye is its fat, which has a silky, bone marrow-like, melt in your mouth texture.
Est. 2017 | Carroll Gardens
Thai worth waiting for in one narrow, kaleidoscopic room
Occupying a seemingly “doomed” storefront on Smith Street in South Brooklyn, Ugly Baby appears to have broken its location’s spell. Crowds abide a no reservations policy and long waits to test the average human palate’s spice tolerance. Assume everything here will be hot: the five spice pork leg stew will be hot; the duck salad will be hot; and the southern dry eye round curry will be “brutally spicy.” Cool down with selections from the wine and beer menu.
Est. 2017 | Cobble Hill
Italian home cooking in a kitchen that’s probably smaller than your own
A cafe by day, Lillo is easy to love in spite of itself. It doesn't take reservations, so aspiring guests line up outside for shots at about a dozen and-a-half seats. After a brief, unofficial BYOB period was kiboshed, it’s a dry house. There is no bathroom. But the place and its eponymous owner are so effortlessly charming that every plate of cacio e pepe, fettuccini with speck and zucchini, and whole branzino seems special.
Est. 2016 | Prospect Heights
A rotating menu that never misses in flora-forward environs
The hottest ticket in town circa 2016, Olmsted’s popularity has barely cooled. You’re maybe 10% more likely to nab a table than you would have been three years ago -- but it can be done if you’re willing to sample the decadent duck liver mousse, perky sweet potato and uni pierogies, and bouillabaisse hot pot off-peak. Skip the basic cocktail names (pine, lavender, rosemary, apple) and scan their descriptions for the base spirit you want to sip (gin, bourbon, mezcal, and rye, respectively).
Est. 2016 | West Village
Super-spendy sushi worth saving up for
A trip to Nakazawa might ruin you for sushi forever. One bite of the omakase menu featuring a rotating selection of sea urchin, scallops, fatty tuna, prawn, and yellowtail perched atop the platonic ideal of sushi rice will convince you you’ve been eating an inferior species of fish your whole life. Expect to pay around $500 for a party of two if you add the sake pairing to your multi-course sushi tasting experience.
Est. 2016 | Harlem
Outlandish cocktails that actually taste good, and even better ramen
The wait times at ROCK have dwindled from 2.5 hours even in freezing weather to a far more manageable 30-some-odd minutes since its 2016 opening. That’s enough time to have one drink nearby without getting blotto before your pork belly, chicken, or veggie ramen dinner. Blow that unintentional sobriety on aesthetically pleasing cocktails like the smoke (served literally smokin’), pineapple (set alight), and lychee (sipped out of an upturned lightbulb).
Est. 2014 | Greenpoint
A breath of sea air without the trip to the shore
Catch Montauk vibes without leaving the five boroughs at Greenpoint Fish & Lobster, where no fewer than six varieties of oysters bathe in ice atop a marble bar. The decor -- all non-porous, gleaming white surfaces -- is as antiseptic as you’d hope a place in a place dealing with so much raw fish would be. Sidle up to the bar and wash down those bivalves, cups of chowder, mussels, and whole steamed lobsters with cans of Narragansett and micheladas.
Est. 2012 | Cobble Hill
Small plates you’ll want to share
We know, tapas are kind of a rip-off and nobody wants to share. But La Vara may be the exception to the scam. Plates of stuffed rabbit loin, chicken hearts, lamb meatballs, and suckling pig, can be a challenge to divide by a party of four, but you can always treat yourself to a solo night out and keep them all to yourself with a pitcher of sangria or a more modest glass of tempranillo.
Est. 2012 | Long Island City
DIY catch of the day
Astoria Seafood allows would-be seamen to choose their own fishventure without committing to the sailor’s life. Expect long lines for affordable plates of fresh-as-it gets scallops, calamari, shrimp, octopus, and whole fish catch of the day, that you’ll choose from a bin and send to the kitchen to get baked, pan seared, or fried. Only the bravest will test the limits of Astoria Sea food’s BYOB policy and start sipping from plastic cups outside while they wait.
Est. 2011 | Midtown West
Michelin-starred Chinese food worth traversing tourist central
As evidenced by the teeming crowds, Cafe China is worth a trip to Midtown -- even if you have to push past the Herald Square shoppers or Grand Central commuters to get there. The casually stylish Michelin-starred restaurant has been turning out perfect plates of ma po tofu, fiery three pepper chicken packed with chili peppers, delectable duck dishes, and ambitious cocktails since 2011 with no signs of slowing down.
Est. 2009 | Greenwich Village
The best Keith McNally restaurant in a city full of 'em
Balthazar. Morandi. Augustine. Odeon. Lucky Strike. Every New Yorker has a favorite Keith McNally restaurant, and, since Schiller’s closed, this is the best one. Minetta encapsulates the McNally empire’s exclusivity and everyman appeal all under one roof. Well, maybe not everyman. Minetta’s entry level burger clocks in at $25. Its black label burger runs a cool $33. Both are delicious, and if you can tell the difference you’re probably one of the finance bros who started populating the heavy wood, black and white tile, red banquette interior more than a few years back. No matter. McNally acolites don’t mind rubbing elbows with you over the bone marrow, escargot, and burgers (labeled or otherwise) you’re likely expensing.
Est. 2009 | Red Hook
The best Irish coffee in NYC, if not “the known world”
Lists of the best restaurants in Red Hook are a laugh riot. There are only like 10 of them. But Fort Defiance is truly the best, and it’s great for brunch in particular. Pair the bracing best Irish coffee “in the known world” with the All-American (two eggs any style -- get them scrambled -- toast, and the most delicious hash browns ever created by humans) before you switch to an Other Half so you can actually get something done over the weekend.
Est. 2008 | Vinegar Hill
A hidden gem, 10 years after the fact
Next to nothing in New York City is off the beaten path, provided you’ve got a smartphone and access to some form of transportation, but Vinegar Hill House comes close. If you haven’t heard of Vinegar Hill, it’s the one next to Dumbo. If you haven’t heard of Dumbo, welcome to town, and this is the first stop in Brooklyn off the F train. Vinegar Hill House personifies the neighborhood, nodding at nautical design elements without veering into themes, with plenty of “reclaimed” materials and even a damn cherry tree out back. But its preciousness seems incidental rather than cloying, the food is better than good, and the one-step-less-than-convenient location will impress your out of town -- or even out of borough -- guests. Get the pork chop and a rye-based Vinegar Hill cocktail.
Est. 2007 | East Village
Affordable sushi with an even more affordable -- and rare -- perk
This is the best cheap-ish sushi in town, and it’s BYOB. Who knows how long it takes to get even one little sushi roll named after you here (apparently 10 years is too soon), but bites of the the Owen roll (eel, “crunch,” and crab meat), Hal n Nancy roll (spicy tuna, shrimp, avocado), and Helen roll (salmon, avocado) are enough to allay any jealousy. Pair them with a cheap bottle of whatever cures what ails you and you’ll have a great lunch or dinner for a song.
Est. 2006 | Carroll Gardens
Some of the best pizza in the US, if you can stomach the wait
“Show up before 5. Put your name on the list. Go have a drink. We’ll call you when your table is ready,” reads Lucali’s website. Surely you jest, is a reasonable reply. But even after more than a decade in operation, Lucali still draws throngs willing to congregate at nearby bars for a taste of barebones pizza with basic toppings like pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, and hot peppers. Is it good enough to merit a possible 3-plus hour wait? At least once.
Est. 2007 | Sunset Park
Craveable tacos in a casual setting
Don’t let anybody tell you this isn’t a taco town. We’ve got oodles of options, and Tacos El Bronco is the one to beat. Pork skin, veal head, tongue, and tripe varieties, as well as your more basic options like steak, chicken, chorizo and barbacoa will only set you back a few bucks, and the enchilada, flauta, and burrito platters that sprung from the spot’s food truck origins are each feasts fit for for a king.
Est. 1998 | Park Slope
An enviable neighborhood spot worth going out of your way for
Every neighborhood has a great local treasure, and you’d be lucky to call this yours. It’s a little too pricey to be an every night affair, but it’s an ideal choice for date night, a milestone celebration, or a visit from the parents. Elegant orders of oxtail, rotating risotto, and braised rabbit betray shabby-chic, intentionally distressed interiors.
Est. 1996 | Lower East Side
An emporium of “gruel,” where you can skip the gruel
Congee Village is an all around good-time palace, great for groups and a solo lark alike. Some cocktails arrive hilariously neon-hued, but are drinkable nonetheless. Ironically, the congee (a “gruel of boiled rice and water”) is far from the best thing on the menu. Try it if you must, but be prepared to leave more than a few bites on the table and move onto orders of abalone, sea cucumber delicacies, relatively uncommon duck blood and goose intestine dishes, and pork, chicken, steak, shrimp, and scallop standards.
Est. 1996 | Astoria
The city’s best Greek food in a neighborhood rich with competition
It’s no secret that Astoria is home to the finest Greek food in NYC, and Taverna Kyclades is the best of the best. After more than 20 years in operation, you’ll still wait for a table unless you can sneak off to Queens on your lunch break. Come by whenever you can for tender bites of grilled octopus, unforgettable swordfish kebab, the neighborhood favorite anchovies, baby shark to write home about, and a half carafe of the house wine if you plan to get back to the office -- or a full one if you don’t.
Est. 1996 | Cobble Hill
Simple seafood dishes in an authentically boho environment
Did Petite Crevette’s owner "throw" a live lobster at a patron who’d complained about his order’s freshness? Kind of!? Hit an ATM (it’s cash only: boo) and a wine shop (it’s BYOB: yay!) and go anyway, as the excellent, eclectically decorated (rather than designed) little eatery does not seem to have endured (enjoyed?) such a dramatic display in the intervening decade. Order the expertly prepared whole fish, scallops, soft shell crab (when it’s in season), or even the lobster cioppino -- if you dare.
Est. 1994 | Gramercy
A Manhattan classic where every seat in the house feels like the best
Let’s keep Gramercy Tavern’s best table a secret, because every seat in this Manhattan house is a good one. Even at the bar. Cop-a-squat and order à la carte items like the grilled sea bass, duck meatballs, and $32 tavern burger, or settle in for the tasting menu for some of the best beef tartare, sea bream, roasted scallops, pork belly, and lamb loin you’ve ever had. And whether your preferred spirit is bourbon, gin, or that other clear one, you can trust the pours from Gramercy’s confident bar.
Est. 1975 | Soho
One of those bells that always rings
A visit to Raul’s is akin to “a trip to the moon on gossamer wings” -- transporting you to a time and place that may have only existed in a nostalgia-fueled dream. It’s a glimpse of what Soho once was, could have been, and maybe never was, via oysters, oxtail consommé, chicken the way it was meant to be roasted, and wine bottle recommendations you can trust.
Est. 1962 | Harlem
Southern comfort food with specials every day of the week
A classic since 1962, Sylvia’s serves the best corned beef and eggs, southern fried chicken and waffles, fried catfish, shrimp, and grits in any borough. Mondays bring stewed chicken and dumplings, Tuesday and Wednesdays are replete with meatloaf and oxtails, Thursdays deliver turkey wings and cornbread dressing, and weekends are rich with chitterlings. Treat yourself to a slice of sweet potato pie any, or every, day of the week.
Est. 1954 | East Village
Better late-night bites than your drunk self probably deserves
Nobody’s here to judge, but if you’re out in the East Village past 3am here’s a bit of wisdom: Nothing very good happens after 2:45; there are not secret parties raging without you; and a little comfort food will probably do you some good. Gird yourself against tomorrow’s hangover with a pierogi smorgasbord, latkes, and borscht. And maybe stick to water, chief.
Est. 1953 | Greenpoint
Any way you spell it, these donuts are straight out of the old world
The smell of sweets, the caffeine kick, and the powdered sugar that’s likely to stick to your nose and eyelashes are all in the air at this old-school doughnut shop. Peter Pan’s puffy delights in every variety known to man somehow still clock in at under two-bucks each, the coffee is as strong as it is cheap, and the service is as quick as you need it to be in order to catch the G train back to wherever you came from.
Est. 1929 | Tribeca
The ur-speakeasy in a city full of imitators
A proto-speakeasy from a time when alcohol was actually illegal, 21 had a lot of lives before it settled into its present home on West 52nd Street 90 years ago. It bounced around a couple of locations downtown and into one elsewhere on the west side all before prohibition was even repealed. The one-time super cool gin joint turned stuffy mid-century, but loosened up again in recent years, all while retaining its special occasion, Old New York vibe. Famously guarded by the jockey figurines poised outside, just try cutting off the hooch here today.
Est. 1922 | Staten Island
Sandwiches your father-in-law will love
My father in law saw this nearly century old mainstay on the Food Network and the family keeps promising we’ll go next time they’re in town from Philly. Sorry, Big Tom. Soon, we’ll order the Vinny D (grilled Italian sausage, broccoli rabe, grated parm and ricotta), the Italian stallion (prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, fried eggplant, roasted peppers), and the Nicky special (ham, capiolia, salami, provolone, and fried eggplant). And we won’t even compromise and go to the slightly more convenient Brooklyn location instead.
Est. 1900 | Williamsburg
Italian favorites from the wayback machine
This classic red-sauce joint predates Williamsburg as we know it. The cozy, legitimately unpretentious bar up front is worth visiting even outside of a throwback Italian dinner, and the large dining room looks like it was designed by a '50s-era teenager shooting for elegance: bedazzled chandeliers bathe the space in light, paintings of dubious origin hang beside dramatically draped windows, and white tablecloths dare you tangle with family-style plates of chicken parm, veal marsala, and spaghetti and meatballs.
Est. 1888 | Lower East Side
A New York classic with star quality
Katz’s isn’t exactly the Empire State Building of NYC restaurants. Maybe it’s more like the Brooklyn Bridge: an iconic tourist magnet that also benefits locals. The schtick here -- they track towering, 30-day cured corned beef, pastrami, brisket sandwiches, and anything else you order on a paper ticket that you must present to exit -- has probably outlived its usefulness, but you try changing once you’re 130 years old.