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Fried Chicken at Momofuku Noodle Bar (Photo: Gabriele Stabile/Courtesy of Momofuku)

12 Quintessential New York City Restaurants

Whether you're a visitor who only wants the cream of the dining crop or a local who wants to revisit the restaurants that make this city great, here are the 12 NYC restaurants to put at the top of your list

New York City’s restaurants mimic the life of the city itself — they can be as dramatic as Broadway, have an atmosphere as hallowed as a museum or nod to an era that’s otherwise receded into the past. Some eateries, in fact, are destinations in and of themselves, right up there with the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Indeed, it’s no wonder that many are led to New York City by their appetites given the reputation of its world-class restaurants, but that wonder can turn to frustration and indecision if you don’t know where to go to properly take a bite of the Big Apple. Problem solved: Here are 12 restaurants that portray the city’s dining scene at its best.

 

Russ and Daughters

A selection of bagels and fish at Russ and Daughters (Photos: J_bary/Flickr CC, MichaelGallagher/Flickr CC)

Russ and Daughters
NYC didn’t invent the bagel, but it sure did its part in popularizing the dense, chewy, boiled and baked treats. At the turn of the 20th century, there were 70 bagel bakeries within the Lower East Side alone. One of the best spots to sample one, along with one of the terrific homemade cream cheese schmears, is this enduring appetizer house. Emblematic of the neighborhood’s Jewish history, Russ and Daughters has also been a haven for smoked salmon, herring and caviar, since 1914. To commemorate a century in business, the shop is opening a full-service cafe on Orchard Street in February 2014. 179 E. Houston St., 212-475-4880, russanddaughters.com

 

Keens Steakhouse dining room

Keens Steakhouse (Photo: Courtesy of Keens Steakhouse)

Keens Steakhouse
Look up: Those curious objects hanging from the ceiling make up the largest collection of clay pipes in the world. Though you can’t light them up within the restaurant walls any longer, the space serves as a museum devoted to them, holding the relics of everyone from J. P. Morgan to Theodore Roosevelt to Liza Minnelli. Even Mayor Bloomberg was presented with an honorary pipe here, the day before his citywide smoking ban took effect, in 2003. Though other museum pieces throughout the restaurant include antique color lithographs and the actual program President Lincoln held when he was assassinated, the real reason to come is for the steaks and chops. Since 1885, Keens has been serving a traditional mutton and a heaping porterhouse within one of NYC’s most typical steakhouse atmospheres. 72 W. 36th St., 212-947-3636, keens.com

 

Grand Central Oyster Bar

Grand Central Oyster Bar (Photo: Courtesy of Grand Central Oyster Bar)

Grand Central Oyster Bar
Many claim that the oyster was New York’s very first street food, and about three dozen varieties of the best bivalves can be found daily at this eatery, tucked within the landmark train terminal and set under vaulted Gustavino-tiled ceilings. Bellying up to the counter for some on the half shell, or in a pan roast with butter, cream and clam juice, has been keeping commuters happy for 100 years. The brand is now making history in Brooklyn, too, with a new branch opened in Park Slope in December 2013. 89 E. 42nd St., Lower Level, 212-490-6650, oysterbarny.com  and oysterbarbrooklyn.com

 

Balthazar

Balthazar (Photo: Sylvia Paret/Courtesy of Balthazar)

Balthazar
The model for the “faux” French bistro was perfected right in SoHo when this icon opened in 1997. Balthazar proved so popular that not only did its success encourage more restaurants in the empire of restaurateur Keith McNally (Minetta Tavern, Pastis, Morandi, Schillers, and the upcoming Cherche Midi), it spurred a host of copycats around town, plus another branch in London. The transporting atmosphere — polished brass railings, distressed mirrors, zinc bar, leather booths — feels as authentic as the flawlessly executed straightforward Gallic chestnuts such as steak frites and duck confit. Plus, there’s always a great NYC celeb sighting here, whether politician, poet or performer. 80 Spring St., 212-965-1414, balthazarny.com

 

Joe's Shanghai

Soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai in Chinatown (Photo: Johnjoh/Flickr CC)

Joe’s Shanghai
Situated on an archetypal Chinatown bend, tucked behind the bustling action of exotic grocers, spice shops and discount stores, and retaining just the right amount of grit (yes, the atmosphere needs to be spruced up, to put it kindly), the kitchen here turns out the city’s most consistent soup dumplings — hot, intense pork or crab broth wrapped in a soft, pliant dough, always made to order. Part of the fun is sitting at a huge, round table with strangers and sharing a dish or two. 9 Pell St., 212-233-8888, joeshanghairestaurants.com

 

River Cafe

River Cafe (Photo: Courtesy of River Cafe)

River Cafe
The views here are as entrancing as the food — the engineering miracle of the Brooklyn Bridge sits right outside the windowed walls, and a chocolate facsimile may be sitting on your dessert plate. Opened in 1977, this Brooklyn stalwart has seen some of America’s best chefs pass through its kitchen: from Larry Forgione to Charlie Palmer to David Burke. It was one of the few Brooklyn restaurants that carried a Michelin star before its closure due to devastating damage during hurricane Sandy. Once reopened on Feb. 1, 2014, after more than a year of repair, the spot will be not only a destination for special occasions, but also a symbol of NYC resilience. 1 Water St., 718-522-5200, rivercafe.com

 

Lombardi's

A large pie at Lombardi’s (Photo: JessicaJeanne/Flickr CC)

Lombardi’s
Every single American who appreciates a good pizza pie has Gennaro Lombardi to thank: He’s the Neapolitan immigrant who brought the U.S.’s first pizzeria to New York. Fittingly set in Little Italy, the pizza here is a paean to the coal-oven style synonymous with the East Coast: thin, smoky crust; fresh tomato sauce; stringy mozzarella cheese and not much more. 32 Spring St., 212-941-7994, firstpizza.com

 

Second Avenue Deli

Pastrami on rye at Second Avenue Deli (Photo: Librarygroover/Flickr CC)

Second Avenue Deli
Though no longer in its original Second Avenue location, the snarky style of the service and the to-die-for deli specialties at this iconic, 50-year-old deli never change. This is the temple of hot corned beef, salty pastrami, schmaltzy matzoh ball soup and gribenes, those lovely cracklin’ chicken skins. Everything is Kosher, and in the true spirit of NYC convenience, both locations (Murray Hill and Upper East Side) deliver anywhere in Manhattan. 162 E. 33rd St., 212-689-9000; 1442 First Ave., 212-737-1700; 2ndavedeli.com

 

Momofuku Noodle Bar

Momofuku Noodle Bar (Photo: Gabriele Stabile/Courtesy of Momofuku)

Momofuku Noodle Bar
If there has ever been a personification of kitchen creativity combined with entrepreneurial savvy, David Chang is the man. It all started for the Daniel Boulud alum at this deceptively simple ramen bar, whose flavors launched a thousand critical swoons, an international empire, and even a literary/culinary magazine, Lucky Peach. Chang has gourmandized buns, ssam, large format dinners and even cereal milk in his various venues, from the upscale Momofuku Ko to the habit-forming Momofuku Milk Bar bakeries; but this East Village spot is ground zero for that entire creative-Asian explosion. 171 First Ave., 212-777-7773, momofuku.com

 

The bar at Gramercy Tavern

The bar at Gramercy Tavern (Photo: Courtesy of Gramercy Tavern)

Gramercy Tavern
Danny Meyer put the customer at the front of customer service, took the snob out of sommelier and made fine dining accessible to all while launching the careers of chefs such as Tom Colicchio, Daniel Humm and Floyd Cardoz. Though his empire continues to grow, with Shake Shacks populating the world and even a branch of his original Union Square Cafe in Tokyo, this jewel in his crown best exemplifies the restaurateur’s homegrown hospitality, with a seasonal American kitchen thriving under the James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Anthony. 42 E. 20th St., 212-477-0777, gramercytavern.com

 

Del Posto

Del Posto (Photo: Kelly Campbell/Courtesy of Del Posto)

Del Posto
Mario Batali, Joseph Bastianich and Lidia Bastianich — the team responsible for bringing NYC Italian food out of the red sauce era and into the modern age — upped the ante when they opened this four-star palazzo of fine dining. Here, diners can listen to the tinkling of piano keys while enjoying Michelin-starred executive chef Mark Ladner’s 100-layer lasagna and pastry chef Brooks Headley’s James Beard Award-winning desserts. 85 10th Ave., 212-497-8090, delposto.com

 

Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park (Photo: Francesco Tonelli/Courtesy of Eleven Madison Park)

Eleven Madison Park
Picture the theatrics of a Tony-winning drama with the dazzle of the Macy’s Fourth of July display and the narrative of the Ric Burns New York documentary on a plate. And you have the ultimate New York City meal: the tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park, which exalts every city culinary tradition — from the black-and-white cookie to the pretzel cart to the egg cream. The thrilling presentation and flavors have made the restaurant and chef the most decorated in New York City, if not the country, with six James Beard Foundation Awards, three Michelin Stars and four stars from The New York Times. Chef Daniel Humm and GM Will Guidara have even poured their love of NYC onto the page, with the release of their I (HEART) NY cookbook in 2013. 11 Madison Ave., 212-889-0905, elevenmadisonpark.com

More more quintessential New York City experiences:
16 Best New York City Bagels and What Makes Them So Good
10 Best New York City Cheesecakes
10 Best Chinese Restaurants in New York City
10 Best Beer Gardens in New York City
New York City’s 8 Best Barbecue Joints
10 Best 24-Hour Restaurants in New York City
Ultimate Everything Guide to New York City’s Best Pizza

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