Big Names in the NYC Food Scene: 10 Restaurateurs to Know
In the zany New York City restaurant world, the "must-visit" list changes faster than the seasons, but these chefs (and their top-notch eateries) are here to stay -- and to influence the next round of "can't-miss" hits
Even for those whose job it is to track New York City restaurant openings, chef changes and trends, it can be hard to keep everything and everyone straight. To get a handle on the city’s crazy dining ecosystem, it helps to know the major players. A disproportionate number of first-class New York restaurants are owned by the same few restaurateurs, and they, in turn, are the feeder pond for many of the city’s up-and-coming chefs. Once you’ve got these 10 most important names down, you’re well on your way to understanding the city’s ever-changing culinary landscape.
He’s neither the most prolific restaurateur in the city, nor the biggest name in fine dining, but in terms of influence, it’s hard to match Danny Meyer. In the 25-plus years since Union Square Cafe opened, he’s introduced a signature style to New York and then tweaked it just enough to provide variety. Each of his eateries have their own culinary leanings, each are the work of a talented chef, and each exhibit a laser-like focus on professionalism and impeccable service. But the Meyer restaurant you’re most likely to have visited isn’t exactly a restaurant at all. Meyer is the man behind Shake Shack, the cult-favorite burger stand that now has half a dozen locations in New York City proper, more in airports and stadiums, and another dozen across America and beyond.
Meyer’s Must-Visit: If you’re looking for more than a burger, there’s every reason to visit the classic Union Square Cafe, the breathtakingly elegant The Modern, refined Italian Maialino, and the others; however, the quintessential Danny Meyer experience remains Gramercy Tavern, under the masterfully talented chef Michael Anthony. It’s as polished as a restaurant can be, whether you sit for a four-course prix fixe in back or opt for a more casual a la carte meal in the front room. 42 E. 20th St., 212-477-0777, gramercytavern.com
The rest of the country knows Tom Colicchio from Top Chef — the head judge with exactingly high standards (he has a bit of a soft side, too) — but culinary-minded New Yorkers know him for the high standards set at his restaurants across New York. Colicchio, in fact, got his start as opening chef and partner at Gramercy Tavern, but struck out on his own in 2001 with Craft, a fine-dining destination that maintains three stars from The New York Times to this day. He branched out with Craftbar, a more casual wine bar and restaurant around the corner; Craftsteak (briefly in New York, now in Vegas and Foxwoods); and ‘wichcraft, a high-end sandwich chain with locations across NYC, San Francisco and Las Vegas. More recently, he opened Riverpark with longtime chef Sisha Ortúzar; it has sweeping views of the East River and a garden to grow much of its own produce.
Colicchio’s Must-Visit: But if you’re only going to visit one, make it Colicchio and Sons, opened in 2010 in the Meatpacking District. With lofty ceilings and a wood-burning oven, it’s both modern and cozy; sit in the back for the prix fixe or up front in the Tap Room for an equally impressive a la carte menu. Both menus change daily. 85 Tenth Ave., 212-400-6699, craftrestaurantsinc.com/colicchio-and-sons
Another TV chef? Yes, and no. Mario Batali and partner Joe Bastianich revolutionized Italian food in New York, fusing a scholar’s respect for the techniques and tradition of regional Italian fare with a chef’s daring and innovative spirit. Babbo, opened in 1998 in a West Village townhouse, was the year’s critical darling and popular sensation; 15 years later, it’s still one of the city’s tougher reservations. Batali’s endeavors span the culinary spectrum. There’s the less formal, eminently enjoyable trattoria Lupa; the Midtown restaurant Esca, one of Manhattan’s finest seafood establishments; The New York Times four-starred Del Posto, the only Italian restaurant to even earn that honor; the Spanish tapas spot Casa Mono and wine bar Bar Jamón. There’s the Italian superstore Eataly, with not only an incomparable selection of Italian ingredients but half a dozen eateries inside. (And that’s just his New York roster.)
Batali’s Must-Visit: There’s no reason to go high-end as Batali’s knack for hit-making can be seen just as well in his least formal entry, Otto. Billed as a pizzeria, Otto is a cavernous, friendly, spirited operation that nails everything it sets out to: extensive wine list, beautiful pasta plates, incredible antipasti, satisfying pizzas, gelato that ranks among the best in the city — all at a price point where it’s easy to stuff yourself for $25 a head. 1 Fifth Ave., 212-995-9559, ottopizzeria.com
No restaurateur comes close to the legendary Keith McNally’s genius for ambiance. Balthazar nails every detail of the classic French brasserie, Morandi says “rustic Italian” down to its breadbaskets and tableware, Minetta Tavern feels like a time warp, an ornate bistro from a time when we still dressed for dinner. Once referred by The New York Times as “The Restaurateur Who Invented Downtown,” McNally opened many of his restaurants in neighborhoods not then considered trendy, where the well-heeled would follow him and venture for the first time: Schiller’s Liquor Bar on the Lower East Side in 2003, Pastis in the Meatpacking District in 1999.
McNally’s Must-Visit: While each eventually passed on the title of the New Hottest Place, each of McNally’s restaurants, improbably, has stood the test of time. But none more so than Balthazar, which is as eminently recommendable a restaurant today as it was in 1997. It’s pricey, sure, and without a reservation you may wait for a table. But the steak frites and duck confit are still worth the price of admission, the desserts are worthy of a visit on their own, and the set — sorry, decor — is as show-stoppingly grand as ever. 80 Spring St., 212-965-1414, balthazarny.com
If Mario Batali popularized high-end Italian cuisine, Michael White carried it forward. Nothing in his bearing (an ample man well upwards of 6 feet tall), his upbringing (in Wisconsin), or his name says Italian; only his commitment to the cuisine, and the years he spent in Emilia-Romagna honing his craft. After time as the head chef at Fiamma Osteria in SoHo, White first gained wide notice as the chef at Alto and Convivio, two critically acclaimed Midtown restaurants (since shuttered). His seafood restaurant, Marea, then earned three stars in The New York Times, cementing his reputation as one of the city’s most respected Italian chefs. Since then, he’s opened the equally high-end Ai Fiori, the more casual Osteria Morini, pizzeria Nicoletta, and just within the last year, steakhouse Costata and “supper club” The Butterfly.
White’s Must-Visit: If you’re looking to appreciate White’s style without the triple-digit checks of Marea or Ai Fiori, your best bet is Osteria Morini in SoHo. The stylishly rustic restaurant showcases the food of Emilia-Romagna, the region that inspired White (and one that’s considered Italy’s true gastronomic heart). 218 Lafayette St., 212-965-8777, osteriamorini.com
A celebrity chef without a TV show. An empire-builder with an anti-establishment attitude. David Chang didn’t walk the route of a traditional restaurateur, but that’s arguably what brought him such fame. The young chef opened Momofuku Noodle Bar in 2004 and made his mark as a chef applying high-end techniques and culinary curiosity in the context of an essentially casual restaurant — a path that innumerable chefs would follow him down in years to come. Momofuku Ssam Bar soon opened, then the 12-seat chef’s table Momofuku Ko, whose limited reservations made it the hottest ticket in town. Today, his group includes the bakery chain Momofuku Milk Bar, mad-scientist cocktail bar Booker + Dax, and restaurants in Toronto and Sydney–as well as the magazine Lucky Peach, cookbooks, and much more.
Chang’s Must-Visit: While Chang never stops moving, his older restaurants still feel current (and still have the crowds to prove it). Momofuku Ssam Bar gives a great sense of Chang’s style — off-cuts of meat, inventive seasonal vegetables, the pork buns that launched an empire; or order their bo ssam (a whole pork butt dinner) in advance for the true Momofuku feast. 207 Second Ave., 212-254-3500, momofuku.com/new-york/ssam-bar
Given his star power today, it’s hard to believe that only five years ago Andrew Carmellini wasn’t yet a well-known name amongst the New York dining public. While other restaurateurs on this list are known for French fare or modern Asian cuisine, Carmellini can’t be categorized. His Italian restaurant Locanda Verde has been a hit since the day it opened in 2009, a boisterous Tribeca trattoria with killer pastas and an infectious energy. He followed that up with The Dutch, a bistro whose menu roams all over the map, from Mexican to Southern to Korean, the culinary amalgam of modern-day America; and most recently, Lafayette, an all-day French bistro with an in-house patisserie and sidewalk cafe. Each opening has been a more hotly anticipated than the last.
Carmellini’s Must-Visit: While each restaurant contributes something wholly unique to the New York dining scene, The Dutch offers the widest range: smoked ricotta ravioli, barrio tripe and little oyster sandwiches on the same menu. Don’t miss the pies for dessert; Carmellini has a knack for hiring superlative pastry chefs, and Kierin Baldwin is no exception. 131 Sullivan St., 212-677-6200, thedutchnyc.com
His name now synonymous with fine French dining in New York, Lyon native Daniel Boulud has won every accolade in the book. His flagship, Daniel, holds three Michelin stars; even his comparatively “casual” Café Boulud has a Michelin star and three from The New York Times to call its own. But Boulud has succeeded up and down the price scale — and up and down Manhattan. DBGB Kitchen and Bar, on the Bowery, wins over a younger crowd with its bistro fare, while uptown theater-goers dine on cured anchovies and seafood risotto at the Mediterranean-inspired Boulud Sud. And Epicerie Boulud brings true refinement to a casual cafe, with pastries and sandwiches worthy of the Boulud pedigree. Moreover, his decades in the business have brought a whole generation of talented chefs through his kitchens: David Chang and Andrew Carmellini, to name two, as both worked at Café Boulud. (And those are just the names on this list.)
Boulud’s Must-Visit: For a taste of Boulud’s French bistro cooking, it’s hard to argue with the elegant Bar Boulud, whose menu includes an entire section of terrines and pâtés — a beef cheek terrine before your steak frites, perhaps? 1900 Broadway, 212-595-0303, barboulud.com/nyc
A bit of an outlier, Gabe Stulman has neither the decades-long career nor collection of Michelin stars of the others on this list. What he does have is an uncanny knack for creating the sort of tiny West Village restaurants that earn an immediate following — and give talented chefs a platform to shine. The culinary styles of Michael Toscano at meat-loving Italian restaurant Perla, Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly at offal-heavy Fedora and thoroughly oddball Japanese Chez Sardine and Tien Ho at the Asian-inflected French Montmartre are wholly distinct. But Stulman’s restaurants are united by their cozy West Village spaces, their excellent cocktails and wine lists, and their friendly, genuinely welcoming service. (Stulman is a University of Wisconsin graduate, and dubs his group “Little Wisco”; and indeed, there’s a Midwestern affability at play.)
Stulman’s Must-Visit: Of his six restaurants, Perla may be the most polished. Chef Michael Toscano rose through the ranks of the Batali empire, which shows in his brand of ambitious Italian fare: whole animal heads roasted in the wood-burning oven and delicious pastas that will make you want to close your eyes in gratitude. The shot of Montenegro amaro served after dinner is an act of mercy; it’s hard to walk home after stuffing oneself Perla, and most diners will need all the help they can get. 24 Minetta Ln., perlanyc.com/”>212-933-1824, perlanyc.com
April Bloomfield & Ken Friedman
This chef-and-restaurateur duo burst onto the dining scene in 2004 with the opening of the Spotted Pig, New York’s first gastropub. Charmingly cramped and unabashedly pubby, it became an overnight hit — as a bar, to be sure, but also as a restaurant, thanks to the talent of British chef April Bloomfield. In the years since, Bloomfield and Friedman have opened one hit after another: The Breslin, which shows off the chef’s penchant for rich, animal-heavy fare; John Dory Oyster Bar, a Mediterranean-influenced seafood bar; and most recently, Salvation Taco, a modern taqueria with unusual meats and excellent cocktails.
Bloomfield and Friedman’s Must-Visit: No matter how many restaurants they open, there’s nowhere like the Spotted Pig. The list of can’t-miss dishes might span several visits’ worth of eating: sheep’s milk ricotta gnudi, the crispy pig ear salad, deviled eggs, chicken liver toast, and a legendary Roquefort-topped burger, almost universally considered one of the city’s best. 314 W. 11th St., 212-620-0393, thespottedpig.com