By Ken Schechet
Go to the Food and Dining section of any newspaper or pick up any gourmet magazine and it’s easy to find out about all the hot, trendy, new restaurants in New York. While Mario Batali or Bobby Flay’s newest projects are interesting, and usually very good, we sometimes forget that there are some restaurants that have been around for years and are still going strong. I lived in and around New York for over five decades, and want to share some of the places I’ve gone back to again and again. Some of them are known quantities and some are neighborhood joints, but I’ve enjoyed them all. I hope a few find their way into your next trip to the city.
The West Village has always been a Bohemian enclave filled with beautiful houses and fascinating people. Thomas Paine, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser all lived in the neighborhood at one time or another. The area became attractive to immigrants from Europe, including many Spaniards who emigrated to escape the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and many Spanish restaurants dotted the area starting in the late 30s and early 40s. One that began in 1941 still remains: Sevilla.
Sevilla, which is at 62 Charles Street at the corner of 4th Street, one block west of 7th Avenue, has a history. Before it was a Spanish restaurant it was an Irish Tavern called the Talk of the Town. During Prohibition it actually was one of the most notorious speakeasies in New York. Jimmy Walker, the mayor at the time, was there every night with the who’s who of the city. The original bar, the wood-cut ceilings and the Tiffany lampshades which look so out of place in a Spanish restaurant are all from that era.
Sevilla has been owned by the same family since 1962. I have been going there regularly since 1966 when a friend moved into the neighborhood and told me about it. They have always done little advertising. I have taken most of my friends there as well as my kids. Now the restaurant is being turned over to the next generation of the family that owns it, and my kids and my friend’s kids are becoming the customers.
Except for the prices, the menu and the preparation of the food has not changed the entire time I’ve been going there. Sevilla was once dinged by the New York Times for their “tired old menu” which prompted my one and only letter to the food editor in which I said that they didn’t understand the place and if the menu was changed there would be rioting in the streets.
Starters include standard tapas items (offered long before tapas were cool) and shellfish dishes, many in garlic sauce. The basic philosophy of the restaurant is that you can’t put too much garlic into a dish. The mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat are a particularly favorite example of the truth of this line of thinking. Since a nice salad comes with the meal and the portions are large, you don’t need much in the way of starters. Chicken dishes are very reliable but shellfish is the main attraction here. Paella a la Valenciana (sausage, chicken, shellfish) is popular but I much prefer the Paella a la Marinera which is all shellfish. However, one of my all time favorite dishes is the Mariscada Ajillo (hot garlic sauce). This is shellfish (shrimp, scallops, clams, mussels) in a sauce with yellow rice on the side. Its ingredients are similar to paella, but in paella the shellfish is cooked in the rice. Mariscada also can be ordered with green sauce, tomato sauce or egg sauce if you’re not a garlic fan. A good selection of Spanish wines is available but I suggest the red Sangria. This is the real thing, completely unlike the overly sweet junk served in most Spanish or Latin places. You’ll really enjoy it.
End with flan, coffee and a walk around Greenwich Village which you will need after this meal. Walking east on Bleecker street is always a fun experience. It’s a great way to spend an evening in New York (62 Charles St., at West St., (212) 929-3189, 243-9513; sevillarestaurantandbar.com).
In the 1970’s on the Upper East Side of New York there was a golden age of Chinese cooking. It was lead by an amazing restaurant called the Shun Lee Dynasty. In September 2008 Gael Greene, the long time food critic of the New York Times, wrote an article about the 12 most important New York restaurants of the last 40 years. Shun Lee Dynasty was number four, ahead of Le Cirque at number five and Windows on the World at number six. The reason was that it introduced New York to subtle, elegant Asian cooking, particularly at a time when most Chinese food was viewed as cheap and unreliable. It essentially created a whole new category of restaurant with wonderful, unfamiliar flavors.
The Dynasty was quickly followed by the Shun Lee Palace and Hunan, the restaurant that introduced that style of cuisine to America. The chef at all three restaurants was T. T. Wang, the first celebrity chef in my memory. All three were managed by Michael Tong. I still remember a story in the New York papers of an immigration raid on Hunan where the false ceiling over the bar collapsed and several members of the staff came crashing down on the inspectors’ heads. Talk about authentic. Unfortunately Chef Wang died very young but Michael Tong is still managing the Shun Lee Palace on E 55th Street, the only one of the three still remaining, as well as a West Side clone, Shun Lee West, across the street from Lincoln Center.
These restaurants have changed over the years but they both still serve some of the best Chinese food in Manhattan. The menus are very similar but I consider the Shun Lee Palace to be a little truer to its heritage. It is a beautiful, tastefully decorated room that still serves some of the original dishes like Heavenly Fish Filets sautéed in rice wine with water chestnuts and snow peas, Dry Sauteed String Beans, Hunan Lamb with scallions, Slippery Chicken and the best Moo Shu Pork in the world. These dishes have been joined by newer creations such as their famous Grand Marnier Prawns, Rack of Lamb Szechuan Style, and some unusual gambits like Buffalo Mandarin Style and Hunan-style Ostrich. Although based on authentic Chinese recipes, these restaurants have become more Americanized and much more expensive than they were. Both restaurants are major celebrity hangouts, particularly Shun Lee West, but they are still a unique experience and a chance to try wonderful dishes that you won’t see anywhere else (Shun Lee Palace: 155 East 55th St., (212) 371-8844; shunleepalace.com. Shun Lee West: 43 West 65th St., (212) 595-8895; shunleewest.com).
For more typical and less expensive Chinese food, there is still Chinatown. It’s particularly great for a dim sum lunch. I’ve been going to one place forever, HSF at 46 Bowery, and it’s still excellent and very popular with tourists. But my new favorite joint is Jing Fong at 20 Elizabeth. It’s very much like a Hong Kong dim sum parlor which means great food and total chaos. You may have to chase down the ladies with the rolling carts but it is great fun. However, the newest immigrants, and therefore the food straight from China, are now in Flushing, Queens. Take the #7 train from Grand Central to the last stop, Main Street Flushing, to enter a different world. Joe’s Shanghai is the best-known restaurant there, and they now have branches in Chinatown on Pell Street and in midtown Manhattan on West 56th Street. The Shanghai soup dumplings are to die for and this is the restaurant that my friends who have lived in China tell me is the closest to what they ate there. Other restaurants with great reputations are Spicy and Tasty and Golden Szechuan. All oriental cuisines are represented in Flushing so it’s also good for Korean, Malaysian, Japanese, etc. If you want an adventure just go there, walk around and pick something. I doubt you can go very far wrong (Jing Fong: 20 Elizabeth St., (212) 964-5256; jingfongny.com. Joe’s Shanghai: three locations, joesshanghairestaurants.com).
One of the most unusual restaurants you will find in New York is Marchi’s on E 31 Street just off 2nd Avenue. It is in a brownstone along a beautiful residential tree lined street. There is no sign outside, just a family coat of arms on the building, and I suspect many thousands of people have walked right past it and had no idea it was a restaurant. Inside there is no menu. For almost 80 years Marchi’s has served the exact same meal night after night. The restaurant is beautifully appointed, there is wonderful garden in the back where you can sit in the summer with the Empire State Building as a backdrop, the waiters are in tuxedos, and everything about it says this will be a special evening. It is the ultimate date restaurant although it is popular with businessmen also. (I have friends whose parents courted at Marchi’s.) To say they have this meal down pat and make it efficiently, with only the finest ingredients, is an understatement. For that reason, taking into account what you’re getting, it’s a real price performer.
When you walk in food appears quickly. Your only decision is what wine to pick from a very good list that has been personally chosen by the Marchi family. The first course is platters of antipasto, celery, melon, radishes, finocchio, salami, and a salad of tuna, olives, capers, celery, parsley and red cabbage. The second course is homemade lasagna and might be the best you’ll ever eat. The third course is crisp, deep fried fish served with cold beets and string beans in a simple oil and vinegar dressing. The fourth course is roast chicken and slices of roast veal with a platter of sautéed fresh mushrooms and a bowl of tossed salad. The last course is dessert and is an incredible variety of fruit, cheese, a lemon fritter and a mound of crostoli, (sweet fried bread sprinkled with powdered sugar.) It’s a large meal, but wonderfully done and elegantly served. It’s a unique experience. I’ve never seen another restaurant like it in the US (251 East 31st St., (212) 679-2494; marchirestaurant.com).
A more traditional Northern Italian alternative on the Upper East Side is Lusardi’s on 2nd Avenue at E 77th Street. The Lusardi’s are from Parma and do the dishes of Emilio Romagna and surrounding areas beautifully. It’s been a favorite of the New York Times critics since it opened in 1982. There are authentic homemade pastas, wonderful risotto, and great truffle dishes in season. I’ve never had a disappointing dish there. Desserts are exceptional. The wine list is large and very well chosen. The Lusardis go back to Italy each year to find new food trends and wines to bring back to the restaurant. A few doors down 2nd Ave is Uva, one of the best wine bars in the City also run by the Lusardi family. For more on it check the archives for my article on New York Wine bars. This family knows wine and trying one of their new discoveries only makes the restaurant more enjoyable (1494 2nd Ave., (212) 249-2020; lusardis.com).
If you’re after Southern Italian make a beeline to Little Italy, specifically to Il Cortile at 125 Mulberry Street. It’s another beautiful restaurant with a spectacular garden room. Reliable for decades, my favorites are the seafood linguine or the lobster ravioli. Check for specials, they are usually excellent. My long-time faith in Il Cortile was vindicated when I found out that it was the favorite restaurant of the cast of the Sopranos. It became a tradition that whenever a cast member was bumped off the entire cast had a farewell dinner for him or her at the restaurant. Fuggetaboutit! (125 Mulberry St., (212) 226-6060; ilcortile.com)
While you’re in Little Italy make sure you go to Ferrara’s on Grand Street for some of the best Italian pastries and cappuccino in the City. It’s also an easy walk from Chinatown, and since the Chinese aren’t exactly known for desserts, a good Chinese meal followed by dessert at Ferrara’s is a very native New Yorker thing to do (195 Grand St., (212) 226-6150; ferraranyc.com).
New York style pizza is very distinct and different than, say, Chicago deep dish pizza which is also great. True New York style is characterized by a puffy, bread-like, outer crust which tapers to a thin, crisp middle. The dough is traditionally hand tossed and made from high gluten bread flour and New York tap water. The flavor of the crust is very important and is often attributed to the minerals in the New York water (as is the flavor of bagels, pastrami and other local foods). It is light on sauce and not overwhelmed with toppings. It is essential that you be able to fold a slice because the thinness makes it hard to handle if you don’t.
The best way to make this style of pizza is in a coal fired brick oven where the temperature can get to at least 850 degrees and the pizza takes about 3 minutes to cook. Unfortunately, coal ovens are illegal in New York, but a few older establishments that had them were grandfathered in and by coincidence they have some of the most outstanding pizza in the City.
You can get into some of the best arguments you’ve ever experienced on this topic, but I have two favorites, and I’m not going to even try to pick between them. John’s of 12th Street in Greenwich Village has been there since 1929. Their guiding principle seems to be to keep it simple and do it right. They have an uptown location in the theater district which you should pass on. If you want the real thing come down to the Village. The other option is Lombardi’s on the edge of Little Italy on Spring Street near Mott. They are supposedly the first pizza restaurant in New York and were established in 1905. The main difference between the two is that John’s spreads the cheese on in little nuggets while Lombardi’s puts it on in slices. Lombardi’s also has a clam pizza which is a unique and great experience. Neither of them sell pizza by the slice. Flip a coin (John’s of 12th St.: 301 East 12th St., (212) 475-9531; johnsof12thstreet.com. Lombardi’s: 32 Spring St., (212) 941-7994; firstpizza.com) .
The one thing I claim you can’t get anywhere in the country except New York is truly great delicatessen. Maybe it is the water, but I’ve never thought that deli outside of New York was worth a damn. This is a big deal to me and I have spent far more time and money than any sane person should trying to find the best corned beef and pastrami sandwiches available.
The best pastrami sandwich, and possibly the best sandwich I’ve ever had anywhere, goes to Katz’s Deli on Houston (HOWS-TON) Street in the heart of the Lower East Side. This is just heaven on rye bread. Katz’s has been there since 1888. It’s the ultimate deli experience complete with neon signage, hanging salamis, décor that hasn’t changed in decades and pictures of presidents and celebrities who have eaten themselves sick there. The famous “I’ll have what she’s having” scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed in Katz’s, and the table is marked. President Clinton ate one of the biggest lunches on record which is detailed on the wall next to his table.
Take the ticket they give you when you walk in (and don’t lose it!), go up to the counter and order a pastrami on rye. I ask for half sour pickles with it. If you don’t ask you’ll get some half sour, some full sour. Get a Dr Brown’s soda from a different line, black cherry for me. Find a place to sit and enjoy one of life’s best rewards. If you can stuff anything else down after the sandwich try a hot dog. It’s one of the best. Try to get to this place. The Lower East Side is the most recent part of New York to be gentrified and there are serious changes going on in the neighborhood. There are hideous rumors that Katz’s may be bought out, which would be a disaster. Go before a great piece of New York history disappears (205 East Houston St., (212) 254-2246; katzsdelicatessan.com).
Markt is a relatively recent Belgian brasserie which has just relocated to 6th Avenue in Chelsea. It has wonderful mussels and fries, carbonades (a beef stew made with brown Belgian beer), and a great beer list. A very popular place (676 6th Ave., (212) 727-3314; marktrestaurant.com).
Sylvia’s in Harlem really is as good as its reputation. Harlem has undergone a renaissance and now has lots of good restaurants of all kinds, as well as great jazz clubs. Don’t miss exploring the area (328 Malcom X Blvd., (212) 996-0660; sylviasrestaurant.com).
Trattoria Pesce Pasta on Bleecker Street (near John’s Pizza) has their antipasto in the window just like restaurants in Italy. It is a very authentic, simple, reasonable Italian restaurant that I’ve enjoyed for years. They have opened another branch on the West Side at 90th Street and Columbus Avenue. Antipasto, fish dishes and desserts highly recommended (262 Bleecker St., (212) 645-2993; pasta-pesce.com).
Tripoli on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn is the last of a large number of Mideastern restaurants that were in that neighborhood. If you’re there check out the Damascus Bakery and the Sahadi Importing company a block away for hard to find foods from that part of the world (156 Atlantic Ave., at Clinton St., Brooklyn Heights, (718) 596-5800; tripolirestaurant.com).
And lastly, if you pass Gray’s Papaya go in and have a hot dog and one of their silly tropical drinks. Yummy (2090 Broadway, (212) 799-0243; grayspapayanyc.com).
Have a great time in New York.
Is there a restaurant in New York City that you feel is timeless and classic---one that hasn't changed in years, and that you keep returning to again and again? Share your comments and insights with the community!