Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a guide to the New York City Greats.
New York is undoubtedly a restaurant city. In a place where most people live in small apartments with even tinier kitchens, the best restaurants aren’t just a convenience—they stand in for New Yorkers’ living rooms and backyards, giving residents spaces to gather outside their homes.
While there are restaurants on every block, some make such an impact on the city’s culture that it’s hard to imagine New York without them. A storied oyster bar is synonymous with Grand Central Station. An inventive Nigerian spot expands the restaurant landscape in Bed-Stuy. An acclaimed soul food spot is a Harlem landmark.
These are the qualities that make up The Greats: 23 restaurants, ranging from laidback to dressed up, that define what it means to eat, live, and love in New York City.
Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare (Hell’s Kitchen)
This tasting menu restaurant launched in a space attached to the grocery store with which it still shares a name (Brooklyn Fare) on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn. Its unorthodox location, combined with chef César Ramirez’s luxurious, truffle-laden menu at a fittingly high price point, forced recognition that the borough could finally compete with Manhattan’s fine dining restaurants, earning it three MICHELIN stars. It has since relocated to Manhattan, but the experience is the same—an expensive ticket that pays off in plates of uni, lobster, and a front-row seat to watch the chef at work.
Dig into one of Harlem’s best casual meals at this soul food institution. Chef Melba Wilson’s chicken and waffles shot to fame after winning an episode of Food Network’s Throwdown! With Bobby Flay in 2008. Melba’s adored version comes with strawberry butter, maple syrup, and can be topped with wings or catfish. Wilson began her career at her aunt’s Harlem staple, Sylvia’s, and can often be found greeting guests with warm hugs. The restaurant’s Southern comforts are so legendary that even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stopped by on a 2021 visit.
Grand Central Oyster Bar (Midtown East)
There are few restaurants more iconic than Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York’s equally iconic Grand Central Station, sharing the building’s glorious scale and dramatic vaulted tile ceiling. With U-shaped lunch counters spanning end to end in part of the room and red-checked tablecloths covering wooden tables in the dining room, the place feels like it did when it opened in 1913. And while the clientele might dress differently now, all come for the reasons people have for a century: a quick bowl of chowder before exploring the city, or a dozen oysters and a cocktail before catching a train home.
Hearth (East Village)
Hearth, with its single-word name, unadorned East Village dining room, and farm-to-table philosophy, ushered in an era of other ingredient-driven restaurants after opening in 2003. But Hearth’s faithfulness to simple Italian cooking, along with its excellent service, has ensured that it outlasted almost all of them. If you’ve had bone broth lately, thank Hearth’s James Beard Award-winning chef Marco Canora, who serves up the healing liquid in a to-go cup here. The restaurant’s appeal lies in its consistently excellent food: The polenta is freshly milled, the beef and ricotta meatballs are grass-fed, and the vegetables are green market fresh.
Star chef Markus Glocker (Augustine, Bâtard) blends French fare with Austrian traditions at this transportive fine-dining spot at the Ace Hotel. Though it just opened in September 2022, Koloman’s artistic plates have already scored rave reviews from The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other local heavyweights. Expect imaginative dishes such as cheese souffle with aged cheddar and mushroom jam, schnitzel Viennoise, a combination of potato salad, cucumber, lingonberries, and sea buckthorn, and the piece de resistance: slices of salmon sandwiched between two flakey pastry pieces. The backdrop is just as inspired and takes cues from artist Koloman Moser with glass and brass light fixtures galore, plus a striking bar decked with an amber-colored backlit clock.
Strip House (Greenwich Village)
In a town where so many residents claim a favorite steakhouse, Strip House stands out. The interiors are far from staid, livened up by bordello-inspired accents and burlesque photos on the walls. But Strip House doesn’t mess around in the beef department. The pitch-perfect steaks are accompanied by decadent European-style sides including truffled creamed spinach and goose-fat fried potatoes. Come extra hungry and order the beloved New York strip, along with several martinis to wash it down. Don’t skip the 24-layer chocolate cake (intended for 8-10 people) if you’re here with a group.
TAO Downtown (Chelsea)
TAO Downtown resembles a Vegas nightclub to many. But it might be more accurate to say that many Vegas nightclubs actually resemble TAO—the hybrid club and restaurant pioneered the genre and exported it all over the world. TAO is now the place to have an epic night, whether it’s for bachelorette and bachelor parties, birthdays, or other celebrations. The restaurant is equal parts show and service, with tables tiered into steps on one end of the dining room so diners can survey the scene below them while enjoying pork potstickers and Peking duck. Those who want to continue the night can head to the nightclub, hidden in the same building, where hopes of celebrity-spotting and high-priced bottle service have helped TAO become one of the highest grossing restaurants in New York.
The Odeon (TriBeCa)
The Odeon has been an anchor for Lower Manhattan since it opened in 1980, long before Tribeca was trendy. The restaurant has weathered the ups and downs of several recessions, 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and now a global pandemic, all while remaining a symbol of downtown cool that counts celebrities as regulars. Its French bistro-esque interiors influenced restaurant design for decades. The Odeon is still a go-to for the city’s most comforting classics such as frisée salad and roast chicken, best paired with some of Manhattan’s best people watching.
Semma (West Village)
Chef Vijay Kumar and the award-winning team behind Dhamaka lead this South Indian newcomer and steered it to MICHELIN stardom in 2022. Semma is the only Indian restaurant in the U.S. to score that coveted distinction, due to Kumar’s penchant for showcasing undersung ingredients such as goat intestines and Byadagi chiles. Many of the dishes here trace their roots to Tamil Nadu (where the chef is originally from) and include gunpowder dosa—the restaurant’s most popular order—featuring a rice and lentil crepe stuffed with masala potatoes and nathai pirattal, peconic snails stewed with ginger, tamarind, and fresh coconut. Don’t be fooled by Semma’s humble one-page menu: It packs a spicy punch with bold, unforgettable flavors infused in every dish.
Casa Mono (Gramercy)
Casa Mono has turned out consistently superb tapas since 2003, with rave New York Times reviews and a MICHELIN star to prove it. The kitchen is led by longtime chef-owner Andy Nusser and whips up classic small plates that will transport you to Spain—think pan con tomate, bacalao croquetas, razor clams a la plancha, and top-notch jamón iberíco. Larger plates are equally delightful, be it something more traditional such as fideos with chorizo and clams or unique combos like bone marrow served with smoked trout roe, horseradish, and everything bagel spice. End on a sweet note with the crème brulée-like crema Catalana con buñuelos, a rich caramelized vanilla custard trimmed with deep-fried bay leaves.
Katz’s (Lower East Side)
As that unforgettable scene in When Harry Met Sally demonstrated, the enormous Jewish deli sandwiches at Katz’s promise a deeply pleasurable experience. The Lower East Side institution has sliced up peppery pastrami and corned beef since 1888. The faithful mains are served alongside properly sour pickles and well-executed standards such as matzoh ball soup, crispy latkes, and noodle kugel–capped off by its signature gruff counter service. The restaurant is vital to both Jewish and NYC culture.
Veselka (East Village)
This beloved all-day Ukrainian cafe serves some of New York City’s greatest varenyky, pierogi-like dumplings stuffed here with traditional fillings such as potato, braised beef, or sauerkraut and mushrooms and more unique options such as bacon, egg, and cheese. Other Eastern European staples are must-orders, too, including the stuffed cabbage and perfectly sweet-meets-savory borscht—even better with a generous dollop of sour cream, which will turn the deep red beet-based soup a pretty bubble gum shade of pink. Open from early morning until at least 11 pm daily, there is also lots of classic diner fare to consider, such as generously portioned breakfast platters.
Jing Fong (Chinatown; UWS)
It’s hard to beat this Chinatown stalwart that’s been satiating New Yorkers’ Cantonese feast cravings since 1978. Jing Fong’s third-generation owner Truman Lam swapped its opulent, banquet-style digs in Chinatown for a smaller space in 2021, so the focus is now squarely on the food. Fortunately, the treats are as irresistible as ever, featuring some of the city’s best shumai, pork buns, rice rolls, and pan-fried turnip cakes. The restaurant primarily caters to walk-ins, as do most dim sum spots, but you can request a reservation at the Upper West Side location via email.
Kappo Masa (Upper East Side)
Celebrated chef Masayoshi Takayama’s fifth fine-dining destination, opened in collaboration with art world kingpin Larry Gagosian, is suited for special occasions. Let the kitchen choose for you with the splurgy six-course chef’s tasting menu or sushi omakase, which comes with 15-18 pieces. Or choose your own adventure by going a la carte, starting with the menu’s chilled section, opting for toro wasabi ceviche or deep sea snapper ponzu, and warmer picks such as spicy dancing shrimp or roasted uni custard served on the half shell. For the main event, mix and match from the meat-focused hibachi grill section, various fried rice dishes, and sushi. For a taste of the Masa mini-empire on a (relative) budget, there’s the two-course bento box lunch.
Zou Zou’s (Hell’s Kitchen)
Everything is over-the-top at Zou Zou’s, a dazzling new Eastern Mediterranean restaurant that opened in 2022 and has quickly embedded itself as a must-try in the city’s restaurant scene. Chef Madeline Sperling (of Gramercy Tavern fame) turns out dramatic plates such as duck borek, a hypnotizing pastry spiral glazed with tangy orange sauce and sprinkled with crushed pistachios. The dinner theater continues with dishes including Kasseri cheese, set aflame at the table. Though the intricate kataifi cheesecake, a phyllo-layered marvel that channels both the Middle East and New York City, may be the ultimate showstopper. Feast on it all in a blue-tiled expanse, decked with plants, velour banquettes, and mirrored walls.
Meadowsweet’s casual atmosphere matches well with what acclaimed chef Polo Dobkin and co-owner Stephanie Lempert set out to create: a cozy retreat with friendly service and homey food made from seasonal ingredients. It’s a formula that scored the restaurant a MICHELIN star from 2015-2021. The New American menu changes daily but always highlights dishes with ingredients inspired by the couple’s farm upstate. Start with the freshly baked olive oil rolls that come with honey butter before moving onto a main that can be a fancy American wagyu or something simpler—but just as satisfying—as the signature cheeseburger with caramelized onion-bacon jam and sharp white cheddar.
Dept of Culture (Bed-Stuy)
This inviting Nigerian spot is inspired by a buka, one of the street-style canopies ubiquitous across Lagos. It opened to much praise in January 2022 and is one of the only NYC spots to offer a formal take on Nigerian cafe cuisine. Chef Ayo Balogun’s four-course menu (which changes frequently) might include fish pepper soup, vegan jollof rice prepared with West African rice, or fried cheese curds served with obe ata, a spicy red pepper sauce. To all that, add an antique record player that spins Fela Kuti tunes, dim lights, and photographs of Balogun’s relatives on the walls and you’ve got all the ingredients for a warm, communal feast.
River Cafe (DUMBO)
When owner Michael “Buzzy” O’Keeffe opened The River Café in 1977, DUMBO was a desolate neighborhood, full of underutilized waterfront warehouses. But O’Keeffe saw potential in the sweeping views of Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge. In many ways, the restaurant has always been ahead of its time, with chefs—among them Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, and David Burke—basing fine-dining menus off locally sourced and foraged ingredients. The MICHELIN-starred restaurant has kept up with the growing neighborhood around it and remains a special-occasion destination for elegant dishes such as pan-roasted venison served with chestnut spaetzle, braised red cabbage, and fall root vegetables.
Fonda (Chelsea, Tribeca, Park Slope)
Chef and owner Roberto Santibañez, who hails from Mexico City and trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, dishes up the city’s finest regional Mexican comfort food at Fonda. The restaurant’s three locations serve up a crowd-pleasing mix of familiar and lesser-seen dishes alongside tasty margaritas. Crunchy, cheesy appetizers such as queso fundido, flautas, and taquitos are perfect for sharing (and kid-friendly, too). Pescatarians will appreciate picks including ceviche or crab croquettes served with a trio of sauces: avocado serrano, pickled jalapeño mayo, and habanero roasted tomato. For something lighter, there’s a strong salad selection starring ingredients such as jicama, mango, and green apple plus hearty sharable mains with a strong Oaxacan bent.
Casa Ora (East Williamsburg)
At this MICHELIN-recognized East Williamsburg spot, the creative Venezuelan menu comes courtesy of chef Isbelis Diaz, while the unique cocktails are devised by her son, Ivo Diaz, a former mixologist at The Nomad and Eleven Madison Park. Dishes include pork tamale with chickpea, potato, raisins, and olives (available in vegan form) and mains such as lobster, squid, and octopus paella. Don’t miss whimsical drinks such as the Purple Banana, made with tequila, dry vermouth, blue pea tea, sweet plantain, lemon, and egg white. In addition to celebrating their homeland’s cuisine, the mother-son duo supports Venezuela by donating a portion of Casa Ora’s revenue to families forced to seek asylum from the country due to insufficient access to food, clean water, and government protection.
Faun (Prospect Heights)
Tuck into creative Italian-leaning fare in a charming setting at MICHELIN-recommended Faun. The seasonally driven spot is one of the best dinner destinations near popular area attractions such as the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Museum. Vinegar Hill House alum Brian Leth created its rotating menu, which showcases solid pastas such as pappardelle with braised ossobuco ragú and spaghetti neri with Jonah crab and shishito peppers. Rest assured there are lighter options, too, including seared scallops and roasted beets with feta, walnuts, and burrata. You can’t go wrong whether seated indoors or outdoors at Faun. At the former, there’s a handsome lengthy bar and cozy interiors. And when you’re craving an alfresco setting, Faun’s lush garden patio delivers one of the most magical backdrops in Brooklyn.
Aunts et Uncles (Flatbush)
Creative, flavorful Caribbean classics and comfort food—that just happens to be vegan—is dished up at Aunts et Uncles, an all-day cafe-restaurant from husband-and-wife team, Michael and Nicole Nicholas. The menu showcases island-inspired staples such as vegan Jamaican beef patties and a bake and saltfish that substitutes hearts of palm for fish. Aunts et Uncles opened in 2020, garnering a rave New York Times review in 2021. Yet its origin story stretches back to 2016 when the couple first began whipping up vegan iterations of beloved Caribbean food at home. The labor of love was well worth it, quickly becoming a buzzing gathering spot for the local community.
Mario’s Arthur Ave (Little Italy)
Owned by the Migliucci family for five generations, Mario’s is a deeply personal restaurant. The interior is decorated with Italian landscapes painted by a distant relative, and until his passing in April 2020, diners could expect to be greeted by patriarch Joseph Migliucci when they arrived. Which explains why for more than 100 years, neighbors and regulars from all over the tri-state area have flocked to the restaurant for hearty portions of Italian classics such as chicken parmigiana and homemade lasagna. Now in the care of Migliucci’s daughter, Regina, very little has changed except for one menu dish: the restaurant’s pizza, long a well-known, off menu-item, has finally found its place in print.
Tried them all? Check out other options here.
Ameena Walker is an NYC writer and editor covering architecture, food, design, real estate, and culture.
Marion Brewer contributed to this guide.