10 must-visit restaurants in New York led by trailblazing women

A collage of women chefs in New York

New York is a city of trailblazing chefs. One left her career as a surgeon to recreate her grandmothers’ Georgian recipes, another is helping families forced to seek asylum in America, and a third is one of the rare women chefs leading a two-MICHELIN-starred restaurant.

Their stories show that when women lead restaurants, and therefore our communities, magical things happen. Though women are leading more and more restaurants, they overall remain underrepresented in top jobs in the kitchen and underpaid compared to their male counterparts. 

So for Women’s History Month, we’re spotlighting 10 women-led restaurants across New York that are continuing to push the envelope forward and make the industry even more inclusive.

Emma Bengtsson, executive chef, Aquavit (Midtown)

Emma Bengtsson is among a tiny group of women chefs in America that lead Two-MICHELIN-Star restaurants. Photo credit: Eric Vitale Photography

Aquavit is still going strong nearly four decades after it opened with a menu grounded in Scandinavian favorites like herring, smoked salmon, and meatballs. A major part of that success is executive chef Emma Bengtsson, who joined as a pastry chef in 2010—and was initially too nervous to take the executive chef job when she was offered it four years later. But Bengtsson’s promotion massively paid off; she’s one of the rare women chefs to lead a two-MICHELIN-star restaurant in the US, and last year, the guide recognized her work with a special mentor chef award as well. 

Camille Becerra, chef-partner, Ace Hotel Brooklyn, including As You Are (Boerum Hill)

Veteran NYC chef Camille Becerra transformed Brooklyn’s As You Are in 2023. Photo credit: Liz Clayman

Brooklyn’s revamped As You Are has been all about spotlighting seasonal and local ingredients since Camille Becerra took over in 2023. That’s because the veteran NYC chef and Top Chef star has built a career on making comfort food through the lens of fresh ingredients like her winter squash peanut curry at As You Are. You can tap into that wisdom this May with the release of her first cookbook, Bright Cooking.

Tara Noble and Kristin Ma, co-owners, Cecily (Greenpoint)

The team behind NYC restaurant Cecily from left to right chef Zach Frieling, service director Tara Noble, and beverage director Kristin Ma
Tara Noble (center) and Kristin Ma (right) run a restaurant along with chef Zach Frieling that hopes to share profits with staff. Photo credit: David Malosh

Along with dishes like chicharrones made with mushrooms and mackerel toast, this cozy neighborhood spot stands out in the restaurant scene because of its profit-sharing business model. That was essential for co-owners Tara Noble and Kristin Ma (along with chef Zach Frieling), who are veterans of NYC hotspots like Estela and Anfora. “As business owners, we can be better custodians of the community, which starts with our staff,” Noble says. 

Lauren DeSteno, corporate executive chef, Altamarea Group, including Ai Fiori (Midtown)

Lauren DeSteno now ensures the Altamarea restaurant empire keeps nailing the excellence it’s known for globally. Photo credit: Altamarea Group

Altamarea’s restaurant empire has nabbed nearly every accolade you can imagine—MICHELIN stars, James Beard Awards, and three-star New York Times reviews, to name a few. Lauren DeSteno has been key to that continued dominance. She got her start at acclaimed Italian seafood spot Marea in 2009, quickly ascended to executive chef, and now works as the corporate executive chef for all of the group’s restaurants around the world, ensuring they keep nailing the excellence they’re known for.

Fariyal Abdullahi, executive chef, Hav & Mar (Chelsea)

Fariyal Abdullahi grew up in Ethiopia, trained at Noma, and marries the two at Hav & Mar. Photo credit: Angela Pettigrew

Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Hav & Mar is an ode to his Swedish upbringing and Ethiopian roots. But it is executive chef Fariyal Abdullahi, who grew up in Ethiopia and trained at three-MICHELIN-starred noma, who brings that vision to life everyday in dishes like coffee-braised short ribs and berbere-cured salmon. In her downtime, Abdullahi heads a non-profit that builds schools and gives families access to water in rural parts of Ethiopia.

Juliana Latif, executive chef, Zou Zou’s (Hudson Yards)

Juliana Latif leans on her Jordanian and Lebanese roots to inform the menu at Zou Zou’s. Photo credit: Zou Zou’s

Modern Eastern Mediterranean spot Zou Zou’s from the Quality branded team is one of the liveliest restaurants in the city, and it is executive chef Juliana Latif’s cooking that makes it so. Latif first channeled her Jordanian and Lebanese roots and her mother’s recipes into a one-of-a-kind hit falafel pop-up during the pandemic. The success proved to Latif that she could go all-out on a big stage, and she’s doing just that at Zou Zou’s with a fun-filled menu of grilled artichokes with smoked urfa garlic butter, hot kasseri cheese with Lebanese focaccia, and Moroccan fried chicken. 

Melba Wilson, chef and owner, Melba’s (Harlem)

The restaurateur Melba Wilson at her NYC restaurant Melba’s
Melba Wilson is restaurant royalty in New York City. Photo credit: Battman

Melba’s is legendary because chef and owner Melba Wilson is NYC restaurant royalty. She grew up cooking with her grandmother, went on to work at her aunt’s famed Harlem restaurant Sylvia’s, and kept leveling-up her culinary skills at Rosa Mexicano. Today, Melba’s hospitality is so beloved that the restaurant frequently plays host to celebrities like Smokey Robinson, DJ Khaled, and Katy Perry.

Isbelis Diaz and Rachel Diaz Pirard, co-owners and chefs, Casa Ora (Williamsburg)

Casa Ora is a family affair through and through. Isbelis Diaz leads the kitchen, her son Ivo Diaz heads up the bar, and her daughter-in-law Rachel Diaz Pirard is the pastry chef. Isbelis’s childhood, though, is the focus at the restaurant. She was raised on family-style meals of arepas, empanadas, and fried fish with coconut rice in Maracaibo, Venezuela—and it’s those same homey vibes that regulars keep returning to Casa Ora for. Plus, it was important to Isbelis to give back to her community; a portion of the restaurant’s revenue goes to Venezuelan families forced to seek asylum in America.

Barbara Sibley, chef and owner, La Palapa (East Village)

The chef Barbara Sibley in a pink shirt holding a cocktail glass
Barbara Sibley shares food she grew up eating in Mexico City at La Palapa. Photo credit: Andrew Kist

More than two decades after it opened, La Palapa remains among the best Mexican restaurants in the city with chef and owner Barbara Sibley sharing foods she grew up eating in Mexico City. But it’s what she does outside the kitchen that’s earned her even more respect. La Palapa staffers are paid full minimum wage plus tips, still a rarity in the industry, and the restaurant was named Gender Equity Independent Restaurant of the Year by non-profit One Fair Wage in 2022. “As a woman owner I try to mentor other women in the industry,” Sibley says. “Particularly in my restaurants, especially women whose dream is to be entrepreneurs.”

Maia Acquaviva, executive chef and co-owner, Oda House (Upper East Side, Sheepshead Bay)

Maia Acquaviva recreates the dishes she made with her grandmothers growing up in Georgia at Oda House. Photo credit: Maia Acquaviva

The dishes that have made Oda House a Georgian food sensation in NYC—the oval-shaped cheesy khachapuri, the herb and lamb stew chakapuli, and the soup dumplings khinkali—are all the foods chef and co-owner Maia Acquaviva cooked with her grandmothers in Georgia. But New Yorkers almost didn’t get to taste Acquaviva’s family traditions because she initially moved to America to continue her work as a surgeon. Luckily for us all, her desire to cook won in the end. “I miss surgery, but I love cooking too, and I am enjoying it. I’m proud to be a woman leading a kitchen in New York City.”

Known for her pioneering food blog, The Strong Buzz, Andrea Strong has been writing about restaurants, chefs, and life around the table for the past 25 years. She lives, eats, and loads and unloads the dishwasher in Brooklyn.

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