Best of Manhattan 09: Eats and Drinks

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Best $5 Lunch on the Upper East Side: Szechuan Kitchen
1518 First Ave. (betw. 79th & 80th), 212-249-4615
There are probably as many hole-in-the-wall Chinese “restaurants” in Manhattan as there are bodegas and pizza joints. They all offer pretty much the same fare, and if you’re in the mood for fried rice smothered in plastic packets of hot mustard, they’re the way to go. If, however, you want a truly flavorful, filling and jaw-droppingly cheap lunch, head to Szechuan Kitchen in Yorkville. The lunch menu has about 10 options for less than $5, and if you really want to splurge you can go for a shrimp dish for $5.50. Our recommendation is the diced chicken with bell peppers or chicken with cashews. If you decide to have them deliver, they’ll be ringing your buzzer before you’ve hung up. —JP


Best Way to Start Your Sunday: Brunch at Asiate, Mandarin Oriental

80 Columbus Circle (at 59th), 212-805 8800
Sitting 35 floors above Central Park gazing at the Midtown skyline is not a bad way to begin any day. Add a gourmet menu choreographed each weekend to feature a four-dish tasting course, followed by a choice of two elaborate entrees, and you have some idea why this brunch is a true treat. Not quite the morning diner experience, eggs Benedict here come served with Italian pancetta and arugula, while servings of beef Carpaccio compete with blue crab salads over mango. At $48 per head, it’s also good value, considering the quality and quantity of food on offer. Asian-themed cuisine, such as shiitake mushroom wantons, makes up the initial tasting course, while the menu reverts to more typical American fare, like steaks, for the main dishes. Breads, pastries and rich desserts will test your will power. Plus it’s all served in the stunning Asiate restaurant, where renowned interior designer Tony Chi has created a modernist haven. Floor-to-ceiling windows elegantly mirror racks of rare wine from around the world, and private booths straddle a broad open-plan dining room. The atmosphere can seem a little formal, but the stunning view and delicious food are worth it. —JJ

Best Haute Sandwich: Lobster Roll, Mermaid Inn
568 Amsterdam Ave., (betw. 87th & 88th), 212-799-7400
If you’ve got $26 to blow on one sandwich, do it here. Summer may be over, but you can still capture salt and sun with Mermaid Inn’s fancy adaptation of a New England classic. Generous chunks of sweet lobster meat smothered in just the right amount of mayo come nestled in a golden, griddled brioche. Trust us, you won’t miss the Wonder Bread hotdog bun, especially with a side of Old Bay fries. —CE

Best Uptown Empanada: Gauchas
1748 First Ave. (betw. 90th & 91st), 212-360-6400
In some parts of the world, the argument over who makes the best empanada can get as testy as the ongoing five-borough pizza fight. Here in Manhattan, though, the local selection of these tasty South American pastries has improved to the point that there is now a clear-cut best-in-class. Gauchas opened several years ago as a tiny eatery that only served empanadas. The owners have since expanded both the space and menu, but the reason to go back is still the empanadas. There are eight different kinds, ranging from traditional fillings like corn and spinach to the decidedly un-South American “Capresse” empanada. They are not only delicious but also works of art, as each type of filling comes wrapped in a different pastry design. A truly unique and underappreciated treat that is waiting to be discovered. —JP


Best Pricey Bar with Freebies: The Library Bar at the Regency Hotel

540 Park Ave. (and 61st), 212-339-4050
If you’re not worried about how you’re going to pay your rent, maintenance or cat’s vet bill, then you can afford to have a drink at the Library Bar. As the name would imply, the décor includes dark wooden walls and shelves lined with books. The overstuffed sofas and chairs are super comfy, with enough pillows to prop up every part of you. Free M&Ms, both regular and peanut, as well as nuts, olives and crackers somewhat amortize the cost of your drink. As do all the free newspapers. But for a real meal, try the menu, which has lots of tasty options. Waiters are attentive but not hovering. And the bartender is aces, especially with classic cocktails like the Sidecar. Terrific acoustics make this one of the few bars in town where the person you’re talking to can actually hear you. Another plus: women can stock up on free tampons in the ladies room. —JW


Best Slice of Pizza with a Mexican Flair: Freddy and Pepper’s Pizza Shop

303 Amsterdam Ave., (betw. 74th & 75th), 212-799-2378
How could one resist the urge to order something as crazy as the $4.25 “chicken mole” slice at Freddy and Pepper’s? Forget Neapolitan-style New York pizza—this slice has superb Mexican flair. A serving comes out the same size as any New York cut, but instead of your usual pepperoni and mozzarella, this pie is piled high with pinto beans, Monterey Jack cheese and diced chicken, and is drizzled with a smoky, chocolaty mole sauce. One bite of this combo has us crying “mas, mas!” —LC

Best Homemade Bagel: Bagelworks
1229 First Ave. (betw. 66th & 67th), 212-744-6444
Bagelworks is for those of you who are fed up with mediocre Manhattan bagel chains, from Hot n’ Crusty to Pick a Bagel. It’s for all the Jewish mothers out there during the High Holidays. But most of all, this unassuming bagel shop is for those few New Yorkers who still indulge in carbs—and warm, rich, gooey carbs at that. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, it’s not uncommon to find a line of Upper East Siders snaking out of the small store, all patiently awaiting the pungent aroma of bagels baked on premises since 1983. Ranging from the simple doughy plain bagel to the more exotic oat bran raisin, or better yet, the everything flat, the bagels are often still steamy and warm when you slice them open. Be sure to try some of the numerous cream cheese flavors—the lox and walnut raisin are particularly tasty—and don’t forget the other offerings: homemade muffins, smoked fish and freshly ground and brewed coffee. Don’t let the lackluster storefront or the chaos deter you—these are carbs you can count on. —ZK


Best Old Time Favorite That Never Gets Old: Popover Café

551 Amsterdam Ave. (at 87th), 212-595-8555
Food fads come and go. Who knows if make-your-own salad bars and frozen yogurt shops will survive and reproduce for another decade? Then again, there are a few New York eateries whose delicacies never grow old. Case and point: Popover Café. The quaint, brightly lit café is filled with cozy booths and frequented by neighborhood fans and first-time tourists. Sure the 28-year-old restaurant, which dishes out three meals a day, is world-famous. But nothing beats that first bite into a moist, eggy popover smothered in apple or strawberry butter. Enjoy as a meal on its own, or with late-night pasta or challah French toast. —ZK


Best Post-Work Midtown Bar That Tourists Won’t Dare Enter: Jimmy’s Corner

140 W. 44th St. (betw. Sixth & Broadway), 212-221-9510
When our employer releases us from our office cages, we crave an anesthetizing drink on the double. Instead of streaming downtown, we stick around Times Square, descending into a den where no Applebee’s-loving tourist dare tread: Jimmy’s Corner. The dim dive is lined with loads of boxing memorabilia, courtesy of owner and trainer Jimmy Glenn. We grab barstools and pints of bodega-cheap brews as cold as the Arctic, bobbing along to ‘60s soul ditties as we drink ourselves into new, improved personalities, far from tourists’ flashing cameras. —JB

Best Snobby French Upper East Side Bistros, Old & New:
Le Bilboquet, 25 E. 63rd St. (betw. Madison & Park), 212-751-3036
Le Magnifique, 1022A Lexington Ave. (at 73rd), 212-879-6190
With La Goulue shutting its doors this summer, one might begin to worry where the likes of Missy, Tipper and Blair will go for overpriced glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and skimpy pots of Moules Frites. Fear not, socialites, international visitors and expense account mavens—Le Bilboquet is still bustling with all your familiar cohorts. This old-timer outshines local peers Nello and Chat Noir because the food here is actually good; while pricey, you will not have to choose between an entrée and this month’s rent. Get the steak tartare, which is among the best in the city, and admire the constantly changing abstract art hanging from the petite walls. Air kiss and you’ll fit right in with the rest of the brunching Euro transplants.

In addition to this seasoned veteran, there’s a new (French) kid on the block: Le Magnifique. A little less glitz than Bilboquet means a lower snob factor and smaller tabs. With tranquil outdoor seating facing quiet East 73rd Street, a daily early-bird $19.95 three-course menu and waiters who actually smile, this fresh young bistro will quickly become your new favorite. —CL

Best Kept and Widest Variety of Craft Beers: Amsterdam 106
938 Amsterdam Ave. (near, you guessed it, 106th), 212-280-8070
Beer lovers who know their IPAs from their APAs, or who want to savor the “hints of cherry and black currant” in Wolaver’s Brown ale will thrill to the treasures on tap at Amsterdam 106. Last we visited there were 25 beers on tap and bartender Howie said the roster changes daily, even if the beer menu is printed weekly. This collection of impeccable beers is kept in perfect condition—at a modest cellar temperature that retains all flavor. Especially helpful are the menu notes, telling you not only about what tastes to anticipate, but also the ABV (alcohol by volume) of each brew. There are some heavy hitters here, notably the stouts, and Amsterdam 106 smartly serves these in smaller 12-ounce glasses rather than the standard pint. One example is the Southern Tier Crème Brulée Imperial Milk Stout, which has 10 percent ABV. This “deliciously creamy” dessert beer tastes astonishingly like its namesake. At the other end of the beer spectrum are plenty of trendy Indian Pale Ales (IPAs), such as Arcadia IPA, a refreshingly crisp and medium-bodied beer from Battle Creek, Michigan. While you sip your pint or 17-ounce Growler in this attractive, tin-ceilinged bar room, you can order from an extensive menu that includes all manner of mussels, great bar snacks and more. —NJB

Best Budget Dinner and Drinks: Vero
1483 Second Ave. (betw. 77th & 78th), 212-452-3354
If you don’t know where Vero is, you could easily walk right past this tiny wine bar, which is flanked by the massive patio areas of two looming neighboring eateries. But do stop by. What Vero lacks in size and stature, it makes up for in service and satisfaction. On any given night, you might find the restaurant’s platinum Mohawked manager behind the bar pitching in and making your drink wait as short as possible. Best of all, on Monday nights, the restaurant’s gourmet paninis come free with the purchase of a drink. Think prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella and basil aioli, portobello mushroom with spinach and olives, or roasted tomatoes or smoked turkey with fontina, pesto and beefsteak tomatoes. Yum. —JG

Best Sweets to Obsess Over: Momofuku Milk Bar Cookies
207 Second Ave. (13th St.), 212-254-3500
It’s sad to see that the once-lovable Chef David Chang is now just as well known for his bad attitude as his pork buns. That said, dude knows his cookies. With his pastry chef Christina Tosi at Milk Bar’s helm, the shop dishes out some of the best cookies we’ve ever had; at $1.85 each, we can’t find better baked goods anywhere—especially when we think of the extraordinarily rich chocolate-chocolate and the tongue titillating “compost cookie” with pretzels, chocolate, potato chips, coffee, butterscotch and oats. Salty-sweet, crunchy-chewy goodness all rolled into one. —BVB


Best New Hotel Bar: Breslin Lobby Bar at Ace Hotel

20 W. 29th St. (betw. Broadway & Fifth), 212-679-2222
The Breslin restaurant from foodie whisperers Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield hasn’t opened just yet, but the bar in the lobby of NoMad’s hottest hotel is already a hit. Start off on any of the couches or easy chairs that pack the space and admire the oddly ’90s décor while you wait for a server to swing by and imagine you’re in a ski chalet, student union or your very own hunting lodge. The drinks are moderately priced and generally tasty, and having a photo booth inside the lobby—a photo booth that takes credit cards!—doesn’t hurt one bit. Sure, the cultish Stumptowners with their bowties and circus barker moustaches might dart in and out of the room, but have enough Flatiron cocktails—made with Rhum Clement, basil and bitters—and you’ll never notice. —BVB

Best Execution of the Worst Bar Idea: The Ainsworth
122 W. 26th St. (betw. Sixth & Seventh), 212-741-0646
One thing New York probably doesn’t need is a massive Atlantic City-style sports bar. But the Ainsworth, open since September in Chelsea, defies that logic. All gussied up like a Victorian Saloon, albeit one graced with 40 anachronistic large screen TVs, the availability of 100-ounce beers guarantees that the scene remains decidedly un-Chelsea and populated by thick-necked gibrones. There’s a surprisingly good dinner menu featuring a lobster Cobb salad, kielbasa and a winning goat-cheese-and-mushroom pizza. Go ahead and wash it down with that giant beer, we won’t tell. —JDS

Best Burger to Temper Midtown Rage: Anthos’ Lamb Burger
36 W. 52nd St. (betw. Fifth & Sixth), 212-582-6900
Sometimes at work, we fantasize about inserting a sharpened No. 2 pencil—yes, we’re in a profession that requires us to use graphite—into our boss’s eye socket. Before our homicidal thoughts become reality, we abscond our desk for the soothingly decadent comfort of Anthos’ marvelous lamb burger. There’s nothing bashful about this pretty patty, studded with crushed garlic and sweet pepper and wrapped in luscious caul fat before it’s char-grilled, painted with feta-cheese sauce and planted on a sweet brioche bun. Each jaw-drenchingly juicy bite diminishes our homicidal urge, turning us as docile as, well, a lamb. —JB

Best West Side Line Worth Waiting In: Shake Shack
366 Columbus Ave. (at 77th), 646-747-8770
For “fast” food, Shake Shack sure doesn’t live up to its name. But trust us, it’s worth the wait. Go for a classic burger, or live a little and try the Shack-cago dog, a crisp encased meat topped with mustard, onions, pickles, tomatoes and other assorted goodies. To balance out the salty, order one of the Shack’s famous “concretes,” just a fancy name for a really thick, delicious milkshake (custard, technically) with bits of candy and other sweets mixed in. Some complain that the fries can be soggy, but even a moist fry is still pretty good. Bring a magazine to catch up on your reading and soak up scenic Columbus Avenue while you wait. —CE


Joshua Bernstein, Nancy J. Brandwein, Linnea Covington, Charlotte Eichna, Jordan Galloway, Joe Jackson, Zara Kessler, Christina Livadiotis, Josh Perilo, Joshua David Stein, Bathsheba van Buren, and Jane Warshaw.

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