In the greatest food city on earth, why are we eating so many sandwiches?
One of New York City’s most curious native establishments is the steam-table deli. Sprouting like mushrooms wherever offices can be found, these one-size-fits-all, in-and-out lunch factories are baffling novelties to visitors. Where did they come from? How can so many of them co-exist in such a small area? How can the same place make sandwiches, sushi, bi-bim-bap, lasagna and roast turkey every day – and how could any of it possibly be good?
The answer to all of these questions is one simple word: Lunch. There are so many of these places because it’s unthinkable to go farther than three blocks away from the office just to eat something. Their selections are so schizophrenic to keep workers from realizing that they’ve trapped themselves into a rut deeper than a monster-truck tread. We have time-crunched ourselves into this convenience corner, and now the midday meal has become a race to see how quickly you can get back to your desk and hoover something out of a plastic clamshell container without ever taking their eyes off of Excel.
We’re calling for a return to the heady days of the power lunch, when Very Important people knew noon was time to toss back a couple of martinis and rub elbows with other Very Important People in high-ceilinged, velvet-trimmed dining rooms. Not just for the Very Important anymore, these days most of the city’s hottest, most well-respected restaurants are quietly serving amazing meals in the middle of the day to those brave few who dare to break free from the tether. Ready to join the revolution? There are just a few simple guidelines you need to know:
Skip the line. At night, Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria (53 Great Jones St., ilbucovineria.com) is packed with salumi groupies hoping for a shot at the expert sausages, prosciuttos and more that are made in-house, a rarity in this health code-crazy city. In addition to the salumi, hearty Italian appetizers like fried artichokes and beautifully fresh pastas keep hopefuls waiting for hours for a shot at a table. Not so during the day. Waltz in at 1 p.m. and sit down immediately, then gloat the next time your friends complain that they couldn’t get a table. Bonus: The casual dining room doubles as a grocery during the day, a gimmick that means nothing but dead space at night, when the counters are closed, but which allows for fantastic people-watching during a solo lunch.
Compare the lunch and dinner menus. Some places offer special dishes only during the day, giving weekday lunchers yet another perk to lord over their deskbound brethren. Case in point: Momofuku Ssam Bar (207 2nd Ave., momofuku.com), which at night serves an entire rotisseried peking-style duck as one of its group meals. Get three of your friends to plan far enough in advance and you just might be able to enjoy the sweet, sticky bird, stuffed with duck-and-pork sausage and served up with chive pancakes and lettuce for maximum messy enjoyment. Or, walk in any day of the week for an individually portioned plate with all the same fixins; no advance planning required.
- Whatever you do, don’t get the prix fixe. The sit-down equivalent of the McDonald’s meal combo, lunchtime prix-fixe menus are designed to satisfy the most people with the least fuss. Otherwise talented, creative chefs throw a salad, sandwich, and a scoop of ice cream at diners and shoo them out the door, ruining any treat yo’self aura you may be trying to cultivate. Paradoxically, while Aldea (31 W. 17th St., aldearestaurant.com), the Michelin-starred modern Portuguese restaurant just off Union Square, recently announced it was going prix-fixe only at peak dinnertimes, it still offers an a la carte lineup at lunchtime alongside the set menu. The arroz de pato, rice with duck confit, is a signature not to be missed – and it’s not available on the prix-fixe.
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