Best of Manhattan: Eats & Drinks

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Shortest Reservation List for a “Dark Dining” Restaurant: Camaje
85 MacDougal St. (betw. Bleecker & Houston Sts.)
www.camaje.com
If dark dining isn’t on your bucket list yet, it needs to be. As simple as it sounds, the European craze of eating without vision is a kind of sensual journey in which the avid food appreciator can dine without the distraction of eyesight. Very few NYC restaurants offer this intriguing experience (and even fewer have any openings left for 2011), but Camaje hosts these special occasions about two to three times a month. Their process is, however, a little outside of what has become the norm; while most restaurants hold the events in a pitch-black room (many of them are also handled by a blind wait staff), Camaje’s darkness is simulated with a specially designed blindfold. This allows their staff to serve meals in a hazard-free environment and allows you to take a bathroom break without crashing into other patrons.

Best Mom-and-Pop Café: 11th Street Café
327 W. 11th St. (betw. Greenwich & Washington Sts.), 212-924-3804
Forget Chipotle and the lunchtime rat race. Step into this adorably tiny West Village cafe for a long, delicious, anti-chain lunch. While you’re at it, get to know Maud and Philippe Bonsignour, the charming husband-and-wife team behind the operation. Maud hails from France’s Basque country, while Philippe has a proud Parisian pedigree. The two met as children somewhere romantic in France, and have been opening friendly cafés ever since they were married—Philippe in the chef’s role, Maud as manager extraordinaire. “I know every single customer,” Maud said. “I know their grandmothers. Everything.” For breakfast, the bacon, egg and cheese biscuit is an artery-clogging, hangover-busting delight—or, if you’re in a rush, get their eggs-in-a-coffee-cup to go (exotic toppings like pineapple and gruyère are optional). For lunch, the turkey sandwich with Danish blue cheese, frisée, lingonberries and honey mustard is simply brilliant.

Best Place to Have an Actual Conversation Over Coffee: Café Grumpy
224 W. 20th St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.)
www.cafegrumpy.com
In an era when entitled customers expect Wi-Fi, table service and an endless reservation on their chair, Café Grumpy’s no-laptop policy feels curiously antiquated. But while it does drive away über-achieving students and part-time bloggers, it brings in a much preferred crowd: the Chatty Cathys of the world. Eavesdrop on grad students explaining to clueless sorority girls why a Foucauldian reading of the text might be more insightful than a Marxian, start-up types chatting about plans to oust the CRO and the CFO and Chelsea boys plotting their sloppy conquests later. If you get desperate for some digital stimulation, discreetly check your smart (or dumb) phone or tap on an iPad under the table. Did we mention they have great coffee?

Best Place to Drink an Authentic Cup of Pakistani Chai for $1: Lahori Kebab
124 Lexington Ave. (betw. E. 28th & 29th Sts.), 212-400-1166
Craving a hot drink to wash down your dinner? Forget the redundantly named  $4 chai tea lattes and head over to Lahori Kebab to drink an authentic cup of chai. Any South Asian will tell you that a cup of chai is not made with frothed milk or nutmeg but a concoction of tea leaves boiled in water and cooked with milk, cardamom and sugar added to taste. Only $1 will get you a styrofoam cup of chai to go. The first sip brings warmth, the second sip brings contentment and the whole cup brings zen.

Best Free Popcorn: Holiday Cocktail Lounge
75 St. Marks Pl. (betw. 1st & 2nd Aves.), 212-777-9637
This East Village dive’s longtime owner no longer slings drinks, but Holiday Cocktail Lounge’s interestingly stocked jukebox, surprisingly decent beer selection and glorious popcorn remain. The new owners are Yankees-loving locals whose accents and propensity for buying barflies a beer every few rounds are welcome in a neighborhood where both comforts are no longer standard. If Mad Men teaches us anything, it’s that just about the only constant in this city is change. Don, Roger and the boys might not be saddling up to the Holiday’s U-shaped bar for an old fashioned any time soon, but it’s nice to know there’s a place where thirsty city dwellers can drink a pint and talk shit about A-Rod with a stomach full of free popcorn.

Best Gluten-Free Pizza: Pie
124 4th Ave. (betw. 12th & 13th Sts.)
www.piebythepound.com
With its quirky, no-frills decor and thin-crust, gluten-free options, Pie is the buzz among vegans jonesing for the perfect slice of grilled eggplant pie as well as the average pizza lover craving a plain cheese slice. Since you pay by weight, Pie is perfect for commitment-phobes who want to mix and match toppings. The way the pizzas are chopped up into small squares also makes sharing—and swiping—an easy option. Whether you want to devour a whole pound or just sample a couple of toppings, their inexpensive beer ($2 for Miller High Life; $2.50 for Budweiser) will help you wash it all down.

Best Cheaper than a Trip to France: Lyon
118 Greenwich Ave. (betw. W. 12th & 13th Sts.)
www.lyonnyc.com
You’ve stood in line at Ladurée for 45 minutes on your lunch break, but there’s an easier way to get your Francophile on. Lyon, a quaint and relaxed bouchon, offers all the greatest hits from the country’s gastronomic center. Enjoying an aperitif of méthode traditionelle champagne in a cozy wooden room peppered with red-checked tablecloths, you’d swear the restaurant was brought across the Atlantic board by board. The charcuterie is decadent enough to turn vegetarians into carnivores. Each barnyard friend is represented better than the next, including a Lyonnais riff on New York City’s beloved hot dog complete with salted pretzel roll. Adventurous eaters should try the tripe; the rest can find perfection in the standards: roast poulet, salad with bacon and poached egg and a rich onion soup of hearty broth, tender brisket and rich marrow jam. As the French do, wash it all down with a glass (or three) of their slightly chilled Beaujolais. Julia Child would surely be there nightly. Bon appétit!

Best Meal at a Michelin-Starred Restaurant Under $75: Aldea
31 W. 17th St. (betw. 5th & 6th Aves.)
www.aldearestaurant.com
The Michelin committee doesn’t screw around; they guide you toward your next superior meal of greatness. But unless you’re working with a trust fund, picking up the tab can be daunting. Unlike some of the other restaurants on the famed list, Aldea has an approachable attitude to fine dining. Chef George Mendes’ cooking pedigree will wow you, as will his fresh, modern Portuguese flavors. Iberian-inspired dishes, like their creator, are both sexy and unpretentious. Aldea’s interior is an organic foil for its cuisine—it shimmers with natural wood, light and sparkling glass. Your date will be impressed. The obvious way to sample the fare without breaking your piggy bank is to take advantage of the ever-present, three-course lunch for $24.07. But if you can find a way to make it for dinner, focus on the seafood and fish. The exception: a drool-worthy arroz de pato, with crispy duck confit and chorizo. To come in under budget, order it and share the Spanish octopus a la plancha starter. Your friend can order any of the mains and be happy. Or simply consume a liquid dinner at the bar by sampling three of Brian Block’s amazing cocktails. Either way, it’s a win-win.

Best Free Lunchtime Artisanal Food Sampling: New Amsterdam Market
100 Peck Slip (at Front St.), 212-766-8688
In a parking lot fronting the now defunct Fulton Fish Market, rows of plank and trestle tables are laden with the best chocolates, breads, cheeses and meats that money can’t buy—at least when you’re sampling the artisanal wares. This year-old reinvention of the Public Market has been a quiet success, perhaps because of its non-hip location or the high ratio of market fare to prepared foods. One could easily make a meal of dark Nordic bread, cucumber, and cheese, Mexican chocolates, bratwurst from well-tended piggies, smoked duck breast, Berkshire blue cheese and crisp slices of Bosc pears or Mutsu apples. All you need is a toothpick and no shame (when you circle back for more). And if you still feel peckish, purchase a porchetta sandwich ($6); succulent pork and crisp cracklings in a hard roll. Eat it on benches fronting the East River with a spectacular view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Best Reason to Eat Standing Up Under the Manhattan Bridge: Xi’an Famous Foods
88 E. Broadway #106 (at Forsyth St., also 67 Bayard St.  at Mott St., 81 St. Mark’s Pl. betw. 1st & 2nd Ave.)
www.xianfoods.com
The Silk Road started in China’s Shaanxi province, in Xi’an, a city that melded Middle Eastern and Chinese foods to create a unique cuisine characterized by star anise and cumin-spiked lamb dishes, hand-pulled noodles and a distinctive white flatbread—like soft English muffins. Xi’an Famous Foods brought one family’s interpretation of this cuisine to Flushing and then to Manhattan, first at this simple kitchen/counter under the Manhattan Bridge. Too bad there are no seats, because the $3 lamb burger, stewed pork hand-ripped noodles or spicy and tingly “lamb face salad” will bring you to your knees. No worries. Walk to the Bayard Street Xi’an, this one with tables and chairs. Food is sloppy to share off one Styrofoam plate (especially when you dig a fork in and discover that it’s all one long noodle!), so get extra plates and lots of napkins. Cold flowery teas are great accompaniments to the more fiery dishes.

Best Way to Shut Californians Up About Mexican Food: Dos Toros
Various locations
www.dostoros.com
Californians who come to New York are always moaning about our lack of acceptable Mexican food. It’s one of those things we’re just supposed to accept as being wrong with New York. You can now safely tell these interloping West Coasters that they are dead wrong. Taco-obsessed brothers Leo and Oliver Kremer, originally from the Bay Area, opened the first branch of Dos Toros just below Union Square in 2009 and have since expanded their mini-empire to the West Village and Upper East Side, thanks to their simple, delicious tacos and burritos (the pork is especially outstanding and the quesadillas are a delight) and beautifully constructed spaces. This isn’t fancy Mexican with tableside guacamole preparation, but it’s certainly the sort of place to bring a friend for tacos and beers, especially if that person needs convincing that superb Mexican food can be found right here in Manhattan.

Best Place to Find Authentic Puerto Rican Food: La Taza de Oro
96 8th Ave. (at W. 15th St.), 212-243-9946
Though Chelsea has changed quite a bit in the last 50 years, this neighborhood staple has not. La Taza de Oro, a family-run eatery that has been in business for over 60 years, serves up traditional Puerto Rican dishes to neighborhood natives and curious tourists alike. Open Monday through Saturday for breakfast, lunch and dinner, this cozy restaurant offers finger-licking good menu items like stewed beef and fish, pollo al horno (roast chicken), ropa vieja (pulled beef) and chuletas fritas (fried pork chops). Daily specials, such as stewed codfish and goat stew, offer a healthy variety to the menu as well. Each entrée is served with a large helping of yellow rice and beans. The price is extremely reasonable, too—almost every dish is under $10. Whether you’re looking for a quick bite or craving that mofongo you tried on your trip to San Juan, La Taza de Oro will have something to sate your appetite.

Best Place to Pretend You’re on a Wong Kar-wai Set: Nom Wah Tea Parlor
13 Doyers St. (betw. Bowery & Chatham Sq.)
www.nomwah.com
It’s become more and more difficult to step into true time warps in Manhattan, but Nom Wah Tea Parlor is sticking to its mid-century guns. Originally opened in the 1920s, the honey-colored walls, red vinyl booths, Formica lunch counter (be sure to try one of their signature almond cookies on display) and 1950s appliances all act as a refreshing alternative to those faux-historic, taxidermy-happy restaurants that seem to be de rigueur these days. Wally Tang has kept the place running for the past 60 years and, although lovingly updated by nephew Wilson Tang (a former banker, ladies), the place still makes you feel you should dress in your brightly colored Sunday best and drink your tea slowly and seductively, à la In The Mood For Love. And oh, the dim sum is good, too. The steamed chinese greens in oyster sauce (updated with a “gluten free” identifier on the menu) and taro dumplings are delicious. Prices range from $1.25 to $9.95 and $5 Tsingtao beers only sweeten the highly stylized mise en scène—I mean, deal.

Best Fresh-Squeezed Juices that Don’t Cost Half Your Paycheck: Lite Delight
51 E. Houston St. (betw. Elizabeth & Mulberry Sts.), 212-966-4471
“Oh my God, I’m going on a week-long juice cleanse,” said a girl at a house party the other night. Really? So you’re basically going to pull $20 out of your purse and light it on fire for a week straight? Face it, “juice cleanse” means instant bankruptcy in this town, with many 12-oz. cups starting at $6 a pop. Deli Fresh, a holdout on Houston since the ’90s, allows the rest of us to attempt to be healthy without robbing us blind. Fresh combos like Hangover Helper, with beets, apples, cucumber and carrot, or the Warm Up, made with ginger, apple and carrot, are $3.50 for a regular or $4 for a “jumbo.” Their early bird specials from 7-10 a.m. knock the prices down to $2.50 to $3.75, allowing just about anyone to dabble in the raw juice cleanse movement. They’re only fruits and vegetables, after all.

Best Place to Catch Dinner and a Band: Pianos
158 Ludlow St. (at Stanton St.), www.pianosnyc.com
There are lots of great venues around town in which you can see great live music. There are also, of course, about a million fantastic places to have dinner. But if you want to do both of them in one place, where do you go? Pianos, of course. Serving upscale pub grub that’s just right before a rock show, the Lower East Side space manages to move its delicious food quickly, even when there’s a crowd packed in, and diners rarely feel rushed. Tuck into the Mediterranean nachos and one of the truly excellent (and affordable) burgers before seeing some of our brightest local talent or tomorrow’s hot new band today. If you’re around for happy hour, don’t miss the $5 appetizers and sandwiches or the famous margaritas that are a favorite among New York’s rock set.

Best New Place for Locals to Eat Near Times Square: Qi Bangkok Eatery
675 8th Ave. (at W. 43rd St.),
212-247-8991
Eating on 42nd Street, unless you’re grabbing something from a cart near Bryant Park or are lucky enough to frequent the Condé Nast cafeteria, is generally a horrifying proposition for New Yorkers. Thanks to Qi, chef Pichet Ong’s open-since-April Thai debut, that’s no longer the case. Qi features a menu of well-executed Thai dishes—mostly outstanding versions of those treasured standbys but with a few surprises, including outstanding and exotic curries (try the chicken and pumpkin) and eccentric desserts. Surprisingly for the neighborhood, the prices are exceedingly reasonable. Not to mention the restaurant, with a modern motif and a helpful staff, has the feeling of a place that’s much more expensive—and in an entirely different neighborhood.

Best Outer-Borough Import: Fatty ’Cue
50 Carmine St. (betw. Bleecker & Bedford Sts.), www.fattycue.com
Chef Zak Pelaccio is no stranger to Manhattan. He runs Uptown and Downtown branches of nouveau Malaysian favorite Fatty Crab as well as the traveling Fatty Snack food truck. Until recently, though, his newest restaurant, Fatty ’Cue, was only in Williamsburg. Luckily, in September a new branch of Fatty ’Cue opened on Carmine Street in the spot where Pelaccio’s restaurant Cabrito used to be. The food, a mash-up of classic barbecue and Malaysian ingredients, features unusual and finger-licking dishes like smoked lamb shoulder with house-made pita bread and goat yogurt (our favorite!) and a buttermilk-fried half-rabbit. If you want hip, Brooklyn dining without venturing to a poorly lit block beneath the Williamsburg Bridge, this is your chance.

Best New Restaurant for People Watching: The Dutch
131 Sullivan St. (at Prince St.), www.thedutchnyc.com
Chef Andrew Carmellini (Locanda Verde) opened The Dutch to much fanfare in April, and with good reason: the place is great. From the buzzy crowd to the delicious food (those oyster sliders are not to be missed), the restaurant became the place to eat this summer. Almost better than the eating, however, is the scene. From the windows that overlook both Prince and Sullivan streets’ stylish SoHo foot traffic to what’s happening inside the restaurant itself—first dates, business deals and every clued-in person below Houston Street piled in at the bar—the views are almost as exciting to consume as the striped bass with mussels in lemongrass curry broth. Space can be tight, so for optimal people watching grab a seat in the back room’s bar, where you can peek out the window and around the corner, or take advantage of the standing room to case the joint and check out the other patrons from every angle—you won’t be sorry you did.

Best Thai Food That’s Not What You’re Expecting: Zabb Elee
75 2nd Ave. (betw. E. 4th & 5th Sts.), www.zabbelee.com
Foregoing the same old items available at most of the five boroughs’ Thai restaurants, Zabb Elee instead focuses on the cuisine native to northeast Thailand, near Laos and Cambodia. Lively meat salads called larb are bright and delicious, mixing your choice of meat—we like the duck—with crushed peanuts, spices and toasted rice. An epic menu of grilled meats, well-stocked soups and more familiar all-day-special-type plates are also offered, though few are anything that even adventurous diners will be used to. In our experience, it’s best to order a cheap bottle of wine to kick off and then pick a variety of dishes—asking the supremely helpful staff for recommendations—to finish out the meal. Nothing we’ve had has been bad (though a fish dishes have been a bit too spicy—and that’s saying something), and some, like par ped moo krob, a mixture of eggplant, crispy pork, peppers, basil, ginger and curry, have been memorable enough to order on every following visit.

Best Place for Summer Drinking: The Beekman Beer Garden Beach Club
89 South St. (betw. Beekman & John Sts.), www.beekmanbeergarden.com
New to The South Street Seaport last summer, The Beekman offers a massive drinking area with unparalleled views of the Brooklyn skyline as well as a number of bridges, depending on how far you’re willing to crane your neck. Open from noon to 3 a.m. daily, the restaurant has a winterized indoor area, plenty of games (ping-pong, billiards, foosball) and a sand-filled outdoor space that’s perfect for warm—or even just warm enough—weather. In addition to a full bar and a healthy beer selection, there’s a menu of delicious and not-too-pricey food, including a Pat LaFrieda burger and a bratwurst served on a pretzel bun that make the trip east of the FDR worthwhile. The Beekman might not come into its own until summer, but why wait until the crowds swarm the place to make yourself a beloved regular?

Best Dollar Oyster Spot: Salt
29 Clinton St. (at Ave. B),
www.saltnyc.com
Dollar oyster specials have picked up steam in the city of late, though they are still few and far between. Salt’s been doing it for a while, though they recently cut back the hours. Never mind, it’s still one of the easiest places to do it, with cheap drinks and other appetizers to boot. There’s no long lines or crowded bars here. The ambiance is laid back and chill, with dark wooden tables and candlelight setting the perfect mood for oyster slurping. The oysters themselves aren’t going to bowl anyone over, but they’re pretty damn good for a buck each and still pack a good taste. Most importantly, we’ve sampled the wares many times and never once been sick, and that’s pretty much the be all, end all when it comes to cheap seafood.

Best Out of the Way Frozen Delights: Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
65 Bayard St. (at Mott St.), www.chinatownicecreamfactory.com
When you walk down Mott Street on the east side of Chinatown, ignore the Häagen-Dazs and instead turn onto Bayard Street, where you’ll find ice cream with a local twist. With flavors such as lychee, red bean and the sublime Zen Butter, a combination of peanut butter and ground sesame seeds, Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has some of the most exotic tastes this side of the Pacific. Philip Seid opened the shop some three decades ago and his daughters Christina and Katherine continue the family tradition. As its website proclaims, ice cream has been said to have been invented in China during the Tang Dynasty, but it’s taken a few thousand years to come up with this particular take on the dessert.

Best Place to Get Fried Crickets:
Rhong Tiam
154 Orchard St. (betw. Rivington & Stanton Sts.), www.rhong-tiam.com
To be honest, there really aren’t that many. But at Rhong Tiam, you can order the Thai popcorn, a few dozen lightly fried and seasoned inch-long crickets. In Thailand they’re considered a delicacy and are readily available on street corners, though the version here is a little more upscale and gourmet than the Thai street version. And while the novelty of eating giant bugs might wear off after one or two, rest assured that the rest of the food on the menu is more standard Thai fare and is pretty damn tasty. And while the crickets are not exactly great for date night, they are great for dining with your friends. Or you can get ’em to go, then hit the bars and dare strangers to eat them to enliven a dull night. Never fails. Just remember to remove the head and legs. Nobody wants to cut their night short because they got a thorax stuck in their throat.

Best Bar to Lure Your Brooklyn Friends In: Bar 169
169 E. Broadway (betw. Jefferson & Rutgers Sts.), www.169barnyc.com
If you’re like most of us, your friends are probably split between somewhere south of 14th Street and Brooklyn. This can make for some infighting when it comes to drinking decisions; thankfully, Bar 169 is perfect to unite all. Downtown enough to avoid frat boys and college kids, this ragtag dive features cheap drinks with generous pours, a raw bar, cheap dumplings till 4 a.m., loud music, a Bettie Page lookalike who sometimes dances on a pole and an attractive, friendly crowd. It’s tough to have a bad time. There’s just something about the New Orleans-inspired atmosphere, with all of the crap on the ceiling and the weird lighting and raw bar station, that leads to a sloppy, debauchery-filled fun night. It’s a complete sensory overload, and just the right mixture of unpretentious without attracting too douchey a crowd. It gets crowded, but never too crowded that you have to wait long for a drink. It’s close enough to the trains that go to north or south Brooklyn, and it’s got Brooklyn prices.

Best Way to Spend $1.25 After Midnight: Insomnia Cookies
405 Amsterdam Ave. (betw.  W. 79th & 80th Sts.), www.insomniaCookies.com
Step aside Mark Zuckerberg—the undergrads who created Insomnia Cookies are geniuses. A mere $1.25 gets you your choice from their warm mint chocolate, double chocolate, peanut butter or snickerdoodle cookies, to name a few. For a little bit more you can indulge in an ice cream sandwich, deluxe cookie or a glass of milk. And these whizzes are baking masterpieces to the tune of The Grateful Dead or Bob Marley until 2 a.m. So whether you’re studying hard or partying harder, this is the place to go for that late- night sugar craving. Too drunk or lazy to leave the house? They deliver, too! Genius.

Best Filipino Tapas: Kuma Inn
113 Ludlow St., 2nd Fl. (betw. Delancey & Rivington Sts.),
www.kumainn.com
If you’re looking for some sweet sangria, salty fried cod and fluffy yellow tortas—don’t come to Kuma Inn. But if you’re looking for some of the best Asian-inspired cuisine served up on dishes too big to be dim sum and too small to be entrées, check out the best Filipino tapas this side of the LES. Packed in a hustle-and-bustle space right by Delancey Street, the service is like the food: fast and good. Personal favorite: the eastern omelette—Chinese sausage, scallions and bean sprouts. Second personal favorite: their awesome BYOB policy. Great for a date. Best for a party.

Best Secret Part of Paris in New York City: Ansonia Hotel
2109 Broadway (at W. 74th St.),
212-721-0076
It’s really hard to divulge the location of this charming French patisserie tucked into the Ansonia Hotel—what if it becomes swamped and loses its sweet, secret allure? So you’re on your own when it comes to finding the doorway. With a narrow corridor of eight marble tables with two chairs each, this place is perfect for trysting lovers or longtime friends who want a quiet place to stare soulfully or just catch up. Even long-married couples will enjoy ignoring each other behind separate sections of the New York Times. But it’s not just the venue that attracts, it’s the victuals, like the excellent tuna salad and brie sandwiches or the hearty vegetarian soups like lentil or creamy mushroom. Of course, most people come for the baked goods. Some favor the coconut or almond croissants, while others crave the flaky layered Napoleons. Almost everyone agrees the coffee is “so-so,” but c’est la vie.

Best Inexpensive, Unpretentious, Three-Hour Meal: La Belle
973 Columbus AvE. (betw. 107th & 108th Sts.), 212-866-2355
Sharn, the jack-of-all-trades owner/maitre d’/waiter/chef, will take care of you just right. So what if he wears a Yankees cap and baggy jeans? With service this friendly, you’ll forget you’re in the heart of New York City. Just be sure to bring a few bottles of wine (the restaurant is BYOB), soak in the eclectic collection of classical figurines and antique clocks and be prepared to unwind from a long day while Sharn perfects the meal in a kitchen smaller than your grandmother’s.

Best Ukrainian Home Cooking: Ukrainian East  Village  Restaurant
140 2nd Ave. (betw. 8th & 9th Sts.), 212-614-3283
While the East Village is no longer the Ukrainian-centric neighborhood it once was, the cultural footprint remains, especially in the cuisine department.  One of the best and most authentic spots to hit for your pierogi fix is called, simply, The Ukrainian East Village Restaurant. Foregoing the slickness (and inflated prices) of Veselka, The Ukrainian is unassumingly tucked away inside a strange-looking office building, at the end of a hall that looks like something out of a DMV. But once inside, it’s like you took a trip back in time to grandma’s house, if grandma lived in Kiev circa 1930.  The usual suspects are the stars of the show here. Pierogi, blintzes, chicken Kiev and kasha varnishkes with mushroom gravy are the must-haves. And if you eat too much, don’t worry. You can always go have a shvitz around the corner at the Russian and Turkish baths afterwards.

Best Mars Bar Replacement: Sophie’s
507 E. 5th St. (betw. Aves. A & B),
212-228-5680
When the Bowery’s beloved—and infamous—haunt Mars Bar finally closed in August, the question on its regulars’ lips was, “Where can we go now?” Every year, the East Village sheds a few more dive bars only to add several more upscale speakeasies with velvet ropes and fancy cocktails. One option that kept coming up was Sophie’s, a nondescript watering hole on E. 5th Street between avenues A and B. Luckily for Sophie’s gentler bar staff, not every Mars ex-regular heeded the call, but there’s no question that—excepting weekend nights, when NYU flocks have been thicker on the ground lately—even the grizzliest Bowery type will feel comfortable bellying up to Sophie’s bar for its generous pours and static prices. While the jukebox isn’t quite as provincially exceptional as Mars’ (what juke could be?) it’s filled with old East Village anthems from the likes of the New York Dolls, the Velvets and David Bowie. And extra points for its well-kept pool table.

Best Hole-in-the-Wall Pakistani/Indian Food: Sirtaj
36 W 26th St. (betw. Broadway and 6th Ave.), 212-989-3766
For tasty Pakistani/Indian food, this is it! Inside it’s bare and funky and a bit dingy, but the food is consistently fresh, with some dishes as good as pricier places around the city. Try the chicken tandoori, chicken saag, navratan curry, or the chicken makhni—and don’t forget the naan. Deliveries can be slow at lunchtime because the neighborhood knows it’s a gem. Oh, and the prices are so low you’ll think they’re typos.

Best Macarons: Ladurée
864 Madison Ave. (betw. 70th & 71st Sts.), 646-558-3157
The mother of all Parisian macaron shops, the centuries-old Ladurée went international in 2011 with the opening of their first New York City location. Lest you think they would leave anything to chance, the macarons are flown in every day from France. At $2.70 apiece, the patisserie’s small, sugary confections are as much a price indulgence as they are a caloric one—not that you’d know it by the line that consistently forms outside the diminutive shop. Why? Because when it comes to macarons, none are as crumb-licking worthy as these. Also stocked in the shop are chocolates, pastries, sorbets and the brand’s collection of candles along with limited edition boxes (think orange/passion fruit macarons in a black box with gold trim for Halloween). Just remember, buy Ladurée’s macarons with caution—once you pop one, it’s hard to stop.

Best Restaurant Headed by a Top Chef: Catch
21 9th Ave. (betw. Little W. 12th & 13th Sts.), 212-392-5978
Restaurants run by former Top Chef contestants are a dime a dozen, and that’s not always a good thing—when was the last time you heard someone say they went to the Mondrian SoHo for the food? One sure fire bet amidst the mixed bag, however, is Catch. The latest venture from the owners of, among others, Abe & Arthur’s, Lexington Brass and Tenjune, the multilevel space dishes out seafood prepared by Top Chef winner Hung Huynh (formerly the executive chef at Ajna Bar), most of which is designed to be shared. Eats are prepared in several parts of the restaurant, including the raw bar, the open-air kitchen and by the central wood-burning oven (yes, the place is as big as it sounds). The sprawling eatery also boasts a sushi bar, a tapas station, a cocktail bar and a glass-enclosed rooftop lounge. Flavors are big—and so are the prices—so reach for your LBD and sky-high pumps and prepare to be pleasantly surprised by food that’s as good as the setting it’s served in.

Best Place for Breakfast 24/7: Veselka
144 2nd Ave. (at 9th St.),
www.veselka.com

Photo by Flickr user Food of the Future

Photo by Flickr user Food of the Future

Time was that one of the only restaurants where you could get a decent brunch in the East Village was Veselka, which has served just about the same fare—Ukrainian “soul food”—in the same location since the mid-’50s. What with seemingly several faddish new venues offering brunch popping up every year just skipping distance from Saint Marks Place, though, those days are long gone. It’s a testament to Veselka’s staying power that crowds still line up weekend afternoons for its breakfast standbys—buckwheat pancakes, thick strips of bacon, granola and its famous kielbasa—as if it was the only show in town. But the old eatery’s main appeal to neighborhood residents is simple: a 24-hour breakfast menu.

Best Place to Take Your Kids and Let Your Rainbow Flag Fly: Café Forant
449 W. 51st St. (betw. 9th & 10th Aves.), www.cafeforant.com
Most former fag hags eventually marry and breed, but that doesn’t mean we leave our fab BFFs behind. If you’re stymied about where to take your 3-year-old and your own personal Stanford Blatch to brunch, hit the best-kept secret in Hell’s Kitchen. Chef Lea Forant serves up organic, postmodern interpretations of comfort food along with Parisian fare tony enough to elicit an “ahhh” from even the most jaded Isaac Mizrahi wannabe. Expect her wife Carolyn to introduce their son Eli and their terrier Jack, and don’t be surprised if the cabaret-star-cum-waitress belts out a show tune or two by the time you’re toasting with barista-worthy coffee drinks and house-made lavender lemonade.

Best East Village Underdog: Ray’s Candy Store
113 Ave. A (at 7th st.), 917-340-7855
This East Village institution, which opened in 1974, has survived recent run-ins with the city’s Department of Health and the neighborhood’s gentrification. Owner Ray Alvarez got a boost last year from his neighbors, who organized a fundraiser to help pay the space’s $3,000-per-month rent. Ray’s offerings include Belgian fries, milkshakes, burgers and egg creams, and it has become an icon of the area. In October, the artist Chico painted a tribute on Ray’s awning for Bob Arihood, an East Village photographer and blogger who recently passed away. Arihood’s portrait faces Alvarez’s, along with the motto “Truth, Justice and the Comics.” It’s not the first time the eatery has paid tribute—during the last presidential election, items were “Obamafied,” adding the candidate’s name to form “Obama coffee” and “Obama burgers.” No word yet if Ray’s will do the same next year.

Best Place for a Mad Hatter Afternoon Tea: Tea & Sympathy
108-110 Greenwich Ave. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.), 212-989-9735
On most days at Tea & Sympathy, you will find troops of English girls in floral flocks navigating a small room, delivering steaming pots of tea to patrons squeezed into tiny tables. The digs might be cozy, but the blends are unbeatable. Opt for the Rosie Lee and the “afternoon tea” for one, which includes a tower of perfectly cut tea sandwiches (the cucumber, chicken salad and egg salad are the best), crumbly scones with clotted cream and jam and toothache-inducing cakes. With mismatched china, floral tablecloths, colorful teapots and an eclectic clientele, it is quintessentially English and therefore a bit mad.

Best Hotel Bar for Work or Play: Paramount Bar in The Paramount Hotel
235 W. 46th St. (betw. Broadway & 8th Ave.), 212-827-4134
There’s no lack of drinking establishments in Midtown, but if you’re looking for a place you could bring a client and perhaps have a special someone meet you there an hour later, well, there aren’t too many spots that fit the bill. Enter Paramount Bar. Open since April, this sliver of a space in the lobby of The Paramount Hotel is easy to miss (a friend recently bypassed the space and emailed us grumpily from a seat in the lobby, proclaiming there was no such bar in the hotel) but worth finding. Expertly made cocktails are served in a chic, calm room either at the bar or by a helpful if unobtrusive staff. Seasonal concoctions like the Dark and Stormy come and go, but there’s a solid menu of standbys and a helpful bar staff willing to whip up whatever you need. A small but sturdy wine list is also available. The only thing missing is a menu of small bites, considering that once you enter the bar, it’s unlikely you’ll want to leave for dinner.

Best Restaurant Headed by a Top Chef: Catch
21 9th Ave. (betw. Little W. 12th & 13th Sts.), 212-392-5978
Restaurants run by former Top Chef contestants are a dime a dozen, and that’s not always a good thing—when was the last time you heard someone say they went to the Mondrian SoHo for the food? One sure fire bet amidst the mixed bag, however, is Catch. The latest venture from the owners of, among others, Abe & Arthur’s, Lexington Brass and Tenjune, the multilevel space dishes out seafood prepared by Top Chef winner Hung Huynh (formerly the executive chef at Ajna Bar), most of which is designed to be shared. Eats are prepared in several parts of the restaurant, including the raw bar, the open-air kitchen and by the central wood-burning oven (yes, the place is as big as it sounds). The sprawling eatery also boasts a sushi bar, a tapas station, a cocktail bar and a glass-enclosed rooftop lounge. Flavors are big—and so are the prices—so reach for your LBD and sky-high pumps and prepare to be pleasantly surprised by food that’s as good as the setting it’s served in.

Best Block for Old-School Food Shops: Bleecker Street betw. 7th & 6th Aves.
On Bleecker Street, you’ll feel as if you dropped back in time or took a trip to Europe as you wander from one tiny food shop to another—no mega stores here. Make a list or be inspired by what is fresh and cook up a storm. Start near Seventh Avenue at Ottomanelli, where fourth-generation butchers really know their meat, from quail to rabbits and the best fresh turkeys in town. Cross to Faicco’s, where for over 60 years brothers have sold everything to concoct the perfect Italian feast: mozzarella, sausages and marinara sauce made fresh. Waddle a few doors down to Murray’s Cheese, only around for a couple of decades, and sample from over 250 different aromatic, creamy or pungent varieties. Luckily, there’s a bench out front where you can sit and look at the cakes in Rocco’s Pasticceria. If you cross the street and open the door, the aroma of anise and butter will seduce you. There is a green grocer at either end of the street, so you can find a veggie or two to round out your feast.

Photo by Flickr user star5112

Photo by Flickr user star5112

Best Deep-Fried Hot Dog: Crif Dogs
113 Saint Marks Pl # 2 (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A), 212-614-2728
Whether you call them hot dogs, frankfurters or some kind of wurst, bun-wrapped, tube-shaped meats are hardly ever something to write home about, forget about line up for—and deal with tip-hounding moonlighting college kids—at 2 a.m. But whether you get one of their bacon-wrapped Tsunami dogs or a grilled, “cooked to order” (read: prepare to wait) veggie specials, Crif Dogs’ franks are indeed worthy of their good press. And for a graduate course in patience, you might want to queue up to wash your dog down with one of the elegantly mixed cocktails served at the “secret” next-door speakeasy, PDT (Please Don’t Tell). But for that, really be prepared to wait because, as every concierge and tourist guidebook will tell you, “Psst…the entrance is through the phone booth.”

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