New York's most classic dining and drinking institutions have an ineffable quality, but in honor of Classics Week, we polled a bunch of restaurateurs, writers, and even NY1's Pat Kiernan to help us get to the heart of it. We not only asked them to define what makes a classic, but also to list what places are worthy of that honorific. Here's what they said:
Tell us what you think makes a classic in the comments.
Ruth Reichl, writer, former New York Times restaurant critic:
What makes a classic?: A classic New York restaurant has to:
1. Be old.
2. Remain unchanged.
3. Be in the same place it was when it opened.
4. Continue to serve the same food it was serving when it was new.
5. Extra points for having defined a dish.
The quintessential classic: The Grand Central Oyster Bar. For some of us the scent of the oyster pan roast — that amazing aroma of clam liquor and cream, with a hint of celery salt, a sharp high note of Worcestershire sauce, and just a dollop of chili sauce —is an instant trip back in time. Watching the cooks stir up their concoctions in those fantastic old steam kettles I become six again, and I have to run outside and whisper into the wall. (Initiating your kids into the secret of the Oyster Bar's whispering wall is an ancient New York tradition.)
And then, of course, there's Peter Luger. Sawdust. Shlag. Great steak. No menu.
Ryan Sutton, Chief Critic and Data Lead Eater
What makes a classic?: A New York classic can be expensive, but it should be somewhat approachable. That's why it's hard to call either Per Se or Masa a New York classic, no matter what the accolades. Sometimes a classic is about the ambience more than the food. I wouldn't want to eat at The Four Seasons, but there's no denying it's housed in a classic set of rooms you won't find anywhere else in the world.
A New York classic, in the end, is like love. It's hard to define but you know it and you FEEL it when you see it.
A New York classic is an institution that engenders passionate arguments among many different swaths of society; as much as I love my tasting menu-only restaurants it's hard to think of the larger part of our city debating the merits of a two bite uni-course the way we debate over the Katz's vs. Second Avenue Deli pastrami sandwich (Second Avenue all the way!).
A New York classic isn't just a place you take your partner or friends, it's a place you take your parents and your children because its importance spans generations, even though the older or younger generations might entirely disagree with what makes a classic (again, classics inspire arguments!). A classic can be a rule breaker; the haute-casual fare of Roberta's or Momofuku Noodle Bar are just as classic and vital to me as Keens or Balthazar (and good luck finding clones of any of those outside of the Big Apple).
A classic can be a rule follower; no matter how great it is to drink creative cocktails at Death & Company, a modern classic, it's still not classic and quintessential in the same way that Bemelmans is, where you cuddle up in a dark corner and listen to live jazz and drink $20 cocktails and get drunk after one drink and pretend you're in a Woody Allen film. A New York classic, in the end, is like love. It's hard to define but you know it and you FEEL it when you see it, even if your closest relative might thing you're a fool for saying so. This isn't about reason. This is about a romance with the greatest city in the world.
The quintessential classic: Fine Dining Restaurant: Gramercy Tavern. Casual all-day restaurant: Roberta's. Bar: Bemelmans.
Mimi Sheraton, Food critic and author of 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die:
What makes a classic? One would think that it must have been around for a long time, not to say how long, but I also think there are some relatively modern classics defined by an urbane, non-cutesy but comfortable setting and a menu that is varied, with items that have been loved in NYC for a long time. But, it's hard to pin down without giving examples. Steak restaurants such as the original Palm, Peter Luger and Gallaghers would have to be included as would "21" and the Grand Central Oyster Bar. But, so would newer (but not new) ones such as Union Square Cafe, Minetta Tavern, Porter House, and even, DBGB, ABC Kitchen, and Cookshop. All feel like NYC to me with professional non-intrusive but smartly paced and efficient service and very good food that does not distract by calling too much attention to the chef's creativity!
The quintessential classic?: From above, I would have to pick as #1 the original Palm at 837 Second Avenue.
Adam Platt, New York Magazine restaurant critic
What makes a classic?: The room, the menu, the clientele, and of course, time, all of which simmer together over the years to produce that ineffable combination of taste, place and quintessential New York style.
The essential classic: The Grand Central Oyster Bar (but just the bar, not the counter or the pub next door or, God forbid, the dining room). Nothing's more "classically" New York than the bustle of Grand Central, or lunch at a bar or, of course, the oyster, our original "local" delicacy.
Pat Kiernan, Morning Anchor NY1 News
What makes a classic?: A New York classic is something that would be hard to replicate elsewhere. That might be because of the menu. Or the location. Or the clientele. Or the service. Or maybe all of the above.
The quintessential classic: Peter Luger. For its unflinching adherence to tradition. And for waiters who probably know what you want before you do. Gray's Papaya. There's a New York purity to Gray's. Customers are busy and a hot dog is pretty much the fastest way to fuel up and carry on.
Amanda Kludt, Editor-in-Chief Eater
What makes a classic?: For me there are two components: age and feel. It has to be a quarter century old, preferable 50+ years old, in my mind to be considered a classic. Also there should be a "stuck in an era" feel to it, that if you squint, could be in a different decade altogether. It should transport you.
The quintessential classic: Keens is my personal favorite, followed by the Four Seasons.
Gabriel Stulman, Happy Cooking Hospitality Founder
What makes a classic?: In order for me to consider a place a "classic" New York restaurant, I think several (although not necessarily all) of five criteria should be met. One, it has been open for 20 years or more. Two, it has made a significant cultural impact on its culinary genre. Three, it has made an important impact on its community. Four, it's widely accepted as being a leader or pioneer in either cuisine, beverage or service. Five, and this one is especially subjective but, it provides an all-around exceptional experience. It's widely accepted as a "great" restaurant.
The quintessential classic: 1. Great NY Noodletown. The perennial benchmark of Chinatown. Great noodles, Peking duck, my absolute favorite wonton soup. It's also open until 4 a.m. and has been a favorite of the restaurant community for decades.
2. Dominick's (on Arthur Avenue) The aura of yesteryear still burns strong at this old-school Italian-American red sauce joint. There are no menus and the space is decorated with posters from The Godfather (most likely from the year the first movie was released). The food is straightforward and delicious, and the place is pure character.
3. Union Square Cafe / Gramercy Tavern (yes, I am including both). Danny Meyer changed the city's restaurant game when he opened USC — and continued to do so with GT — by merging our notions of fine dining and neighborhood restaurant into one, as well as creating new benchmarks for service and hospitality. Today, whenever someone opens a restaurant that puts its guests on a pedestal, it will be compared to a Danny Meyer restaurant.
The feeling that the bar or restaurant had to have come from this city
Hillary Dixler, Eater Associate Reports Editor
What makes a classic? A New York classic is not just about age, but it's sense of New Yorkness, the feeling that the bar or restaurant had to have come from this city.
The essential classic: Peter Luger Steakhouse, Grand Central Oyster Bar
Robert Sietsema, Eater NY senior critic
What makes a classic?: Longevity, picturesqueness, making a real contribution to the city's collection of cuisines, or even being quintessential to this collection.
The quintessential classic: Old Town Bar (best Buffalo wings in town, early setting for the opening sequence to the Letterman show, amazing urinals in the men's room).
Josh Russ Tupper, Russ & Daughters and Russ & Daughters Cafe co-owner
What makes a classic?: The definition of "classic" can be very different for different people. Classic for me is a timeless look and feel, a sense of comfort when you enter, a socially intelligent staff that makes you feel welcome and comfortable but is also very professional and a management team that has a unified vision of what the restaurant or bar is trying to do. A classic bar or restaurant doesn't have to be 100 years old but it does have to engage all of your senses and transport you to a place and time when things were simpler and people knew what to expect when they walked into an establishment.
The quintessential classic: There is one place that epitomizes my view of a New York classic, Bemelmans Bar.
Niki Russ Federman, Fourth Generation Owner of Russ & Daughters and the Russ & Daughters Cafe
What makes a classic?: It's a place with history and character that is not trying to be anything other than what it is, where everyone who goes there feels that it belongs to them; It's a place that serves iconic New York foods, and when you eat them, the tastes get seared in your memory and make you feel connected.
The quintessential classic: Russ & Daughters and the Russ & Daughters Cafe. I'm not saying this to tout my horn, but because I really believe that they are.
Kat Kinsman, Tasting Table editor in chief
What makes a classic?: Longevity is definitely a factor, but old doesn't necessarily equal good. Plenty of places are resting on their mythos and not innovating or maintaining the quality that made them a classic.
To me, a New York classic is a place where you can feel the history of the place, like you're dining or drinking alongside happy ghosts — and you're equally pleased to be in their company. It's a delicate balance of preservation and evolution that makes you feel as if you're existing a little bit outside of time and it's a delightful limbo in which to be.
The quintessential classic: Preserved Perfectly in Amber: La Grenouille
Drinking with the Spirits: Keens
Heart of the City: Grand Central Oyster Bar
You can feel the history of the place, like you're dining or drinking alongside happy ghosts.
Andrew Tarlow, Diner, Marlow & Sons, Reynard, Roman's owner
What makes a classic?: For me, staying power is what makes it a classic — a restaurant needs to be able to live through trends and still be successful on the other side.
The quintessential classic: I might be biased, but I would pick The Odeon. I worked there — and it's where I met my wife.
Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, Chef/co-owner and restaurateur/co-owner Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad
What makes a classic?: The food scene in New York is constantly evolving, with new restaurants opening up every single day. But there are still those places that have been around for decades, some for more than a century, and it's those restaurants that provide us a connection to the past. We draw inspiration from those restaurants constantly — they have helped Eleven Madison Park and Nomad both find their identities. Being a classic New York restaurant can be so many things: iconic New York restaurants represent the history of our city's immigrant culture, connect to the theatricality of dining that emerged here when dining was an event and maître d's ruled the dining room, or celebrate the unbelievable ingredients of our region. What's key among all these classics, is that they leave their guests with more answers than questions about what New York City is, and has always been, all about.
The essential classic: There are so many quintessential places, so many amazing restaurants and food shops in our city that tell incredible stories, but three stand out to us: Daniel, Keens, and Grand Central Oyster Bar. Daniel is classic fine dining, you can feel a connection to the definitive French restaurants of New York's past when you walk in the door, the Le Pavillons and Luteces that came before them. Keens has so much history, from the pipes of Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, and JP Morgan, to their bar which "Miss Keens" overlooks and is the perfect place for a Manhattan before digging into a steak, a dish that's become part of New York's culinary culture. And Grand Central Oyster Bar, which personifies a dedication to one of New York's greatest ingredients, oysters, and is smack in the middle of Manhattan and one of the most iconic transportation hubs in America.
Nick Solares, Senior editor Eater NY
What makes a classic?: Age has something to do with it, but I think more importantly a classic embodies the spirit and zeitgeist of a particular period.
The quintessential classic: Peter Luger, Grand Central Oyster Bar, Balthazar
Greg Morabito, Engagement Editor Eater
What makes a classic?: Atmosphere and service more than food. The Odeon, for example, serves okay food, but it is a classic because the details of the dining room have stayed the same for 30 years. You can see how it has inspired so many restaurants. Going down the stairs to the restroom, you can practically see 25-year-old Jay McInerney and Brett Easton Ellis snorting rails of cocaine.
The quintessential classic: Gotham Bar & Grill is the classic "modern" New York restaurant.The vibe is so sophisticated. You feel smart eating there. In terms of old-school place, it's gotta be Bamonte's. I am not a fan of its sloppily sauced pasta. BUT it has that amazing dining room that cannot be beat. The Palm is a close second for me, because of the light in the dining room and the cartoons on the walls.
Levi Dalton, Wine Editor Eater NY
What makes a classic? Ask yourself these questions: Do you automatically forgive whatever quirks, faults, or pains in the ass a place presents because these are a part of the character of the place, part of its charm, and you want it to be just like this forever? Would you likely be pissed if you encountered similar annoyances at some other new restaurant you went to?
Does the place feel "New York" in a way that if it were copied anywhere else in the world and you went to that faux establishment it would feel false and lame? Does that "New York" character extend to the people in the room as much as to the decor?
If you haven't been to visit the classic spot in awhile, do you feel like you've been missing out on something vital about living in New York? Yet when you do visit after a long absence, does the place feel exactly the same?
Does it transcend staff changes? If that particular bartender or maitre d' leaves, do you still feel the need to go back?
The quintessential classic: Let's do it this way, I'll mention three places that no longer exist and if you feel a strong pain of regret upon hearing their names, then they were classics: Elaine's, the original M. Wells Diner, Big Nick's Burger & Pizza Joint