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[All photos by Robert Sietsema]
[All photos by Robert Sietsema]

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Where To Eat on the Wild, Wild Upper West Side

Eater critic Robert Sietsema explores one of the city’s most elegant neighborhoods.

How many times have you heard someone say, "There are no good restaurants on the Upper West Side"? Well, the assertion simply isn't true. From the upscale establishments around Lincoln Center to the cluster of great inexpensive eateries along West 106th Street to the string of mid-priced bistros marching up Amsterdam Avenue, the UWS has lots to offer. The neighborhood boasts several strong cultural traditions. In the early 20th century, an area centered on 67th Street was referred to as San Juan Hill, populated by African-American veterans of the Spanish-American War. In the 1930s Jews who found themselves shut out of real estate opportunities on the East Side settled there. By the 1950s, the neighborhood was a Puerto Rican stronghold as well, becoming the setting for the musical West Side Story. Nowadays, it's a haven for immigrants from many nations.

The neighborhood is geographically defined by Central Park, which runs along the east side from 59th Street to 110th Street. It is bounded on the west by the Hudson River. The neighborhood boasts an area of 1.9 square miles and a population of around 150,000. Broadway bisects the region with a landscaped median in the middle, furnished with hospitable benches. This boulevard, along with the stately and ornate apartment houses that line it, is often said to make the Upper West Side resemble Paris, complete with sidewalk cafes, well-stocked grocery stores that display their produce outside, and a bustling, well-dressed crowd. Here are some of our favorite dining establishments in the neighborhood, running from south to north. Prices are designated cheap (C), moderate (M), or expensive (E).

[Top: Big Nick's. Bottom: Shun Lee (left) and Telepan (right)]

Lincoln Center Kitchen — Carved out of the first-floor lobby of Avery Fisher Hall, the restaurant occupies a rather ungainly space, but the food isn’t bad, and you can hear the concert currently in progress without paying for it. Skip the apps and go for the substantial entrees, which, when I visited soon after the opening included a roast baby chicken served with chunky grits and king oyster mushrooms and a Skuna Bay salmon filet with basil-laced mashed potatoes. But the apple crisp with cinnamon ice cream turned out to be the high point of the meal. [M] 10 Lincoln Center Plz, (212) 874-7000.

Shun Lee West — This Chinese restaurant, part of a once-thriving mini-chain, offers two-tier seating in an elegant dining room, with prices to match. Over the years the stalwart has added stylish Sichuan and Hunanese items, as well as a smattering of Northern Chinese dishes to its bill of fare, but it remains Cantonese at heart, with shrimp egg foo yung, for example, served with a separate demi-glace rather than smothered in brown gravy. A slightly down-market version next door offers a similar menu at a $5 per dish discount. [E] 43 W 65th St, (212) 595-8895

Old John’s Luncheonette — This 1950s vintage luncheonette just north of Lincoln Center is one of the few diners left on the Upper West Side. Breakfast is the best thing to get, and Spanish chef Ferran Adria famously stopped for a last American meal on his way out of town in 2011. He picked the golden-brown waffle topped with powdered sugar. Other good choices, post-breakfast, include Tennessee chili, chicken pot pie, the veggie burger, grandma’s chicken noodle soup, and that towering diner classic, the BLT. [C] 148 West 67th St, (212) 874-2700.

Telepan — Along with the currently defunct Picholine, Telepan is considered a neighborhood fine-dining pioneer, part of a cluster of restaurants that function as destination spots and partly depend on Lincoln Center for their well-heeled patrons. The layout is labyrinthine, with small rooms arranged in a circle, decorated by flamboyant botanical paintings. Chef Bill Telepan was early on the farm-to-market wagon and his seasonal menu might include homemade paccheri pasta with duck ragu, summer beans, and roasted garlic; and Maine Pollock with eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, and salsa verde. [E] 72 W 69th St, (212) 580-4300. [This venue closed in 2016]

[Top: Old John's. Bottom: Jin Ramen (left) and Epicerie Boulud (right).]

Epicerie Boulud — French chef Daniel Boulud has three outposts of his extensive empire on the east side of Lincoln Center, of which this is the most casual, offering homemade sausages, pâtés and other charcuterie, pastries, raw shellfish, small sandwiches, and cheeses in a brightly lit mini-food court. This is one of the city’s best places for snacking. Thrill to what is probably the city’s most expensive hot dog. Bar Boulud [E] is next door (a ramped-up wine bar) and Boulud Sud [E] is around the corner (specializing in the food of Provence), are both also highly recommended. [M] 1900 Broadway, (212) 595-9606.

Big Nick’s — While the more famous older brother on Broadway is long gone, Big Nick’s Burger & Pizza Joint Too persists on a nearby side street, slinging good burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, pizzas and especially calzones, the hilariously hybrid moussaka parmesan, and baked ziti Mexican style. The place is picturesque, though not particularly comfortable with its tightly spaced tables, but the best thing of all is that it’s open until 4 a.m. every night in an area where most places close much earlier. [C] 70 W 71st St, (212) 799-4444.

[Gray's Papaya]

Gray’s Papaya — Founded by Nicholas Gray in 1973 as a renegade from the Papaya King chain, Gray’s has long since become a major Upper West Side landmark, and you’re doing yourself proud to be spotted there. All eating is done standing up, or walking down the street, and Gray’s is the repository of 100 years of New York frankfurter praxis — including the austere toppings of German sauerkraut and Greek onion relish, either topping with mustard and washed down with one of the gritty fruit drinks that were illogically paired with the tube steaks from the outset. Open 24 hours! [C] 2090 Broadway, (212) 799-0243.

Simit + Smith — The first branch of what has become a chain specializes in pretzel-like rings of dough, often with seeds, that it likes to call Turkish bagels. Though they may be a forerunner of Jewish bagels, these rings are not boiled first and are much lighter and airier, which can be an asset if you want a meal on the run. When spread with some of the offered fillings, they become especially delicious. Black olive paste and tangy kasseri cheese on a whole-grain simit makes a satisfying small meal. Seating on high stools is available in the window and along the wall. [C] 124 W 72nd St, 212-496-6605.

[Clockwise from top left: chicken and shrimp-fried rice from La Caridad 78, pad Thai from Thai Market, empanada from Freddie and Pepper's, and a bagel from Simit + Smith]

Salumeria Rosi — Though Cesare Casella has sadly departed as chef, the food seems to be maintaining a high level. The small stylish spot specializes in imported Italian charcuterie (with some exceptions, including the wonderful guanciale from Chelsea’s Salumeria Biellese) and in homemade pastas tendered in small but expensive portions. The lasagna is especially good, and so is the Sardinia pasta called malloreddus. Finish up your meal with a lump of amalattea, a goat cheese that arrives dribbled with citrus oil. The wine list is another plus. [E] 283 Amsterdam Ave, (212) 877-4800.

Freddie and Pepper’s — You can’t get better or bigger South American empanadas in town, with a firm, nicely browned crust and fillings that run to chopped beef, onions, and boiled egg; or spinach and ricotta (other stuffings sometimes available). But Freddie and Pepper’s is mainly a pizza parlor, featuring all the conventional pies and some pretty strange ones, too (try nacho, mucho macho, or Thai chicken). The 37-year-old parlor just happens to be owned by Chileans. An adequate semi-subterranean dining room is provided at this Upper West Side classic. [C] 303 Amsterdam Ave, (212) 799-2378.

Fairway Café — Finding the entrance to this second-floor eatery over a famous supermarket isn’t easy, but once you’ve climbed the correct stairway you’ll discover a pleasant room with plenty of windows, where you can spend a little or a lot on a meal, be it breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Salads are a strong point, from the unassuming iceberg wedge to an almost-French frisee aux lardons to a nice Caprese made with imported burrata and heirloom tomatoes. Hamburgers can be created from several forms of ground meat and poultry, and there are seafood and steaks, too, plus rib-sticking casseroles your mom might have made. Best part: BYOB at this no-hassle spot. [C to M] 2131 Broadway, (212) 595-1888.

Caffé Storico — Ballsy, you might say, to put a wine bar in a staid and starchy museum, but that is just what the New-York Historical Society (they insist upon the hyphen) has gone and done. The premises is mainly white marble, and you can see right into the museum, which is particularly mysterioso when the restaurant is open and the museum isn’t. The food is refreshingly simple and skews toward the Northern Italian, with egg-topped braised artichokes, ricotta and chick pea crostini, lamb lasagna, and risotto with guanciale and fava beans. Alas, no Central Park views, but you can take a stroll there after your lunch, brunch, or dinner, weather permitting. [E] 170 Central Park W, (212) 485-9211.

[Caffé Storico]

Tessa — This modern gastropub has been something of a sleeper, known mainly to neighborhood types when it ought to be a destination for diners as far away as Harlem or Hell’s Kitchen. The barroom is prominent and deep, and behind that find a pair of dining rooms — sit as far back as you can to dispel the noise level. Standouts on an eclectic menu include rabbit cavatelli, Long Island duck served with duck sausage, and a thick Berkshire pork chop, but the place is equally as good for snacking: check out the house dips served with crisp flatbreads. One evening razor clam salad was on the specials menu, and you’ve never tasted fresher, even in Chinatown. [E] 349 Amsterdam Ave, (212) 390-1974.

La Caridad 78 — Cuban-Chinese restaurants were initiated in the 1960s by mixed-race refugees from the Cuban Revolution, and remained a mainstay of neighborhoods like Chelsea, East Harlem, and the Upper West Side for the rest of the 20th Century. One side of the menu contained Cuban standards; the other Cantonese food that dated to the 19th century, when Chinese indentured laborers first reached the sugarcane fields. Few of these places remain, and La Caridad 78 is a perfect example. Stick with the Cuban side of the menu for deviled shrimp, chorizo and rice, and fried chicken served with shrimp fried rice on the combination platter. [C] 2199 Broadway, (212) 874-2780

Nice Matin — Along with Telepan and Picholine, this facsimile Parisian brasserie, founded in 2003, was one of the first restaurants to bring fine dining to the Upper West Side. The place offers ample sidewalk seating in fine weather, the long dining room is well-appointed and comfortable (though I’m not sure so much swirling wallpaper is a great idea), and the menu hits the high points of the standard brasserie menu, including a nice moules frites, the Provencal basil-scented soup called pistou, a NY-strip steak frites, plus a few Italian-leaning specialties such as burrata and short-rib ravioli. A 20-page French wine list is an asset to wine fanciers. [E] 201 West 79th St, (212) 873-6423.

The Milling Room — This new project of Scott Bryan — first chef at Veritas — shows how Downtown and Midtown chefs have been deserting their neighborhoods over the last decade for the Upper West Side. Restaurants up here are more spacious, the build-outs and noise levels more relaxing. Milling Room features a darkened tavern in front and an even larger dining room in back, though neighborhoodies seem to prefer the barroom. Hamachi tartare makes an elegant starter — a heap of cubed cukes and fish mounded up to an extravagant height and lubricated with avocado — while entrees run to braised-duck pappardelle with porcini mushrooms, along with grilled pork chops and skirt steaks. [E] 446 Columbus Ave, (212) 595-0380.

[Top: Fairway Cafe. Bottom: Curry King (left) and Tessa (right). ]

Jin Ramen — As a friend and I were trying out Jin Ramen for this piece, Serious Eats founder Ed Levine strode in, and as he passed our table noted, "This is an awesome place, I eat here regularly." And indeed he was right. The broths are available competently prepared in all the standard styles, including shio, shoyu, miso, tonkotsu, and kimchee, and there are even such flights of fancy as green coconut Thai and Filipino-style. Our favorite that day was a spicy tonkotsu, which came sprinkled with sesame seeds and way hot. Plenty of interesting side dishes, too. [M] 462 Amsterdam Ave, (646) 657-0755.

Bustan — Middle Eastern restaurants are tough to find on the Upper West Side, and this newcomer hit the neighborhood like a ton of bricks – or maybe a ton of clay, since a taboon clay oven constitutes the heart of the kitchen. This is deployed in all sorts of ways, such as charred octopus tentacles with gigantic white beans and shaved fennel in a garlicky tahini dressing, lamb and sumac-dusted peppers baked in flaky pastry, and roasted branzino presented with a very Italian salsa verde. (The menu doesn’t hesitate to stray all over the Mediterranean Rim.) Open for lunch, brunch, and dinner. [E] 487 Amsterdam Ave, (212) 595-5050.

Machiavelli — Forget for a moment that the restaurant is named after one of history’s most famous schemers whose work has been long associated with political chicanery, this restaurant is one of the best places to score modern Italian food in a relaxed setting, with outdoor tables for warm weather. In addition to Neapolitan-style pizzas of a predictable sort, the menu microfocuses on regional and invented pastas, some of which are spectacular. There are meal-size salads, too, and secondi that include roasted lamb chops with rosemary potatoes and a novel Milanese cutlet of chicken rather than veal or pork. [E] 519 Columbus Ave, (212) 724-2658.

Barney Greengrass — Styling itself as the "Sturgeon King," this purveyor of Jewish preserved fish first appeared in Harlem in 1908, then moved to the present location in 1929. It is the Upper West Side’s answer to Russ & Daughters, with a showroom selling lox, whitefish, chubs, sable, and, of course, sturgeon, which is delightfully salty and often smoky, oozing oil that is probably really good for you. Step through an archway and find the dining room, serving preserved fish platters, triple decker sandwiches, and all manner dishes of involving the collision of egg and fish. The 60-year-old wallpaper — inscrutably depicting some tropical city of a century ago — is worth experiencing on its own. [M] 541 Amsterdam Ave, (212) 724-4707.

[The deli counter at Barney Greengrass.]

Regional — Regional is just the kind of Italian restaurant you wish you had in your neighborhood — not too expensive, furnished with sidewalk seating and a decent dining room less noisy than most, and a list of pastas so good you could make them your entire meal without bothering with apps or secondi. Befitting the name of the restaurant, which emphasizes the regional nature of its menu, the pappardelle comes with a thick short-ribs sugo from Umbria, while the triangular green ravioli flounder in a stacchino cheese sauce flavored with prosciutto in the Lombardian fashion. The wine list is mainly Italian, and mainly inexpensive. [M] 2607 Broadway, (212) 666-1915.

Curry King — This brightly lit café lies in a mini-neighborhood frequented by Pakistani cabbies, and this is the most formidable of the eateries they prefer, their cars often idling outside as they sit in the vehicle and eat. The food is not just meat and gravy, but plenty of vegetables, too, including loofah and winter melon. The place also specializes in tandoor-cooked meats and whole fish, including red snapper, salmon, and tilapia on a recent revisit. Favorite dishes include lamb nihari (a very mellow stew of shank and marrow bone) and beef paya (made with gluey cow feet; it's way delicious). Open 24 hours. [C] 942 Columbus Avenue, (646) 669-7826.

Makana — Hawaiian restaurants are few and far between in NYC, and this is one of the cheaper ones, putting particular emphasis on the Japanese elements of our 50th state’s cuisine. Sure, there are Spam-stuffed musubi rolls and a tossed tuna poke salad slathered with spicy mayo and a loco moco plate — the Hawaiian equivalent of Rochester’s famed garbage plate. But you’ll also find some decent sushi there, too, which is what many of the patrons expect from this unusual place. Decent seating provided, some with a view of bustling 106th Street. [C] 161 W 106th St, (212) 678-4569.

Thai Market — This is simply one of the 10 best Siamese restaurants in town, with a dining room more attractive and comfortable than most, decorated with bright red umbrellas and blow-ups of Bangkok market scenes. The frog legs are spicy with Thai bird chiles, the curry puffs appropriately mellow and starchy in a pastry brought to Southeast Asia by the Dutch, and the raw shrimp in goong chae nampla minty and garlic-driven. Indulge in the colorful cocktails if you must, but the most appropriate beverage here is beer. Cut-rate specials make lunch the best time to visit. [M] 960 Amsterdam Ave, (212) 280-4575.

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