At some point in the late part of the fall, I tried to convince Bill Addison, Eater's Restaurant Editor who travels the country eating at the most relevant and essential restaurants 40 weeks out of the year, to write a takedown of the current New York dining scene. He was in town making the final decisions on his annual National 38 list (debuting in two weeks) and we had just endured an embarrassing encounter with an unforgiving hostess and an underwhelming steak at (the often wonderful) Minetta Tavern and were discussing why everyone in this town is such a jerk.
But Bill doesn't live here full time and is in general more of a celebrator of the good in life than a wallower in the bad. In fact, in his recent appreciation of the wonders of Los Angeles dining ("Why Los Angeles Is America’s Best Dining City in 2015"), he magnanimously allowed that "NYC seems to be in an incubation stage for its next wave of game-changing ideas." The nicest burn I've ever heard.
I tried New York restaurant critic Ryan Sutton, but instead he wrote a piece entitled "New York Dining Was Better Than Ever in 2015," in which he (more or less) argues that the rise of fast casual and food halls are actually positive forces in the New York dining universe, two points with which I cannot agree.
Forget them. Here, now, are nine subjective reasons why New York dining was not, in fact, better than ever in 2015, and as a palate cleanser a few reasons why we can actually be optimistic for better days ahead in 2016.
1. The most notable and buzzy openings of the year were a hole in the wall veggie burger joint that is only open for four hours a day and the beginning stages of Dave Chang's attempt to launch a massive fast casual fried chicken chain.
2. The two best restaurants to open this year in my opinion — in terms of execution, food, and design — were Sadelle's and Santina, both owned and operated by noted restaurant industry theme park operators and the Yankees of the dining scene, Major Food Group. We know the schtick is over the top, we know we're overpaying, we know they should be nicer to us, but we like it anyway because, frankly, no one is doing it better. They are even teaming up with noted New York supervillain Aby Rosen to remake the Four Seasons and people are going to love that too! (Except the people who hate it, but they won't matter.) My other favorite restaurant this year was opened by the guy who owns Buddakan, so go figure.
4. New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells seems so inherently bored with his task of covering this dining scene that his most engaging — not to mention his most loudly celebrated — review was a joke visit to the dickarita-peddling Señor Frogs in a Times Square basement.
5. Is this the only town where all hosts won't seat incomplete parties as a golden rule, where one must order all of her food at once, where booking and keeping tables is such an obstacle course, or does it just feel that way? Annoyed and annoying FOH staff pop up in every town, but in visits to over a dozen other cities this year, I kept finding myself surprised by how hospitable restaurants can be. As Addison put it to me recently, "Dining doesn't feel so blatantly transactional in other U.S. cities."
6. Ahmass Fakahany.
7. A hot new pizzeria opened in the East Village and their cheapest bottle of wine was $65. It's gotten to the point where if wine a list has anything under $15 by the glass I think I've uncovered a spectacular deal. Of course none of these lists with prices exist online.
8. Combina as a representation of a whole genre of New York restaurant. The portions are a little too small, the prices a little too high, the servers a little too slow, the upselling a little too aggressive. But more importantly, it's designed without diners in mind. There is no coat check and no room between rows of seats for bulky winter coats or bags, so navigating in and out of tables is, best case, awkward. Tables are so close together they might as well be communal, the flow around the bar and bathroom lead to consistent traffic jams, and I can't imagine much thought went into the acoustics. At least they found room for more than one restroom.
"What is missing is anything that actually seems innovative or unique."
9. Per our wine editor Levi Dalton: " ...when I look around, I see successful restaurateurs that don't present any sort of new idea or vision for food or wine. There doesn't even seem to be an attempt in that direction ... What is missing is anything that actually seems innovative or unique ... where the real surprise is, for me, is how willingly the dining public has gone along with it. I am surprised that there aren't more moments where people sort of look up from their plates and say, Well, this is kind of soulless." Or as New York's Adam Platt puts it, "Innovation has never been a hallmark of this meat-and-potatoes dining city, but now more than ever, as rents continue to rise into the stratosphere and profit margins fall, restaurateurs around town seem to be falling back on ancient, time-tested formulas to make a buck."
All that said, I'm going to pull an Addison here and try on some optimism. I am very amped for the delicious stylings of High Street on Hudson and loved what I had there and took home on a preliminary back-to-back breakfast and lunch. I surprised myself by loving every single thing about Polo Bar, including how hard it is to get in, how blonde the patrons are, how radiantly green the bathroom is. And I agree with Sutton that the relatively lower priced tasting menus on offer at Contra and Semilla are pretty great (though not unique to New York). Outside of the navel gazing world of upscale and big name Manhattan openings, Robert Sietsema found all kinds of things to get excited about all over the five boroughs of New York and beyond, and I'm sure if I adopted his sense of wanderlust when it came to dining out, I would be more satisfied, feel slighted less often, and spend a hell of a lot less money.
And finally, I am unequivocally behind the move from Danny Meyer and others to eliminate the discriminatory practice of tipping. It took market forces (the impending wage hikes and aggressive competition for back of house talent) and a very major player for it to happen, but it's happening. I'm hopeful that 2016 brings more opportunities and quality of life improvements for restaurant industry workers (ahem, family and paid leave).
Also I'll admit Babu Ji is pretty wonderful despite its noise and consistent bathroom line.