It's unlikely, even as New York's minimum wage rises, that an hourly cook (or a salaried sous chef) will ever be able to afford that apartment. It's also improbable that Minetta, amid this era of sky-high beef prices, will ever lower its $62 strip steak back to $37. But hospitality pay is slowly improving. And even as costs surge, the restaurant community is finding ways to offer stunning food at reasonable prices. This past year or so has seen an infinite supply of epicurean awesomeness, from affordable tasting menu venues like Semilla, to kick-ass food halls like UrbanSpace, to white-hot fast-casual concepts like Fuku.
It's all enough to dampen your skepticism and make you wonder whether this is one of the most exciting times to be a chef, waiter, or diner since the mid-aughts, when April Bloomfield and David Chang started championing a more accessible and laid-back approach to ambitious dining. So allow me to explain how 2015 bodes well for the future of dining in our great city. Let me tell you why the state of eating out in New York is STRONG.
Fast-Casual Is Erupting
David Chang's reasoning for opening Fuku was simple. "We're going to try to make the best fried chicken sandwich possible," he said. And that it is. But the ascendency of fast casual venues (Danny Meyer calls them fine-casual, a hat tip to highbrow chefs elevating lowbrow takeout fare) is informed by larger forces. With real estate and labor costs all winnowing down fine dining's slim margins, pared-down spots like the vegetarian Superiority Burger or the upcoming Made Nice help chefs test drive innovative dishes in smaller, cheaper spaces with fewer staffers. In other words, your artisanal burrito bread bowl chain could help underwrite your tasting menu joint. Maybe.
More importantly, the lean structure of fast-casual helps keep prices at sub-restaurant levels. That's hugely important. For a young gastronome, the $16 carrots with XO sauce at Roberta's might serve as a gateway drug for the $195 tasting at Blanca next door. But for someone who doesn't go out at all, the $6 Mini-Me at Fuku+, only a few dollars more than a Chick-Fil-A sandwich, is a less frightening point of entry into the world of Momofuku than $19 rice cakes. Perhaps such talk of sandwiches or meat-free burgers doesn't excite in the same way that Estela's beef hidden underneath potato chips does, but if you want to get non-food people hooked on the larger culinary world, fast-casual is how you do it, and New York is doing it right.
Breakfast Is Trending
Sadelle's sells triple-tiered salmon platters on weekday mornings. Santina pours coconut ice coffee alongside truffled eggs with chickpea crepes. Black Seed, when it opened last year, elicited Cronut-like lines for sweeter-than-usual bagels and beet-stained lox. And Russ & Daughters kicks it old school-style with egg creams and pickled herring. The draw of breakfast is that it has always offered the lowest food costs (which is good for restaurants) and prices (which is good for consumers) of any meal. That's precisely why the smartest New York institutions are now using breakfast not just to shore up profits (as running a business here becomes more expensive), but to show diners that the kitchen cares about serving something distinctive in the a.m. Phoning it in with eggs benny doesn't quite cut it.
The Food Hall Bubble Belies Its Actual Awesomeness
Hudson Eats. The Plaza. Gotham West. Le District. Eataly Flatiron. Eataly FiDi (2016). The $60 million Anthony Bourdain pier (2017). How many food halls are there in New York? Enough for my colleague Robert Sietsema to write an entire food hall manual. Are there too many? Probably. Is it easy to bemoan the crowds? Sure. Walking through Eataly on a Saturday can feel like 4 a.m. at Walmart on Black Friday. But food halls, just like fast-casual venues, represent yet another way to grant chefs easier access to foot traffic without committing to a full-sized restaurant space. And they let diners engage in culinary discovery the old-fashioned, non-guidebook, suburban mall way: by walking around.
Outside of a food hall, how else could Maiden Lane, a tiny Alphabet City purveyor of canned seafood, have ended up with prime Midtown real estate? Same goes for small time barbecue guy Daniel Delaney, who runs a righteous fried chicken joint under the same roof at UrbanSpace Vanderbilt. Many of us in the culinary world applaud the idea of the destination venue, where half the enjoyment of visiting Roberta's is riding the L train to Bushwick and waiting an hour before you eat anything. But for others, pleasure is obtained more rationally: by hitting up the pizzeria's Vanderbilt location 20 minutes before hopping on the Metro-North.
The Big Dogs Are Still Innovating Amid High Costs
Naysayers would have us believe that sky high rents will end up prompting the Midtown-ization of New York, with 3D restaurant printers manufacturing more of the same generic brasseries throughout our five boroughs. But some of the biggest players in high-profile Manhattan neighborhoods have been doing just the opposite, pushing the envelope in ways that range from subtle to strong. Major Food Group continues to mine undervalued cuisines for inspiration, elevating the Italian-American and New York Jewish experiences to financially dizzying heights at Carbone and Sadelle's. Stephen Starr keeps on buying or borrowing top culinary talent like a teenager trades baseball cards, giving the likes of Justin Smillie and Jason Atherton the high-profile stages they deserve at Upland (yuzukosho duck wings!) and Clocktower (pigeon pie!). Momofuku manages to make dim sum-style passed plates work at Má Pêche, its conservative Midtown location. And then there's Danny Meyer. He's ending tipping.
Midtown Is Continuing to Blow Up
There's always a lot of talk about food writers living in Brooklyn and touting Kings County restaurants, and with good cause — it's the best borough for dining out. But I've been living in Midtown since 2006 and it's never been a more enjoyable place to eat. Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, with its $7 coq au vin drumsticks, continues to be a not-too-expensive bastion of oenophilic civility in the Rockefeller Center area, while the city's only Michelin-starred yakitori joint, Tori Shin, just relocated to a slice of West 53rd Street in an area more known for its sports bars. UrbanSpace Vanderbilt is the game-changer around Grand Central, while Upland, Marta, and Cosme continue to provide a serious dose of energy to a slice of Park Avenue South that needed it bad. Lupulo by George Mendes brings one of the city's best chickens to the wrong side of Sixth Avenue and 29th Street. I'll be living in Midtown for years to come.
New York's Sushi Scene Is Peaking Hard
Perhaps one day I'll write that Style Section piece about how expensive sushi bars risk becoming the fine dining world's de facto dens of douchebaggery, and I'll tell you stories about expense account bros drinking too much whiskey with the chefs, couples canoodling during $200 tastings, and losers insisting on chatting me up while I'm chewing on my last piece of toro. For now, let's relish the fact that the past few years have seen the emergence of three great but not obscenely expensive omakase joints: the traditional Nakazawa ($150); the edgier, spicier Shuko ($135+); and the late night Sushi Ko ($150). At the spendier end of the equation, O Ya ($185-$245) brings the city its estimable brand of ultra-creative nigiri (and I hear a la carte is in the works). And at the cheaper end – sort of – you have the newly reopened Ushiwakamaru ($100) as well as the always expanding Sushi Seki chain.
Prices Are Rising Because People Are Getting Paid More
Hospitality industry employees, who serve some of New York's wealthiest citizens, rank among the most poorly-paid residents of our city. The average fast food worker earns less than $10/hour. The average dishwasher earns $11.60. The average cook earns $13.29. And yet the living wage is $14.30/hour. So it's heartwarming that the state is raising its minimum wages across the board, with fast food workers getting a boost to $15 by 2018. And Danny Meyer, of course, is eliminating tipping at all of his restaurants so he can compensate his entire staff more equitably, a move that's being echoed around the city. All of these changes mean we'll have to pay more to eat out, and that's a good thing, because if we can shell out a few extra bucks for pasture-raised squid, we can pony up a bit more so our favorite restaurants, which we speak of with the same fervor as a well-heeled sports team, can attract and maintain Yankees-level talent.
Restaurants Are Using Premium Reservations to Benefit Charity
Many of the best restaurants hold back reservations for regulars and VIPs, a reality that might strike some as elitist, or others as sensible, as hospitality types are always looking to cater to repeat customers. Either way, two mobile apps have leveraged the demand for prime time tables to help out NYC-based philanthropies. At Ko and elsewhere in the Momofuku empire, diners submit bids on Reserve to benefit a rotating series of charities like Edible Schoolyard. And at Minetta or Balthazar, diners can purchase $20 reservations for two through Resy, with the proceeds going to City Harvest. Cynics might liken these transactions to soul laundering, but I'll argue such policies bring a bit more transparency to the two-tiered bookings process that exists just about everywhere. And humanity benefits just a bit too.
Accessible Tasting Menus, Pop-Ups, and Small Plates Will Persist
Once upon a time there was a restaurant called Torrisi. A set menu ran $45. It closed, and now there's Carbone, where a veal chop costs $65. And once upon a time there was a tiny tasting menu spot called Ko. Dinner, in the early days, was $85. Then it moved to a larger home where the menu now costs $175. It's tempting to dismiss this all as New York edging out the everyday eater, but the truth is that every restaurant group deserves to evolve, to serve better food, to pay its longtime staff more. And as older venues enact their price hikes, younger spots always seem to appear on the fringe, ready to compete on value and culinary brashness, if not comfort.
Semilla, with its foie gras-studded beet tartare and its $85 price tag, is that restaurant this year on the tasting menu front. Contra, in turn, is ensuring that gastronomes who can't afford to travel abroad are getting a taste of Europe's best, with the restaurant hosting high-profile guest chef dinners at $125 or less. And Bruno is leading the next crop of cramped establishments serving $20-and-under small plates that wouldn't look out of place in a design museum.
I could go on, about Hometown boldly tossing aside barbecue's traditional strictures with lamb belly banh mi sandwiches and fried Korean pork ribs, about diners freely spending as much on Mexican fare as they would on a sushi omakase at Cosme or Empellon Cocina, and about how folks like Dominique Ansel, Jen Yee, and Christina Tosi continue to inspire the next class of pastry chefs with their whimsical creations.
It would be un-New York of me if I didn't wax about the past. I wish Corton came back to wow us with mackerel-stuffed cotton candy. I wish Tabla reappeared to serve apple-potato chaat or bacon naan. But that aside, I couldn't think of a better time than now to be out eating in the Big Apple. It's been 10 years since I penned my first professional food review, and I've never felt as passionately about the strength of our city's culinary scene. And as I Citibike home through Times Square every night, it amazes me to see tourists lining up at 11:50 p.m. not to get into a theme restaurant but rather one of the city's best burger joints, a homegrown spot called Shake Shack. Rock on.