The casualties of 2016 were many, including: Booker & Dax, The Cecil, Pakistan Tea House, Pravda, Telepan, Lowlife, Puck Fair, Northern Spy, Betony, Soto, Empire Diner, The Four Seasons, Mission Cantina, and Cafe Mingala, the city’s only standalone Burmese restaurant.
This was a year when we learned the city has half as many diners as it did 20 years ago.
This was a year when Masa, already New York’s most expensive restaurant, hiked its prices so high that dinner for two now costs more than a MacBook.
None of this, however, should cast doubt on the future of New York City dining. Prices are going up for a lot of reasons, one of which is that wages are going up. Governor Andrew Cuomo approved a $15 minimum wage this year, as well as a plan for paid family leave, a crucial benefit that so many restaurant staffers lack. And for those who are worried about these regulations killing jobs, consider this: The city now employs over 122,000 more people in food and drink than it did a decade ago — when the minimum wage was $6.
And as the country elected a president whose rhetoric could objectively be described as xenophobic, the lineup of New York’s most notable new restaurants was more culturally diverse and accessible than ever. We gained two high-profile Indian restaurants, a hip Peruvian hangout under the BQE, a cheap Israeli-esque hummus cafe, an Italian restaurant whose most notable dessert is an American soft-serve sundae, a Bolivian sandwich shack in a subway station, a Nordic food hall in a train station, a thrilling Mexican tasting table, a Detroit-inspired pizza parlor, an electric Korean barbecue joint in Gowanus, a museum restaurant led by a creative Uruguayan chef, and way too many poke hawkers. I didn’t get a chance to eat at all of them, but the fact that they exist and are here to feed us makes me absolutely thrilled to be living in this city.
And I’m absolutely thrilled to reveal my best new restaurants of 2016.
Restaurant of the Year: Olmsted
"Perhaps you’d like to move to the garden for dessert?" That’s the type of question you’d expect to hear at a bucolic estate like Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where dinner for two can scratch at $1,000, and not at a Prospect Heights venue, where every dish is under $24. And yet there I was at Olmsted on Saturday, sitting next to two live quail, toasting marshmallows over charcoal, sipping a martini made with local gin, and listening to Simon & Garfunkel. It was very civilized and summery, except for the fact that it was 28℉ outside. An REI catalog’s worth of plaid wool blankets and heat lamps were responsible for keeping us warm — in fact the later nearly scorched our scalps.
We who came of culinary age in the Momofuku era were taught that you can expect to sacrifice comfort in exchange for affordable, ambitious dining. But the irony is this: As overpriced establishments struggle to shield guests from drafty front doors, Olmsted has found a way to keep guests warm outside in the dead of December. Chef Greg Baxtrom, who’s cooked at Alinea and Stone Barns, serves the type of food that wouldn’t be out of place at either of those two venues, from truffle-laced rutabaga tagliatelle to mullet-roe topped chawanmushi. And then there’s dessert in the winter garden. As I sipped hot chocolate poured from a thermos, a waiter brought over citric-acid spiked pâte de fruit, which is a fancy way of saying house-made Sour Patch Kids. There’s your destination neighborhood restaurant right there. 659 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn. olmstednyc.com.
Restaurant of the Year: Aska
If Olmsted is the accessible side of haute-gastronomy, Aska, the city’s best new tasting menu restaurant, is a case for the occasional splurge. Chef Fredrik Berselius eschews classic luxuries for more compelling provocations: bladder wrack seaweed, mushroom topped birchwood ice cream, and lamb heart burnt down into an edible pile of cinders. This is a singular New Nordic fine dining experience. 47 South 5th St., Brooklyn. askanyc.com.
Top Restaurants of 2016: The Long List
Stephen Starr, once famous for cranking out stadium-sized moneymakers like Buddakan and Morimoto, has of late developed a reputation for scouting out promising (or established) chef talent, bankrolling their excellent restaurants, and then staffing them with some of the city’s best servers. His latest acquisition is chef Daniel Rose and the restaurant he built around him is called Le Coucou. The Illinois-born, Paris-based Rose pulls out all the stops to recreate the grandeur of Midtown’s extant (and extinct) French stalwarts on a hip corner of Soho, ensuring the next generation knows the pleasures of cooks in foot-tall toques serving up pike quenelles and mock turtle soup. 138 Lafayette St. lecoucou.com.
Missy Robbins returned to the New York dining scene in a year when way too many restaurateurs tried their hands at slinging pasta. So allow me to cut through the noise: Lilia is the city’s finest new Italian restaurant. Robbins serves dishes you can’t find anywhere else, from sheep’s milk agnolotti drenched in enough saffron and honey to qualify as dessert, to ruffled malfatti ribbons where the fragrant pink peppercorns taste as luxurious as truffles, to a lamb steak that I’d happily order over a $55 New York strip elsewhere. 567 Union Ave, Brooklyn. lilianewyork.com.
Empellon Cocina’s Kitchen Table
After years slinging experimental tacos and avant-garde small plates, Alex Stupak has finally adopted the long tasting, the menu of choice during his Alinea and wd~50 days, to convince New Yorkers that 18-courses of creative Mexican fare can be just as compelling as a four-hour procession of tweezered Japanese, French, or American dishes — a fact that Mexico City chefs have long been aware of. Put simply: The Kitchen Table, a four-seat restaurant within a restaurant, a showcase for pineapple & lard tacos, grasshopper salsas, and black mole sorbets, is one of New York’s best tasting menu experiences. 105 First Ave. empellon.com/cocina.
Indian Accent + Paowalla
Unlike New York’s slowly evolving Mexican scene, the city has no shortage of expensive South Asian establishments. Indian Accent, a New Delhi import that opened in Midtown’s Le Parker Meridien this year, is the most expensive of them all, selling four course menus for $90 and tastings for $125. Chef Manish Mehrotra justifies these prices through a quiet, stately room, and through his excellent cooking. The meal reaches a pinnacle with soy kheema, a cumin-infused treat that could go toe to toe with most meat-based chilis and come out on top. 123 West 56th St. indianaccent.com.
Paowalla, in turn, marks the long awaited comeback of Floyd Cardoz, one of the city’s most heralded Indian chefs. The restaurant, at its best, is a fantastic French-American-Indian love letter to global breads, from cheddar cheese kulchas to bacon-stuffed naan to aloo-gobi parathas to pecan chai sticky buns to Tibetan tingmos to pecan lime croissants. If Cardoz opened up a bakery, it’d be packed from morning to night. 195 Spring St. paowalla.com.
Bolivian Llama Party
Fewer than 8,000 Bolivianos reside in New York (compared with the city’s 66,000 Peruvians), a fact that likely explains the lack of Big Apple restaurants from the landlocked South American country. And that’s a shame, because Bolivian cuisine is stupendously delicious, boasting silky chicken stews, crispy pork sandwiches, and infinite varieties of potatoes. Llama Party, with its seasonal outposts in Williamsburg and the Rockaways, has taken a big step in bringing at least some of these wonders to Manhattan with its first permanent location in Columbus Circle’s subterranean food court. Yes, the pork sandwiches are pretty great, but you come here for the saltena, a sweet pastry shell filled with a sticky, gelatinous soup. Do not try eating one on the subway. Located underneath 57th Street and Eighth Ave. blp.nyc.
Emmy Squared + Pasquale Jones
If you don’t think no-tipping policies, which involve raising prices, can work outside of fine dining, I encourage you to try walking into Pasquale Jones, where you’ll be quoted an hour wait. It’s a pizzeria. Or more specifically, it’s one of the city’s two best new pizzerias. What makes Pasquale such a gem isn’t just its destination-worthy clam pie or its $66 pork shank for three, but its Zalto stems, which let pizza eaters experience affordable wines with the same finesse as if they were dining at a three Michelin-starred restaurant. I could eat at Pasquale every day. 187 Mulberry St. pasqualejones.com.
I couldn’t eat at Emmy Squared every day, but I mean that as a compliment. The Detroit-style square pies, with sauce underneath the mozz and a crispy ring of frico (i.e. burnt cheese) on the exterior, are the pizza equivalent of a porterhouse for two, a shareable indulgence. 364 Grand St. pizzalovesemily.com.
As architecture firms conspire to make New York culinary establishments look like replicas of the drabbest hotel lobbies, Taavo Somer is fighting to keep restaurants weird and wacky. Enter Le Turtle, an homage to (and an exaggeration of) the Lower East Side gallery district — think waiters in autobody jumpsuits, two way mirrors for spying, a website with uncomfortable nudity, and booths without backs for extra discomfort. I could write a sonnet about about the food — Greg Proechel’s smoky hay chicken is as delicious as it is pyrotechnic — but the true joy of Le Turtle comes when you consider that, as experimental venues forces diners to rethink culinary traditions by provoking and prodding with technique, Le Turtle makes us giggle and squirm through a different art form called restaurant design. 177 Chrystie St. leturtle.fr.
April Bloomfield, perhaps New York’s best burger chef, opened her first burger restaurant this year. And then it closed for six months following a fire. I gave Salvation a tough review this spring, but I’ve found myself going back more and more since its reopening. I’ve returned for the braised chili, laced with aromatic lime, cilantro, and corn nuts; for a vegetarian burger that reeks of warming garam masala; and for the brilliant dessert list. As restaurateurs pare back their sweets and fire pastry chefs, Salvation offers a rotating list of pies so perfect I’ve dropped by just for them. Rock on. 230 East 51st St. salvationburger.com.
High Street on Hudson
Philadelphia chef Eli Kulp came to New York and gave the city one of its best places to get brunch or order a takeout breakfast sandwich. Cut and dry. That is it. 637 Hudson St. highstreetonhudson.com.
In an episode of Seinfeld, Puddy famously asks Elaine: "How come people don’t have dip for dinner?" Well, at Dizengoff, another Philly import, hummus is the main course. And just in case there’s any doubt about that, the website clearly states: "Hummus is served with fresh-baked pita, chopped salad and Israeli pickles for a complete meal." That hummus, incidentally, is fluffier than your average chocolate mousse, and is best topped with musky ground beef, a light $13 dinner for two. Show up early enough — before noon — and you’ll also find a shakshuka studded with rusty tomatoes and a blaze of chiles. It’s fully worth the heartburn that ensues. 75 Ninth Ave. dizengoffhummus.com.