For those who look to new restaurants for accessible creativity and nourishment, for intellectual inspiration on par with independent movies or music, or for a temporary respite from a country that increasingly feels like it’s run by (and for) a class of wealthy white men, here’s some advice: Pray that New York does better next year. And maybe eat at a few older joints.
In 2017, some of our city’s most anticipated new restaurants did more to reflect our society’s divisions rather than act as a cultural counterweight against them. In 2017, too many deep-pocketed operators gave us sleepy, overpriced hangouts, or not-quite-cheap counter service spots. Would you like truffles or Krug with that pizza?
I promise there’s a list of the year’s top establishments at the end of this, a selection of venues whose diversity and affordability should excite us all. But that doesn’t negate the following: The Five Boroughs haven’t seen such a disappointing crop of major openings since the Great Recession.
Nearly a decade ago, chefs like Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, and others helped disrupt the fickle rules of fine dining, serving impossibly delicious foods at discounted prices in stripped-down settings. In 2017, chefs like Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, and others helped cement a different trend: “The Everyday Rich People Restaurant,” aggressively-priced a la carte venues — or omakase sushi spots — that permit guests to easily dispense with large sums of cash, without the three-hour length, dictatorial ethos, or gastrointestinal distress of a traditionally gut-busting tasting menu.
Walk into L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon on a weeknight, and you’ll see one of the longest chef’s counters in New York without a single free seat, filled with patrons paying $49 tiny beef and foie gras burgers. Show up at The Pool and you’ll find folks paying $95 for individual portions of king crab. Descend the staircase to the rebooted Beatrice Inn, where waiters are quick to recommend $400 shellfish platters or steaks that can cost nearly twice as much. Score an 11:00 p.m. resy at 4 Charles Prime Rib for an $18 slice of pie. Or make an online booking at The Aviary, secured via a non-refundable deposit, to sample the $29 Old Fashioned.
For middle class gourmands, affordable outlets in 2017 generally meant so-so pie joints, underperforming hotel restaurants, or paying $10-$20 for fast casual pizza, pastas, and salads in spaces that felt better designed for chic takeout than civilized dining. Or it meant great Mexican fare on Atla’s savory menu or Empellon’s dessert menu.
There were some awesome and excellent outliers in 2017. And in a world where female executive chefs are still very much in the minority, it was reassuring to see Suzanne Cupps (Untitled), Victoria Blamey (Chumley’s), and Christina Lecki (Reynard) get tapped to lead major kitchens from some of the city’s most established (male) restaurateurs, though Blamey recently moved on from Chumley’s.
New York, without question, still has one of the country’s most vibrant, diverse, and expressive culinary scenes. But inasmuch as new restaurants drive our cultural commentary just as new literature, theater, or streaming television does, I can say without qualms that 2017 was a bit of a snoozer. That’s all the more reason for critics to look back a bit further when declaring the restaurants of the year, which is what I’ve tried to do here.
Restaurants of the Year: Superiority Burger, El Quinto Pino
This 10-year-old restaurant somehow feels more relevant, more real, more exciting than six month-old places that haven’t changed their menus once. As other major restaurant groups with international empires have gone from affordable to exorbitant (despite their scale), Alex Raij and Eder Montero have figured out a way to keep serving uni paninis and some of the city’s best Spanish fare for $16 and under. 401 West 24th St., near 9th Avenue
When out-of-towners come to New York looking for something they can’t get elsewhere, this modern masterpiece, opened in 2015 by ex-Del Posto pastry chef Brooks Headley, is one of the first places I send them. In exchange for certain inconveniences (almost no seating, airline-style seat trays), diners experience unbridled gustatory bliss for $10 or less. Headley serves up crunchy fake chicken sandwiches forged from soy. He hawks sloppy joe sandwiches whose heady spices and umami-bliss rival some of the city’s best meat-based chilis. And with a kitchen team that could fit inside a walk-in closet, he sells a rotating array of gelati (vegan banana walnut, lemongrass, coconut) with few equals. 430 East 9th St., between 1st Avenue and Avenue A
Restaurants of the Year: The Long List
New York’s best new steakhouse isn’t an exorbitant ode to excess, but rather a nimble Korean barbecue spot that wows as much with its funky dry-aged cuts as its $45 set menu. 16 West 22nd St., between 5th and 6th avenues
New York boasts the country’s largest Uzbek population, which explains why the city benefits from a breathtaking array of restaurants showing off that country’s meaty, muttony, multi-ethnic culinary traditions. Nargis, the rare Central Asian spot to venture outside of a traditionally Russian-speaking neighborhood, distinguishes itself by preparing charcoal-grilled meats as skillfully as a Michelin-starred yakitori joint. 155 Fifth Ave., between St. Johns Place and Lincoln Place
The Grill, Major Food Group’s reboot of the old Four Seasons space, is without question one of those Everyday Rich People restaurants I derided moments ago; an a la carte dinner can easily exceed $200 per person. Is it worth it? That’s a personal question of value, but in my review I called this throwback chophouse a four-star ode to the past. 99 East 52nd St., between Park and Lexington avenues
Flora Bar, in turn, is the ambitious seafood spot that The Pool (sister spot to The Grill) wishes it were. Ignacio Mattos and Thomas Carter have given the Upper East Side, not an area known for hip restaurants, a stunning ode to the world’s oceans, with barely cooked through shrimp cocktail, modernist “nori tacos” filled with sweet shrimp and uni, as heady lobster dumplings in yuzu borth. 945 Madison Ave., at East 75th Street
One of the year’s best all-day spots, Daniela Soto-Innes and Enrique Olvera’s Atla, slings heady coconut yogurt (at absurd prices), ethereal chia puddings, and incendiary split pea tlacoyo’s until 4:00 p.m. It is a vital, light-flooded addition to NoHo. 372 Lafayette St., at Great Jones Street
Alex Stupak is that rare experimentalist who practices his trade at a reasonably affordable level. There is no risk without failure; I had tough words for the savory fare at his new Empellon in Midtown. But in a separate review, I awarded three stars to the desserts, which range from the breathtakingly modernist — key lime curd spray painted to look like an avocado — to the nostalgic — an ice cream corn taco of such complexity that it easily ranks as one of the city’s best tacos in its own right. 510 Madison Ave., at East 53rd Street
The insane seating policy here can result in you sitting outside in 40 degree weather with no heat lamps, but I’ll put up with a lot for a $13 rotisserie chicken meal — complete with Jasmine rice, soy ginger dipping sauce, and restorative broth. 203 Mott St., between Spring and Mott streets
New York has a long history of expensive Chinese spots. Eddy Buckingham and Jeff Lam’s spot speaks to that opulent tradition magnificently, with stunning crispy squab and $25 XO noodles. It ranks with The Grill as one of the few pricey restaurants I got excited about in 2017. 5 Doyers St., between Pell Street and Bowery
One of the city’s best new noodle shops, Simone Tong’s debut restaurant specializes in the springy, stretchy, and slightly sour rice noodles of China’s Yunnan province. From the gently numbing buzz of the cold mala noodles, to the cilantro-spiced warmth of the chicken mixian, to the progressive service-included pricing, Little Tong is a venue that I didn’t end up reviewing, but where I’m nonetheless finding myself spending more time as the weather grows chillier. 177 First Ave., at East 11th Street
In a world where the pie reigns supreme, sometimes in venues that command sizable waits and steep prices, a couple of guys at Gotham West decided to do something a touch more accessible: an incredibly ambitious slice joint. It’s a style of pizza-making that’s often respected more for its nostalgic value than for its intrinsic quality, which is why it’s heartwarming to see David Poran and Michael Bergemann elevate the slice with stunning breadmaking and a tomato blend so complex that truffles seem flat by comparison. 600 11th Ave., between West 44th and West 45th streets
Christina Lecki, late of The Breslin, is the new chef at Reynard. She serves very good food. I’ll have more to say about this soon. 80 Wythe Ave., at North 11th Street, Brooklyn
The finest Danny Meyer spot of the year. It serves one of the city’s best fritto mistos for $11 and reasonably affordable Champagne. And there are waiters. 30 East 30th St., between Madison and Park avenues