The first time it occurred to me that the best restaurants to eat at right now opened in either the year 2016 or 2017, I was sitting across from a bowl of fly’s head in Williamsburg. Yes, I was back at Win Son, the Taiwanese American restaurant I visited a handful of times after it appeared in Bon Appétit four years ago, almost forgot about, then returned to last week after a friend texted me to say that the spot, in their words, “still fucks.”
Sitting in the bustling dining room with a bottle of Taiwan beer, I knew exactly what they meant. Every seat in the place was filled at 8 p.m. last Wednesday, a couple to our right appeared to be breaking up over a bowl of sesame noodles — free entertainment! — and the fly’s head had just as many chives as I remembered. The best part? We walked right in.
That probably wouldn’t be worth pointing out in any year but 2022, when restaurants have 1,500-person wait lists, reservations book up within minutes, weeks in advance, and underground groups for trading tables online are breeding like lanternflies. (Squash one, and a dozen more are waiting around the corner.) The city’s reservation culture is out of control, yeah, but the solution is right in front of us.
By some estimates, there are as many as 25,000 restaurants in New York City. I would guess that fewer than 100 of them are plagued by the city’s so-called reservation problem. Look beyond the city’s handful of “status restaurants” — the hot girl spots of the moment whose ranks apparently include Katz’s Deli — and you’ll find plenty of excellent places to eat tonight. The best of them opened in 2016 or 2017.
Not quite old, but no longer new, these golden-era restaurants have settled into a groove and often set aside a larger portion of their dining rooms for walk-in customers. Looking for a crowd but not a scene? Head to Win Son, Fish Cheeks, or Hart’s, which opened in 2016, or Miss Ada, Chez Ma Tante, or Fausto, which arrived the following year. All of them have tables listed online for tonight, and yes, most of them still fuck.
A week after eating at Win Son, I tried my luck at Chez Ma Tante, a Brooklyn restaurant that upended the city’s breakfast scene when it opened in 2017. I intentionally arrived during the hungover brunch rush — between 1 and 3 p.m. on Sunday — to test my theory, and sure enough, I was sucking down a cold brew at the bar 20 minutes later.
There are obvious exceptions to the rule. Don Angie in the West Village is still one of the toughest tables in town five years after opening, and Fort Greene’s Miss Ada has only gotten busier with time, according to owner Tomer Blechman. For the most part, though, the owners of these restaurants handle their reservations in a way that was more common before the pandemic, setting aside anywhere from a third to all of their seats for walk-ins.
“We keep almost everything open to walk-ins,” says Trigg Brown, co-owner of Win Son, where only the restaurant’s largest tables can be reserved online.
These days, it’s not uncommon for neighborhood spots to open with dining rooms that are almost completely reservation-only, save for a handful of seats at the bar. “I love those restaurants,” says Jennifer Saesue, co-owner of Fish Cheeks, a Thai restaurant in Noho that holds half of its 80 seats for walk-in customers. “But I never wanted to be one.”