889 Ninth Ave between 57th and 58th Sts (212-315-0088). Subway: A, B, C, D, 1 to 59th St--Columbus Circle. Mon--Thu, Sun 11am--3pm, 5--11pm; Fri, Sat 11am--3pm, 5pm--midnight. Average main course: $20.
The location screams pretheater, but an attractive, young clientele makes this sleek 80-seat eatery a late-dining destination, too. Crowds come for the traditional American dishes punched up with exotic spices and sauces, prepared by executive chef Mario Arnero (formerly of Eatery). Most are excellent. Among the appetizers, a shrimp tamale balances fat grilled shrimp dressed with roasted-chili pesto on top of soft, couscouslike quinoa, but the portion was noticeably small. Calamari (pictured) is served crisp and topped with sweet chili sauce and a dash of harissa, which imparts a spicy mix of chilies, garlic, cumin, coriander and caraway. Avoid the strip steak doused in too much blue cheese; it comes with an excess of bland, thickly breaded onion rings. Stick with lighter dishes instead, like a moist, tender and flaky piece of salmon with a creamy parsnip puree. If you do stop by on a whim, be prepared to bide some time in the claustrophobic bottleneck that serves as a waiting area: On a recent night, we had to stand nearly an hour pressed up against either the bar or a dividing wall to avoid a full-body check from passersby.—TONY