“Let Me Tell You” is a series of columns from our expert editors about NYC living, including the best things to do, where to eat and drink, and what to see at the theater. They publish each Wednesday so you’re hearing from us each week. Last month, Food & Drink Editor and Critic Amber Sutherland-Namako shared her dandelion wishes for NYC restaurants and bars this spring.
I am Time Out New York’s restaurant critic. That means that I am duty and bliss bound to report where you should, and sometimes, shouldn’t eat. I prefer to write the former, both because I am a lover of restaurants and because, frankly, the latter’s a drag.
Each time I make a reservation, (under a fake name with all the corresponding phony accouterment), I want the outcome to be positive. A singsong review practically writes itself. Sushi 35 West comes to mind—that semi-obscured, relatively reasonably priced, wonderful raw fish destination in midtown. Gage & Tollner, too: the long-awaited special occasion revival in Downtown Brooklyn that I still try to book whenever an appropriate moment like a friend visits from out of town—a pat on the back that doesn’t require traveling too far from my home—arrives.
But, over the course of my several years of doing this work, I’ve found that some of my favorite locations to eat, and to drink, and to be, fall outside any metric of stars or recommendations. Not below them; these outliers are still good in many ways, but rather, if a restaurant’s raison d'être is its food, I’d point you toward the ones that come to mind in this peripheral category for a number of reasons before I ever reached the bill of fare.
I am not going to name the present members of this class here, because, however elegantly I detail, I admit that the whole conceit comes across a little like somebody assuring you on a first date that they don’t really care about looks. But there are plenty that have passed from this hospitality landscape that fit the profile; places that I’d resurrect much faster than other, more august but still dearly departed institutions, if given the chance.
Schiller’s was my favorite. My friend Mark and I were happy hour regulars beginning almost a decade before it closed in 2017. The croque monsieur was, I think, $4 around sunset, and it was so good that I was wishing they had it at Balthazar the other day. I’d have even paid 2023 market prices. The cocktails, among the best in the city, were only priced a little higher, when we were charged for them.
Times when I had more money, or somebody did, I’d end up deeper into the dining room. The lights were still nice, but some of the shine was dimmed. It was less intimate and less of a this-must-be-the-place type of place than just a few feet away, back at the bar. There were also so-so mussels and garlic shrimp that rarely lived up to their divine fragrance floating through space, and I can recall a couple of tough steaks, but who can’t? It all still added up to a destination where I contentedly returned, over and over again, though one where I wouldn’t have sent you for the food alone.
Places like that, the ones able to earn such tremendous affection, do so mostly by the grace of their staff, and there’s more to my relationship with Schiller’s for that reason, but it might be a story for another day. The generosity didn’t hurt, either, especially for early career drinkers like Mark and me, though there are plenty of other venues I’d group in this same niche where I’ve won nary a buyback.
The French-Mexican bistro closer to where I live was among my most frequently visited for brunch even though I never found a menu favorite, but still felt a pang of discomfort when I learned that it closed last year. The corner spot in Astoria where the vibes were so cloistered it was like everybody in there was having an affair, and where they constantly edited the offerings seemingly just because; absent any “seasonality” this or that. It ended operations in 2019. And a lot of other spots where I’d reliably drop in whenever I was in the neighborhood.
It’s always the people who make the places, plus some ethereal X-factor that simply seems to imbue an address with an intangible presence that others will never replicate, even with all the investment money, bold names and strategically placed media in the world. You know the sensation.
These are the “let’s just go to” places that end up as enjoyable, if not more, than some bookings that take forever to get. The reliable restaurants and bars where you can actually get a seat and more or less what you came for. They’re a reminder that nobody really wins the race to be first to the next best thing because another one’s always right around the corner. They’re the staples, mainstays and local businesses that truly fill in the NYC hospitality map merely punctuated by so-called hotspots and the best du jour.
And I bet you can get into one tonight.