The Francophone greasy spoon, love child of bistro and diner, has become its own New York restaurant genre. This newcomer lacks the scruffy charm of predecessors like the late Florent, but Belgian chef Mathieu Palombino brings his obsessive eye for detail to bear upon a whole roster of short-order classics. The show-stealer is a classic Reuben made with house-smoked corned beef and piled high with just enough melted Swiss and tangy kraut. There’s traditional Gallic fare, too, tailored for the diner digs: Escargot-style steamed whelks look like truck-stop eats on cafeteria dishware, while a generous bistro steak comes with excellent slim, stubby fries in a tall paper cone on the side. Desserts, like a dense orange blossom donut, could use a bit more work, but the built-to-share spiked milk shakes are fun and offbeat.
The warm buttermilk biscuits and fluffy plate-size pancakes at this pioneering eatery are reason enough to battle the brunch-time crowds. If you want to avoid the onslaught, the homey LES spot is just as reliable at lunch and dinner, when locals drop in for fish tacos and a $10 beer-and-burger special (Mon–Sat 6–8pm): eight ounces of Black Angus topped with Swiss cheese and caramelized onions, served with a Brooklyn Lager, Stella or Red Stripe. And if you must order them, the blueberry pancakes are on the menu day and night.
A slick, sexy refuge for subscribers to the “I am where I eat” school of dining out, Essex can be surprisingly intimate on weeknights, when the lull provides a little breathing room. The corner location is prime and the brunches are mimosa-soaked. The food is not really the point, but it’s fine: Upscale takes on LES staples like potato pancakes strive to give the menu some local cred, and Wednesday’s lobster night is a reliable crowd-pleaser. It’s not the cheapest place on the block, but when you’re arriving from the Upper East Side in a taxi, money’s probably not much of an issue anyway.