If the rise in speakeasy bars’ concepts and Instagrammable eateries tells us anything about today’s dining culture, it’s that the off-the-plate experience is just as important to diners as what they’re eating. And although nothing is truly hidden anymore, enjoying secret menu items or eating in quirky themed restaurants can make for a fun and memorable meal. We’ve rounded up our favorites here, from a Michelin-starred fine dining gem in a Fidi food market to a vegetarian restaurant hidden beneath a Hindu temple in Flushing, Queens.
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Best NYC restaurants in weird places
You’ve no doubt heard about the speakeasies-inside-restaurants craze—you know, spots that are now not so secret, like PDT, the cocktail den hidden in the hot-dog joint Crif Dogs, or Karasu, the Japanese izakaya within Walter’s. This adorable eatery reverses the concept: The restaurant is inside the bar. To reach your destination, walk through the Garret East—maybe stopping for a drink on the way—and gorge on shareable small plates like huevos chamucos (dill wasabi eggs, Spanish sturgeon caviar) and pork belly with yuzu-laced clams.
This one stands above Koreatown’s dizzying number of dining options—literally. Gaonnuri is a skyscraper restaurant offering traditional Korean plates alongside stunning city views. Its menu ranges from classic japchae (a dish of stir-fried glass noodles with vegetables) to tofu stews and Korean BBQ, making it hard to decide which is better: the vantage point or the food. To see for yourself, enter through a nondescript office building, and take the elevator to the 39th floor.
Tucked behind a butcher shop on Great Jones Street, the time-honored Japanese restaurant is a pioneer of the hidden dining scene. Access is granted by referral only, and once you have your reservation, you must use the intercom to get into the loungelike spot for the critically acclaimed plates of melt-in-your-mouth sashimi (bluefin tuna, toro) and equally tender cuts of beef.
The front says bodega, but the back says mescal-and-ceviche party. That’s right: You’re going through the freezer door to reach this South of the Border gastropub in Williamsburg. This agave-soaked bar is the third brainchild of Felipe Mendez (La Superior, Cerveceria Havemeyer). It offers a selection of house margaritas like guava and tamarind, so you’ll be primed to go when the DJs—and disco balls—start spinning.
This tiny unmarked bar and eatery is a hush-hush fave in Hell’s Kitchen’s Restaurant Row. Set in a converted apartment, the restaurant serves the pretheater crowd staples like oysters, spoonbill caviar and lobster-crab rolls, along with heartier fare like fried chicken, shrimp-and-mushroom dumplings and vegetarian samosas for good measure. As with those hot-ticket shows on the Great White Way, seats are hard to come by. Reserve accordingly.
Opened in 1993 to prepare the traditional Hindu food offering, or naivedyam, this Flushing cafeteria became so popular among culinary devotees that it moved from a temple basement to the nearby community center for more space. Nowadays you can get your fill of South Indian favorites—dosas, uttapam, various masala offerings—year-round.
This white-cloth, Michelin-starred charmer, inspired by the design of an elegant apartment (hence the name), is behind a hefty door inside the Financial District’s market Le District. The 10-table tasting-menu restaurant, helmed by Daniel alum Nicolas Abello, pulls produce and proteins from surrounding vendors for a seasonal six-course spread of fancy French plates. Recently, those have included organic zucchini hand rolls with Crottin de Champcol goat cheese as well as cucumber cups with poached Maine lobster and makrut lime leaves.
Sure, this is more of a cocktail bar, but the on-point oysters and its location behind a former hardware store merit its place on the list. A collaboration between Padraig O’Brien (the Raines Law Room) and Tommy Demaras (Maiella), the watering hole is within the long-shuttered store Square Hardware. Pass through the red- velvet curtains to find a 1920s-inspired space, and try the inventive Trinidad Sazerac with rum.
Filipino food has a higher profile than ever before in the States, and the folks behind Kuma Inn were one of the first on the scene. In a narrow second-level space of an unmarked building on Ludlow Street, the restaurant serves an ever-changing menu of tapas-style plates that channel influences from the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. If lumpia rolls and drunken shrimp aren’t enough to entice you, the restaurant’s BYOB policy will.
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Samba Kitchen & Bar
This bar and restaurant brings the flavors of Brazil to Hell’s Kitchen. Order the country’s national drink—the caipirinha—to start. The cachaca-based cocktail comes flavored with coconut, passionfruit, strawberry or the traditional lime ($12 each). Samba Kitchen and Bar also offers regional specialities like Xingu, a Brazilian black ale ($8), sangria ($9) and a selection of South American wines. The dinner menu features beloved appetizers like pão de queijo, a Brazilian cheese bread ($8), yucca fries ($6) and assorted croquettes ($12). Entrees include traditional favorites like feijoada, a black bean stew with bacon, pork shoulder and sausage ($24), and vatapa, slow-cooked tilapia and shrimp in a sauce made from bread and coconut milk ($25). Stop by on Wednesday nights or Sunday brunch service to hear live samba from local musicians. Samba Kitchen, indeed!
Venue says: “Bringing the flavors of Brazil to Hell's Kitchen! Live Samba Music Wednesday's 8pm - 11pm and during Sunday Brunch, 12pm - 3:30pm.”