I think I am jaded, but many places in Manhattan are predictably cool. What I mean is that they are trying so hard to capture (really manufacture) a cool vibe that it doesn’t work. It is as if McKinsey & Co. was hired to consult and implement on what is cool on behalf of these businesses. As a result, things are "cool" in a familiar, done before, and hence uncool way.
Case in point: I was at Made Nice, a “fast casual” restaurant by the folks behind Eleven Madison Park. I love Eleven Madison Park! However, before I stepped foot inside Made Nice I knew there would be loud music (it was House music), I knew there would be a mural on the wall (there was), I knew the menu would be locally procured ingredients with plenty of kale and cauliflower on the menu. Don’t get me wrong, the meal was a complex blend of flavors that pleased my palette, but was it good???
Great things are born of necessity, ripe with authenticity, and survive adversity. Let me set the stage: an unemployed artist friend paints the murals at an upstart restaurant. The food is from a nearby, local farm not some international operation. The food is good because the chef is talented and cares, and this is his/her shot. The menu has to be good, so people come back. These are the restaurants that investors should give money to expand because they are authentic, not manufactured. In this week's Loupe, I look for the authentic recognizing that it doesn't have to be new to be cool or old to be an institution.
Pizza is very simple, but there are plenty of nuances creating a wide range of outcomes. There are a variety of styles, but it comes down to crust, sauce, and ingredients.
2287 1st Avenue, New York, NY 10035
Pizza sold by the slice was a foreign concept for me (a Chicago boy) until I moved to New York. Patsy's Pizza in East Harlem originated and popularized the slice concept. It is going on 85 years in the same East Harlem location and serving up incredible pizza. On a recent visit, I happened upon the owner Frank Brija deliberating over tomatoes from two different suppliers; in fact, he offered me a taste to see what I thought ... what an honor! The pizza here is excellent. For me, it is about the sauce and the ingredients. While there isn't much in the way of ambiance, you can bring your group (highly recommended) or take comfort in the pictures on the walls of Brija with just about every politician, movie star, and music legend you've ever known.
Paulie Gee's Slice Shop
110 Franklin Street Brooklyn, NY 11222
Paulie Gee's Slice Shop just opened in Greenpoint near their original (and much loved) location. The design is 70's Bronx pizza shop, and it mostly hits the mark; linoleum floors, faux wood paneled walls, green plastic chairs (with sparkles), Ballantine beer signs, Yankee player photos (from the 70's) and an old tube TV with an Atari system playing Pac-Man. Sure, it's deliberate, the very definition of inauthentic given that its new, but it is not so slick that it pulls it off. It creates an old and familiar vibe, but not dirty and dusty! The pizza is delish, though quite different from the volcano ash oven used for Neopolitan pizza in their original location. Nonetheless, the crust is quite thin and firm (unlike a slice at any old spot), sauce tasty, ingredients exploding with taste. They have a nice beer selection, vegan pizza options, and TV's so you can catch a game (or 2).
Burgers are like pizza, simple, but nuanced. The critical decisions are the quality and mixture of beef and the choice of bun. The condiment choices are generally in the eye of the beholders. My close friend and fellow Louper The Beef tells me restaurants can specify how they want the meat prepared.
1291 3rd Ave, New York, NY 10021
I have been to Melons hundreds, maybe thousands of times. It sure helps that I lived across the street from it and that I am greeted warmly by Bobby the Maitre D', but I go there for one thing: the burger. The decor is the classic bar with cheesy watermelon themed items everywhere. The waiters and waitresses are generally surly, but they serve the drinks and simple food with efficiency (except the handwritten bills!). The burgers are cooked to perfection on a grill that is probably twice as old as me ... that is the key! The place is filled with satisfied (and sometimes very drunk) patrons and happy chatter/music until it closes at 3 or 4 in the morning. For some reason, the burgers taste better the nearer one is to closing time!
4 Charles Prime Rib
4 Charles St, New York, NY 10014
The first time I came here, I was unimpressed (to be candid). I had high expectations, and they were not met. That being said, after visiting sister restaurant Au Cheval in Chicago (a must when visiting my Windy City), I was compelled to give it and its burger another try. It didn't disappoint. The decor is (new) old-world ... Italian Steakhouse meets supper club/speakeasy. The decor is sumptuous red leather banquets, mahogany tables and chairs, oil paintings, and old photographs of people from another era. With ten tables only, book in advance or eat late (when you can get in). This will be the warm-up for when NYC gets an official outpost of Au Cheval, which has been slated to open in Tribeca (79 Walker Street???) for some time. When that happens, get your bums there for a burger that makes Chicagoans proud!
455 E 114th St, New York, NY 10029
This is what Italian dining should be. Walk-in (only if invited to a regular's table of course) and you are greeted like an old friend by the host. The place is always buzzing and filled with recognizable faces. No menus needed as the waiter generally gives you what he wants to give you. The food is great, or at least it seems that way as the red wine floweth over. This is not the place to go on a date, but rather with a loud, boisterous group and before you know it, you'll be singing the night away. It is the kinda place where the night just unfolds, and each time in a different way. It is a classic place and you never have a bad time there. Just make sure you bring cash!
329 Kent Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11249
This place couldn't be more different than Rao's but is still excellent. I went there on a random Sunday and waited in a long line before opening (no reservation for me). It is located in a stunning, open space near the Williamsburg Bridge that is open to everyone/anyone. This is the second spot for hot chef Missy Robbins (James Beard's NY Best Chef winner 2018) of Lilia fame. Ironically, Missy too, got her start cooking in my hometown at Spiaggia from 2003-2008 in Chicago. Here, unlike at Rao's, they actually let you order your own food. The menu has an emphasis on vegetables and pasta, with a couple of protein choices depending upon the day. The flavors are bold, yet the dishes remain light, quite a skilled feat. It is the perfect place to go with others so you can share a bunch of antipasti and pasta. Go before it is awarded its well deserved Michelin stars!
As the camp song goes, make new friends but keep the old. So, pick the gems of the new ... found here are plenty of old classics and new authentic finds. Consider Patsy's Pizza, J.G. Melon, and Rao's appreciated and Paulie Gee's Slice Shop, 4 Charles Prime Rib, and MIsi Found!