When people ask me what to do in New York, they're often surprised to get back a list of restaurants. But what about the culture? they ask, with more than a soupçon of snobbery. And sure – the Met houses an entire ancient Egyptian temple; the Frick has a hat-trick of Vermeers; there's a world-class musician performing at Carnegie Hall on every day that ends with a y.
The restaurants, though, are where the magic of everyday life happens. For many New Yorkers, kitchen counters, living rooms and a semblance of privacy are distant dreams. More than any other city, New York's restaurants are where romance, heartbreak, and all the mundane details in between take place.
There are 24,000 places in the Big Apple to eat, with more opening all the time. For visitors, it's worth focusing on the few that even the notoriously argumentative locals can agree are classics. Many of these spots are Italian; most others belong to that mysterious category known as "new American", a shorthand for bourbon-based cocktails and a knockout pork chop. There are holes in the city's culinary offerings: for an Australian, particularly, Asian restaurants are rarely superb. Californians are constantly complaining about substandard Mexican, though that's changing. And those looking for the very best in American barbecue or Southern cooking might set their sights below the Mason-Dixon line.
But you won't want for indulgence, especially if you commit to devouring some of the best pasta in town. Like, for instance, the malfatti al Maialino at its namesake restaurant in the Gramercy Park Hotel: shredded roast suckling pig amid thick hand-torn ribbons of carby goodness. It's the ultimate comfort food – light, lemony, buttery – and best enjoyed from a booth, watching snow fall through the storybook windows. As it happens, Maialino is also great for breakfast, where scrambled eggs get a Roman makeover and are served cacio e pepe – literally, with cheese and pepper, though that description hardly does the dish justice. (Avoid staying at the hotel, though; the bar on the roof is a constant party and the rooms can be loud as a result.)
Living the good life in Francophile Buvette.
Still on the pasta theme, further downtown, I Sodi is the ultimate in Italian chic. Opened by a former Calvin Klein Jeans exec who subsequently took up with the owner of the place across the road (more on that soon), this is the place for creamy green lasagna – layers of artichokes layered with béchamel – as well as impeccable negronis and the kind of discreet, cloistered atmosphere which attracts renowned artists and writers.
Directly opposite I Sodi, on one of the West Village's prettiest blocks, is its French equivalent: a jewel box of a place named Buvette, so good there's now an outpost in Paris. Here a younger, trendier set squeezes onto tiny bar stools to enjoy tartinettes of anchovies and fat caperberries, slow braised oxtail with plenty of gherkins, and a sublime French 75 cocktail served in a coupe, just as it should be. (Flutes inhibit the bubbles.)
Via Carota, down the tree-lined street, is the product of a love affair between the French and the Italian restaurateurs: a Roman trattoria where, in a rarity for New York, the outdoor seating is desirable. You might spot Martha Stewart here, enjoying the svizzerina, or chopped steak, which is the signature dish. Save yourself for dessert, though: the neighbourhood is home to the Big Gay Ice Cream shop, a soft-serve sundae haven, as well as several excellent gelaterias, including L'Arte del Gelato, which serves an unusual corn flavour with just a hint of sweetness.
Roberta’s, in Brooklyn, is noted for mixing classical pizza technique with unusual ingredients.
There are plenty more cheap thrills to be had. Hop on the Q train and head out to Midwood, halfway to Coney Island, where Dom Demarco has been making pizza at Di Fara for over 50 years. His pies, as New Yorkers call pizza, are as quintessentially Brooklyn as Barbra Streisand. They're renowned for fresh ingredients, a rich tomato sauce, and a distinctive chew. Roberta's, also in Brooklyn, is regarded as the best of the new guard in pizza. The name is now synonymous with hipsters who congregate in the casual joint's backyard to drink spiked lemonade out of mason jars, but Roberta's is also justly famous for combining unusual ingredients with classical techniques. The exquisitely balanced Bee Sting, with soppressata, mozzarella, chilli flakes and honey, never fails.
Identifying a best burger will get me into trouble, but fans of blue cheese will find it hard to go past April Bloomfield's creation at The Spotted Pig. She practically invented the now de rigueur move of brioche as burger bun, and the short rib and Roquefort combination earned New York's first gastropub a Michelin star seven years running. The rosemary-topped shoestring fries on the side are very hard to eat in an elegant fashion, so don't: devour them in greedy handfuls, and give up on any notion of a dinnertime conversation. Shake Shack, which has locations throughout the city, including at the home of ill-fated local baseball team the New York Mets, also offers an exceptional burger for a third of the price.
The Spotted Pig’s famous burger and fries.
There are, of course, a clutch of high-end dining experiences worth splurging on: Eleven Madison Park was just named best restaurant in the world, and proudly showcases New York's culinary traditions. Stay at the tranquil haven that is the Park Hyatt to be within striking distance of many of the city's glitziest restaurants – and the best croissants, particularly flaky specimens from Petrossian. Daniel, on the Upper East Side, is arguably the city's most refined restaurant, featuring a sunken dining room fit for a 1960s playboy and impeccable white-glove service.
But if you want to be treated like royalty for a fraction of the cost, try Gramercy Tavern at about three in the afternoon. You'll experience the very best of America – enough to make you forget, briefly, whichever political scandal has currently engulfed this complicated and compelling nation. A smiling bartender in a bow tie will make you a Manhattan as smooth as the soft jazz, and will be perfectly happy for you to sit and read The New York Times, or to gaze out the window on the busy Flatiron street scene, for as long as you like. That kind of serenity can be hard to find in the city that never sleeps. Savour it.
Amelia Lester travelled to New York at her own expense.