Among the Yuletide pleasures brightening the City in December are a number of restaurants that go to town with holiday decorations. The winter wonderland windows at Pete's Tavern, near Gramercy Park, rival those of Fifth Avenue department stores; expect a riot of red fairy lights to adorn the ceiling. There's also razzle-dazzle at Marcus Samuelsson's festive Red Rooster Harlem. The Breslin is beautiful and cozy year-round but particularly magical this month, sumptuously embroidered with greenery and twinkling lights. Park Avenue Winter is another sight to behold, with a sophisticated, icy interior of birch branches either bare along the walls or used in elaborate hanging light installations. Little Italy is also fun to stroll through at this time of year, when Mulberry Street is strung with old-fashioned lights. Wreaths and ribbons bedeck Da Nico, an old-school favorite for crowd-pleasing pasta and pizza. See where else to make merry this season.
21 W. 52nd St., 212-582-7200, Midtown West, Manhattan
The '21' Club, an old-school citadel, has a special allure in December when the Bar Room and and the lounge are festooned with Christmas trees, glittering gold ribbons, white lights, charming animal figurines and cascades of red-berried holly. The wrought-iron facade recently got buffed up too, the jockey brigade repainted. There are prix-fixe menus at lunch and for pre-theatre, as well as à la carte favorites like creamy chicken hash, trout amandine and the famous '21' burger on a squishy challah bun. Throughout the year, the greeting is warm, but it's especially cheering during special holiday luncheons and dinners when the Salvation Army Band plays and a chorus sings carols to raise money for charity.
Gotham Bar & Grill
12 E. 12th St., 212-620-4020, Greenwich Village, Manhattan
The Union Square Holiday Market is a cornucopia of handcrafted gifts and artisanal goodies. If you're looking for a sedate, relaxing restaurant nearby, Gotham Bar & Grill is the place. This classic has lasted for more than 30 years with the one and only Alfred Portale in the kitchen. The soaring dining room has a golden glow and lights covered in tufted, floating parachutes, creating a lovely environment even without the usual winter floral arrangements. At lunch is a $38 greenmarket prix fixe, with choices including chicory salad, pan-roasted branzino and pumpkin tortellini, and, for dessert, their signature chocolate cake served warm with salted almond ice cream. Dinner is a more formal, pricier affair, but this is the time of year to live it up, right?
59 Grand St., 212-941-0772, Soho, Manhattan
Soho shines during the holidays with distinctive shopping opportunities; one of the best boites at which to take a break is Lucky Strike. The bistro feels like a pocket of Paris—apart from the loop of classic American rock over the sound system—and is garlanded in pine and white lights. Keith McNally (Balthazar, Cherche Midi, Minetta Tavern) is the wizard behind it, so little expense is spared in decking it out this time of year. Open since 1989, the place is full of vintage trappings that stoke an auld lang syne sentimentality, with the menu scrawled on mirrors and French film posters on the walls. Reliable comfort food includes hamburgers, steak frites, salade Niçoise and croque-monsieur. The copper-trimmed, well-stocked bar is professionally manned, and drinks are generous. Hit it at happy hour (daily, 4–7pm), when drinks, mini burgers and skinny fries are discounted.
1170 Broadway, 347-472-5660, NoMad, Manhattan
Little-known fact: the first community Christmas tree in the US was displayed in Madison Square Park in 1912, predating the Rockefeller Center tree by 21 years. A team of four horses ferried the 70-foot fir to town, where it was illuminated with 1,200 lightbulbs. Aptly enough, these days a huge tree is installed every year at the NoMad, two blocks from the park. The luxury hotel restaurant boasts a series of gorgeous rooms; to be in proximity of the tree, request a table in the library—though note in that room, the offerings are limited to lunch, snacks and drinks. The seasonal dinner menu features suckling pig confit with seckel pears. Chef Daniel Humm and his partner, Will Guidara, are also behind the wildly acclaimed Eleven Madison Park.
Rolf's German Restaurant
281 Third Ave., 212-477-4750, Gramercy, Manhattan
Entering Rolf's at Christmastime elicits delighted laughs, shouts of "This is crazy!" or "It's too crowded; we'll have to come back another time." Now really is the best time of year to experience a tavern that looks more like an overloaded toy shop—a dining experience akin to being trapped inside a Black Forest snow globe. Singles clutching tall German beers make small talk in the packed bar while friends catch up in snug booths over wintertime staples like wiener schnitzel with spaetzle and sauerbraten with red cabbage and mashed potatoes. Couples who might have known each other more than a few minutes steal kisses under mistletoe. Dangling from the ceiling are clusters of colored bulbs, evergreen wreaths and Victorian-period dolls, all of it impressively dust-free. The staff appears unruffled by the commotion, having seen it all before.