The West Village is one of the oldest and most beguiling parts of Manhattan. Visitors enjoy the area's delightful mix of architectural styles—many of its townhouses were built before the Civil War—and idiosyncratic street pattern, which even locals can find confusing. Getting lost in the neighborhood is an inevitability, but even that has its charms—like rounding a corner and finding the cozy French bistro Café Cluny or the tastiest falafel in the City at the shoebox-size Taïm. The latter's Israeli-born chef-owner Einat Admony is also behind Bar Bolonat, a stylish Mediterranean spot that features dishes like chickpea gnocchi and shrimp in Yemenite curry. To experience the rapture of gravy meatball sliders at The Little Owl, the expert French fare at Keith McNally's Minetta Tavern and Jesse Schenker's ingenuity at Recette, reserve in advance. Jody Williams' snug Buvette is always booked up too; fans adore her creamy steamed eggs, croque monsieur and coq au vin. In general, women chefs make a strong showing in the neighborhood, including April Bloomfield at the smart Spotted Pig and Anita Lo at the intimate and globally influenced Annisa. For a variety of other West Village suggestions (including a few east of Sixth Avenue), read on.
Gabriel Stulman's Empire
Gabriel Stulman, a Wisconsin native, has progressed from being a spirited restaurateur to lifestyle guru—a sort of masculine counterpart to Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop. His company, Happy Cooking Hospitality, includes clothing, candles and six forward-thinking bistros, five of which are in the West Village. Joseph Leonard is named for his two grandfathers and known for stimulating comfort food and dim sum brunches. Jeffrey's Grocery had to eliminate the grocery aisle and add more tables to accommodate all the regulars streaming in for oysters, crab and avocado toast and fried clam sandwiches. Stulman then took over the 1917-era Fedora, upgrading the speakeasy trappings as well as the meaty menu of steak, duck and chops. Perla, named for his grandmother, has a gutsy Italian focus and wood-burning oven. And Bar Sardine is a bar, yes, but also offers soulful snacks of deviled eggs with black garlic and pan con tomate with speck and boquerones. In toto, Stulman has been at the forefront of the neighborhood's culinary renewal.
Italian immigrants started settling in the West Village two centuries ago, so the neighborhood has been a bastion of spaghetti and red sauce for ages. Riding a newer wave of Italian colonists is Via Carota, where risotto, grilled chicken and seasonal vegetables are infused with passion owing to talented partners Jody Williams and Rita Sodi. Another gifted duo, Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli, have made Frankie's 570 Spuntino the go-to trattoria for hearty soups, satisfying panini and eggplant parmigiana. Then there's the high-rolling Carbone, where the team of Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi pay homage to elegant Italian-American ristorantes of yore by making Caesar salad tableside and lobster fra diavolo. For authentic Neapolitan cuisine, Rafele is wonderful, especially the lightly fried arancini dumplings and zuppa di pesce. Lupa, co-owned by Mario Batali, is the gold standard for Roman specialties like fried artichokes, cacio e pepe pasta and bucatini all'amatriciana. Another heavy-hitter restaurateur, Keith McNally founded the rustic and fashionable Morandi in 2007, a favorite there being hand-rolled pici with lemon and parmesan. The glamour and flavor quotient is also high at sister wine bars Dell'anima and L'Artusi as well as at Rosemary's, an enoteca and trattoria featuring fresh-baked focaccia, salumi, luscious cheeses and a rooftop garden.
The West Village is so well trafficked it's hard for anything to fly under the radar, but some places might slip your notice if you don't know where to look. Hudson Clearwater is one of them; keep an eye out for the hidden side door. The setting is dark and romantic and features a solid menu of creative salads, pasta, fish, meat and good drinks at a reasonable price point. Employees Only is camouflaged behind a psychic's neon storefront and acclaimed for magical cocktails shaken up by a gang of top mixologists. Once you're in, you might want to hang out all night, so it's beneficial that they also offer bacon-wrapped lamb chops, crispy ricotta gnocchi with mushrooms and a stellar cheese plate with honeyed pistachios. One of the tougher spots to get a reservation remains RedFarm, which is no secret. The restaurant has become famous for its farmers' market–driven Chinese food, but opt instead for its underground joint, Decoy, where patrons flock for the large-format Peking duck dinners and late-night dumplings. Another covert restaurant is Wallflower, tucked away on a street cobbled with Belgian blocks. Discreet signage and venetian blinds conceal a Gallic-inspired retreat for oysters, chicken liver mousse, skirt steak and serious drinks.
The New England seafood menu at Pearl Oyster Bar includes raw and fried oysters, pan roasts, chowder and smoked Atlantic salmon with johnnycake and crème fraîche, courtesy of Rebecca Charles whose family has summered in Maine for nearly 100 years. Feel lucky if you're able to snag one of the restaurant's 20 seats. Mary Redding, a former partner, swam off to open Mary's Fish Camp, a no-reservations beach shack featuring Canadian steamers with drawn butter, oyster po'boys and seared sea scallops with cold soba noodles, eggplant and mango. Despite its name, The Clam offers more than shellfish on its Eastern-seaboard menu, including grilled Atlantic swordfish and addictive Old Bay fries with cocktail sauce. Among the neighborhood's many other inexpensive fish venues is A Salt & Battery for British-style, deep-fried fillets and chips, and Flex Mussels for pots of bivalves in broth—classic white wine and herbs and Thai-flavored curry-coconut are both excellent. The West Village also sports a number of reliable sushi and sashimi dens; one of the most esteemed is EN Japanese Brasserie, where yellowtail and toro are at peak freshness and the tofu is soft as a cloud.
To protect the West Village's architectural integrity, more than 50 blocks have historic landmark status. Nevertheless, development has claimed many seasoned restaurants, bars and shops, so it's heartwarming to see old-timers like Faicco's Pork Store and pizza king John's Pizzeria still thriving. Famous Joe's Pizza has been firing up cheese-laden slices since 1975 and shows no sign of slowing down. Other lasting Italian favorites include the pizza and jazz joint Arturo's and the adorable, circa-1927 Caffe Reggio for cappuccino, simple pastries and panini. People still crowd into Corner Bistro, a dark tavern famous for beers starting at $3 and no-frills, juicy burgers. English ex-pats and Anglophiles turn to the tiny Tea & Sympathy for full English breakfasts, shepherd's pie, bangers and mash, treacle pudding and proper cups of tea. The decades-old Spanish restaurant Sevilla has commanded one of the cutest corners in the neighborhood since 1941, its booths packed with regulars enjoying pitchers of sangria, broiled chorizo and bacalao in garlicky green sauce. And for all the romantics who have gotten engaged since 1973 at One if by Land, Two if by Sea, that moment can be relived over candlelight, wine, soft piano music and côte de boeuf for two.