Since dining choices in New York City are almost infinite, deciding where to spend your food dollars can be overwhelming. We've boiled down the undisputed classics for everyone's checklist and identified the restaurateurs who are in perfect rhythm with the City's pulse. We've also pinpointed the most exciting young turks who are cooking their way to the top. No one—New Yorkers and visitors alike—wants to waste time and money on a meal that's not worth talking about or Instagramming (hashtag #omnomnom). Read on to see which ones made the cut.
Like the Statue of Liberty, some classic New York City restaurants are such eternal beacons that we can't imagine the culinary landscape without them. Keens Steakhouse has anchored West 36th Street since 1885 and remains relevant because the steaks are still superb, the drinks still brawny and the sumptuous, history-laden decor not dusty in the least. Brooklyn's Peter Luger Steak House is only two years younger, founded in 1887, and makes no apologies for sticking to well-marbled porterhouses and diet-be-damned creamed spinach gruffly delivered to your table in this old-school German tavern. Why should they change? Tables fill up every night.
Time traveling to the 20th century, Sammy's Roumanian Steak House is a wildly different trip, reminiscent of a bar mitzvah in a tacky basement on the Lower East Side—and with yummy comfort food to match. Skirt steak, chopped liver and hilarious, corny entertainment can't help but make you grin. Another Lower East Side joint full of character is Shopsin's in the Essex Street Market. The idiosyncratic personality here is mainly due to irascible owner Kenny Shopsin, whose insane diner menu is as dense as a page in the phone book, listing a staggering number of breakfast items, sandwiches, curries and Tex-Mex plates. Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop, in the Flatiron District, has the same make-no-excuses mentality, proudly declaring on its website, "Raising New York's Cholesterol Since 1929." Get the tuna melt and an old-fashioned egg cream.
Gabrielle Hamilton single-mindedly goes her own way too, though her food at the darling little Prune, in the East Village, has a healthier, seasonal bent and brings her continual accolades (she won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York City in 2011). What's amazing about other downtown bastions like the French-accented Balthazar and The Odeon, not to mention the French-Vietnamese Indochine, is how timelessly stylish they are, how never-ending streams of beautiful people file to tables as if they were on a fashion runway. Nor have Tom Colicchio's Craft and Alfred Portale's Gotham Bar and Grill lost any luster over the years. And the Grand Central Oyster Bar is still a pearl, its seafood catch fresh, its tiled arches everlastingly gleaming (aided by a 100-year-anniversary refurbishment in 2013). Reaching the highest culinary heights night after night are Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin and Thomas Keller's Per Se, their quest for excellence making each bite a revelation. All of these landmarks have lasted not only because they're beloved, but because they take nothing for granted.
It takes a lot of talent, business smarts and showmanship for a restaurateur to reach the major leagues. To stay on top is even more of a feat. Danny Meyer's empire, the Union Square Hospitality Group, ranges from the genteel Gramercy Tavern, The Modern and Maialino, to the Whitney's main restaurant, Untitled, to the boisterous and rapidly multiplying Shake Shack chain. French-born big cheese Daniel Boulud conquered the City long ago with Daniel but didn't stop there, adding triumphs like Café Boulud, Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud to his arsenal. British-born Keith McNally, dubbed by a food editor "the king of cool", has turned out one enduring hit after another, including Lucky Strike, Balthazar, Morandi, Minetta Tavern and Cherche Midi.
Also playing at the highest level are Alsace-born Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Jean-Georges, ABC Kitchen, Perry St., The Mark), Swedish-Ethiopian Marcus Samuelsson, with his game-changing Red Rooster Harlem, and Switzerland's Daniel Humm, a lodestar on the culinary map due to the thrilling Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad. As for American chefs, Andrew Carmellini has a brilliant portfolio with Locanda Verde, The Dutch, Lafayette and Bar Primi. Other American titans who have hit the jackpot are Bobby Flay, with his Spanish-themed Gato, and Drew (Nobu) Nieporent, with Bâtard. Mario Batali isn't budging from his throne either, with Babbo, Lupa, Otto, Esca, Del Posto and the megalopolis Eataly still pure gold.
Gutsy female chefs have been forging their way to the front the past few years, most notably April Bloomfield with her pacesetters The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, John Dory Oyster Bar and Salvation Taco. Reinventing Spanish cuisine is Alex Raij, whose El Quinto Pino, Txikito and La Vara offer exciting, exotic Basque flavors.
Bringing a similarly imaginative flair to the classics are Niki Russ Federman and her cousin Josh Russ Tupper, who unveiled Russ & Daughters Cafe in spring 2014 to exuberant applause, giving their 100-year-old family business of Jewish culinary favorites a firm foothold in the 21st century. Montrealer Noah Bernamoff has also injected fresh vitality into the tradition at his excellent deli, Mile End, and sweet little shop, Black Seed Bagels, where the dough is hand rolled and wood fired, not factory made.
Hugue Dufour is another transplanted Montrealer, whose M. Wells Dinette and nose-to-tail M. Wells Steakhouse have helped make Queens a key eating destination. Breathing new life into their Italian-American heritage is the progressive team of Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi. Their restaurants Parm and Carbone are always jam-packed; and their bistro called Dirty French is sure to upend your perception of old school Gallic dishes like duck à l'orange.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers' obsession with rule breakers David Chang (Momofuku), Danny Bowien (Mission Cantina), Ignacio Mattos (Estela), Andy Ricker (Pok Pok Ny) and Jesse Schenker (Recette) remains at full tilt. In-the-know diners have also cottoned to Frenchman Frédéric Duca at Racines NY, an elevated wine bar in TriBeCa where everything the chef makes is magic. Even so-called neighborhood restaurateurs are upping the ante, from Gabe Stulman (Joseph Leonard, Jeffrey's Grocery, Fedora, Perla) to Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli (Frankies Spuntino, Prime Meats), by serving innovative food in hip, energetic settings. Like others in the list, they may find themselves becoming old standbys in no time.