New York Now | 1999

Looking back, the thing that probably woke up the New York food scene was all that noise about London. England, the cutting edge? A country where, as Calvin Trillin once wrote, everyone celebrates the queen's birthday by boiling the vegetables for an extra hour? After New Yorkers got over the initial shock, they went to work on making their own buzz. That didn't take long. The city already had great restaurants; what it needed was a fresh infusion of glamour and excitement. And that's what it got. New York, always a terrific place to eat, is now the place to eat, a trendsetter for the rest of the world. Here are the top 10 reasons:

1. The Glory of Old New York

Remember when New York had hatcheck girls and double-decker buses? Neither do I. But dust off your grandfather's fedora, because those days are back. The city is as prosperous as it's been in decades, and new restaurants are celebrating with a nod to Gotham's golden age. Berenice Abbott photographs decorate City Hall, a neotraditional steak house and oyster bar. The cuisine at Eleven Madison Park is based on careful studies of vintage New York menus. With its magnificent mahogany bar and updated tavern fare (think Yankee pot roast and Irish soda bread), The Tonic creates a turn-of-the-century mood. Joe's Public offers oysters Rockefeller, Waldorf salad and other retro dishes. The message: New York is as good as it was in the good old days--except for the food. The food is better.

2. The New Grand Central Terminal

Before its eye-opening restoration, Grand Central was a bit like your grandmother: you knew she was a lovely lady, but she didn't exactly leave you weak in the knees. A thorough renovation has made the station stunning again and also transformed it into something it never was before: a culinary destination. A food concourse opening on the lower level late this spring will offer everything from caviar to frozen custard; a market on the ground level will sell fresh produce, fish and meat. Michael Jordan's Steak House has already taken up an unobtrusive post on the balcony. The most fascinating space in Grand Central may be the cocktail lounge in the long-forgotten Campbell Apartment, which was built in the Twenties as a lavish private office and modeled on a 13th-century Florentine palazzo.

3. The Outer-Borough Boom

Many Manhattanites view New York's outer boroughs as places to go through, not to. So why are cabs pouring over the bridge bound for Jimmy's Bronx Café? Maybe because visiting on a Friday night is like dropping into the Copacabana scene from Goodfellas. Then there's the cachet of Queens, with foodies crowding onto the No. 7 subway line in pursuit of ethnic cuisines, from Brazilian (Green Field Churrascaria in Corona) to Taiwanese (Laifood in Flushing). The Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, an Indian favorite, is so successful that it moved to new digs down the block, giving up a space that once had all the charm of a bus station in favor of a stylish venue worthy of, well, Manhattan.

4. The West Chelsea Frontier

About the time lower Broadway began to look like a midwestern strip mall (complete with midwesterners), some of SoHo's smartest galleries decamped to the empty warehouses of west Chelsea, today's urban frontier. Collectors clutch cell phones as they wander under a rusty elevated railroad track; eventually, most of them wind up eating pasta at Bottino, where gallery owners Barbara Gladstone and Perry Rubenstein are investors. Diners who wouldn't recognize artist David Salle if he walked from table to table wielding a pepper mill might prefer the low-key scene at Siena. For more tranquillity, there's the Wild Lily Tea Room, where the exquisite little pond is a work of art in itself.

5. Hip Hotel Restaurants

Traditionally, hotel restaurants are places where traveling businessmen are punished for what they do in hotel bars. A few, of course, have marvelous food, but they also tend to be filled with showy flower arrangements and whispery people in dark suits. The rise of boutique hotels in Manhattan, however, has created a phenomenon: the hip hotel restaurant. Jean-Georges Vongerichten is still setting the pace with his Mercer Kitchen at the very-SoHo Mercer Hotel. At the New Agey hotel W New York, where each room has a window box of wheat grass, restaurateur Drew Nieporent and chef Michel Nischan have created an organic menu for Heartbeat. And The Time hotel (accented in primary colors by codesigner Adam Tihany) is the sleek setting for Palladin Brasserie, which marks the New York City debut of star chef Jean-Louis Palladin.

6. Celebrity Sightings

Is there anybody in the world more fascinating than Leonardo Di Caprio? The paparazzi would auction off their own sisters just for the chance to photograph him eating dinner. But there's no need for that: Leo turns up at Moomba, Lot 61 or some other lucky Manhattan restaurant almost every night. So do quite a few of his Hollywood peers. And with all the movies now shot in film-friendly New York, the city's starting to look like The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night. There's Robert De Niro and Pam Grier at Balthazar! There's Ed Burns at Bond St.! Golly, is that Jerry Seinfeld at Babbo? It is!

7. Well-Fed Shoppers

For New Yorkers who want to spend, spend, spend, stores that stock everything from haute couture to hi-fis are scrambling to sell food, too. Barneys has Fred's and Emporio Armani has the Armani Café. ABC Carpet & Home has imported a restaurant from Brazil and opened a three-level food hall with everything from smoked sturgeon to Morbier. But for sheer chutzpah, nothing beats the monster at Macy's, a Dallas transplant called Eatzi's Market & Bakery. This ambitious venture is equal parts cafeteria, pastry shop, take-out emporium and specialty food store, with a bit of the Grand Souk in Marrakech thrown in to keep things lively.

8. The Lounge Life

New York City restaurants used to have bars. Now they have lounges. The difference? Couches and low tables. The advantages? Well, the lounge lizard can show off his social skills as he balances gnocchi on one knee, holds a fork in one hand and a martini in the other, and shouts across the room to friends who are doing the same. Watch the technique in practice at Union Pacific, Cafeteria, 2 Seven 7 and the brand-new Celadon.

9.The Late Show

The city that never sleeps is becoming the city that never stops eating, as more and more kitchens crank out fantastic food into the wee hours. Like nightclubbing, dining out these days just isn't cool if you show up too early. Such old standbys as Restaurant Florent (open 24 hours on weekends) have been joined by places like Clementine (open until 3:15 on weekends) and Next Door Nobu (open until one on weekends), which are routinely mobbed at midnight by everyone from lawyers who work 18-hour days to club kids on a vampire schedule.

10. Wall Street's Feeding Frenzy

Wall Street used to be to fine dining what East Orange, New Jersey, is to high finance. The people who moved the world's money ate $4 deli sandwiches at their desks at lunch and had dinner somewhere else--anywhere else. No longer. Last year, chef Johannes Sanzin ventured downtown with his haute soups at Souperman. Now, on a grander scale, 14 Wall Street offers refined bistro dishes in the 31st-floor aerie where J. P. Morgan allegedly kept his mistresses; Cipriani Wall Street operates in a monumental building that once housed the stock exchange; and Bayard's serves the French-Mediterranean cooking of Luc Dendievel in an 1850s brownstone filled with relics of the area's maritime past. In a more modern setting, Hawaii's Roy Yamaguchi shows his fusion flair at Roy's Restaurant in the Marriott Financial Center Hotel; and at the World Trade Center, Michael Lomonaco prepares roasts and grills at Wild Blue.

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