If I come to your restaurant (and I probably already have), FEED ME. I am very likely to take whatever table you sit me at (including the back ones close to the bathrooms or the kitchen), take the waiter’s recommendations, take your recommendations, take the bartender’s or sommelier’s recommendations. Not complain much. Eat everything. Leave a big tip. If I like you and your food, I’ll even bring more people. I’m a good patron.
I’ve spent as little as $9 for a dinner for 2 and as much as $270 for a lunch, pre-tax. I tried all the offal joints, all the underground unlicensed places, all the street vendors, all the neighborhood spots and all the shishi, dress- coded, Michelin- starred establishments I could get in. I went out 3 to 7 times a week and, in over 4 years, I got to taste a huge chunk of New York City.
If you’re a chef, here are the few things you should think of when I step foot in your bodega:
1. Put a goddamn salt cellar on the table. None of that “My work is perfect”, “Your palate is so untrained, you don’t deserve my food”, “If you don’ like it, you’re not worthy of it” bullshit. You’re a cook, I’m a customer. You’ll only become a maestro if I decide you’ve passed from functional into art- but how would you cover the basis (or at least my basis), if you’re so insecure about something as basic as salt?!?
2. If it’s not edible, don’t put in on my plate. A porcelain basket filled with red foam little Jesus dolls is NOT an appetizing garnish.
3. I don’t eat atmosphere, so please worry about the food more than the lighting.
Here are a few spots that got these things- and other things- very right. Spots that make you feel like food is not the destination, but a very familiar- and tasty- accessory to being human. Places where the people are important, the dishes are made with inspiration and love, and the prices are not heart-stopping. Special bodegas without Michelin stars or crazy Yelp followings (or maybe they do have accolades, but I never looked them up) that N. and I found, tried and stayed fond of. Here we go.
1. Cafe Gletchik | Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY
This Ukrainian spot smells good, feels good and tastes even better. Order the rabbit stew or the pelmeni with pickled watermelon.
2. Geido | Brooklyn
A fun place with ok sushi and fantastic Japanese traditionals (chawanmushi, natto, fish bones, ramens, torotoro) and a corky chef who speaks once in a blue moon but does it with the wit of a village full of widows. Say hi when you come in, sit at the bar, be humble and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to share a drink.
3. Moto | Brooklyn
Great and simple food, crowded but fun. Good table wines, good French dishes (really, don’t go for the paninis. They’re good, but why not get a mustard stew?? Or some great ribs?). The date cake is an absolute must.
4. M on Havemeyer (or M Shanghai Bistro and Den) | Brooklyn
Sit at the bar, order some cocktails and 1000 of their dumplings. Seriously. So far, none other like these juicy, JUICY bundles of marrowy, umami bliss.
5. Hot Pot Grand Sichuan | Chinatown
Grimy place with surreal broth. Get the half-half, and don’t worry- anything still alive will be killed (or sanitized) instantly by the spicy water- it really IS that hot. Get the wood ear fungus, get the beefs, get some bok choy and have fun.
6. Macondo | Bowery, Manhattan
If you get over the cheezy exterior, this Latin eatery will make you happy with great small dishes packed with flavor and texture. They also have a fresh fruit cocktail bar- just ask. And make sure you get their yucca fries- they are phenomenal.
7. Katz | Bowery, Manhattan
On the same stretch and side of the street with Macondo, you’ll see Katz (and you’ll recognize it, since it’s been in sooooo many movies!). It’s busy, it’s rather expensive (around $15 for a sandwich), it’s hipster-y and touristy altogether, but their pastrami is still the best and definitely worth the hassle. Please try it. Try it. With your eyes closed. And then suck on a pickle. Really.
8. Zucco | Lower East Side, Manhattan
A bit fussy, the way even the most casual French joint tends to be. But their wine list and their hearty, tasty, peasant dishes are worth the effort- and the wait. I’m a sucker for their ratatouille, N. favors the coq-au-vin- but pretty much anything with a sauce will sing to you like a Charles Aznavour song. Sit at the bar, talk to the bartender, buy him a drink- he’s awesome.
9. Momofuku noodle bar | East Village, Manhattan
Momofuku is a legend, but if you make it inside don’t spoil your tongue by ordering the everything-else-dishes. Really. Give yourself and your stomach to the one, the ONLY pork belly ramen noodle soup. Maybe get a sake flight on the side- but otherwise do not get distracted. Focus. Because this really is the best thing in town.
10. Mayahuel | NOHO, Manhattan
This little joint is a bodega built around tequila. Although cute, I would skip the main floor and ask to be seated upstairs- it’s more quiet, and a bit more intimate. The food is good (nice paella, great fritters)- but their tequila bar, and churros, are out of this world- so try to come here late for an after-dinner dessert- and-mezcal session. Sip, crunch and sit back.
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