From birth to death, life presents a series of culinary challenges. Burying dear old dad was a snap, compared to finding a place for the wake. The chosen site provoked a row among the survivors, which included vegans, anti-cholesterol freaks, Atkins acolytes, folks keeping kosher or halal, and others who were just plain peevish about eating. In a worst-case scenario, a friend discovered that 50 distant relatives—most of whom he’d never met—were descending on New York to commemorate Great-grandma’s arrival at Ellis Island a century ago. And a call from an older sister clued him in that he was responsible for organizing a giant banquet for a crowd of finicky and frugal Midwestern eaters. He turned to me and I helped him. And I can help you, too.
Asian restaurants tend to be more child-friendly than Western ones, and the staffs usually ooh and aah over crying babies rather than scowling. So I’d have any baby-related ceremonial meal—whether it be a christening, first birthday, or circumcision—at a Japanese restaurant. If you’re flush, secure a private tatami room at Hotel Kitano’s NADAMAN HAKUBAI [66 Park Avenue, 212-885-7111], where a trip down a carpeted stairway past a reflecting pond plunked with smooth black pebbles leads to a serene subterranean enclave. Set kaiseki meals ($85-$150, much cheaper at lunch) will thrill your guests with a procession of miniature crockery filled with lively morsels; go a la carte for considerably less cash. Alternatively, ascend to the private rooms at CHIKUBU [12 East 44th Street, 212-818-0715], which peddles superior set meals and sushi, including lustrous raw tuna in every sublime degree of fattiness.
Birthright: Hotel Kitano’s Nadaman Hakubai has private rooms ideal for crying babies.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Downscale, East Village sushi parlors easily hold their own, sans private tatami rooms. A particular favorite is the long-running SHARAKU [8 Stuyvesant Street, 212-598-0402], easy to get to and easy to love, with a menu that goes from boat-shaped platters of sushi to oodles of udon and soba. ESASHI [32 Avenue A, 212-505-8726] is another favorite, an above-average, inexpensive place where you can commandeer a corner.
One of the most common questions I get as a restaurant critic—and I love pondering these queries, whatever you may think to the contrary—is where you should ask Mom and Dad to fete you when you graduate from college. If your parental units have money falling out of their pockets, I’d suggest FIVE POINTS [31 Great Jones Street, 212-253-5700], where a little creek trickles through the center of the woodsy dining room, and the menu offers deliriously large hunks of fish and meat, including a double-thick pork chop puddled with smoked-tomato
relish—delish! And don’t miss the onion rings, either. If your parents are dazzled by Times Square, I’d recommend DB BISTRO MODERNE [55 West 44th Street, 212-391-2400], featuring an elegant, two-tiered dining room and bistro standards reconfigured from an haute cuisine perspective, including the famous DB burger, stuffed with short ribs and foie gras and topped with truffles. I’d finish out my four years just to get one.
If paying for college has cleaned your folks out financially, you’ll want to exercise more restraint. A rear-guard Italian like JOHN’S [302 East 12th Street, 212-475-9531], founded 1908, or BAMANTE’S [32 Withers Street, Brooklyn, 718-384-8831], founded 1900, might be just the ticket. Satisfying tuck-ins like baked ziti and veal milanesa suggest the warmth and familiarity of home without battering the parental wallet. Or go modern and downtowny with a visit to OTTO [1 Fifth Avenue, 212-995-9559]—varying from the usual pizza parlor by offering cracker-crust pies, real vegetables and salads, olive-oil ice cream, and a kick-ass wine list.
Save the date at Bar Masa.
photo: Jay Muhlin
This is the best chance to get your friends to take you out to dinner, but have them do it quickly, because who knows how long you’ll have the job? If your friends are just plain wealthy, I’d suggest a luxe Chinese place like PING’S SEAFOOD [22 Mott Street, 212-602-9988], where the Hong Kong chef does more things with lobster than I care to enumerate. If your crowd eschews eating with chopsticks, why not go for that old Tribeca chestnut ODEON [145 West Broadway, 212-233-0507]? The clubby interior and brasserie menu will remind you of France, and the place is open way late.
Downmarket, I’ve celebrated new jobs at PAM REAL THAI FOOD [404 West 49th Street, 212-333-7500], which is especially accommodating to large parties, and where the fare is as spicy as anything in Queens. For something in an occidental vein, and laughably cheap, try upstairs at the OLD TOWN BAR [45 East 18th Street, 212-529-6732], an institution with edifying literary connections: the original proprietor published Gangs of New York. Bar food includes great burgers and fries, an exemplary tuna melt, and the city’s best buffalo wings.
First dates, whether they be blind or sighted, are all about sending signals. Searching for something quiet and intimate? BAR MASA [10 Columbus Circle, 4th floor, 212-823-9800] offers small tables behind a brown scrim, or seating right at the bar, and a menu considerably cheaper than its $300-per-person next-door counterpart Masa, with creative dishes in a Japanese vein and lubrication via sake, wine, and potent cocktails. More modestly, cute old-timer TARTINE [253 West 11th Street, 212-229-2611], at the quintessential Village corner of 4th and 11th streets, specializes in French café fare from a Brittany perspective, with a few wacky details thrown in: their spicy chicken entrée, for example, served with guacamole. Best of all, it’s BYOB.
So what did I tell my friend who had to arrange a dinner for 50 Midwesterners? I sent him to CONGEE VILLAGE [100 Allen Street,
212-941-1818], which has a warren of private and semi-private rooms. There, he was able to control the culinary scope of the banquet by consulting with the management, so there were no pig intestines or sea cucumbers. And since dishes were shared and there were dozens of choices, no one could complain that there were things they preferred not to eat.
But what if the banquet is for high-society A-listers rather than working-class schlumps? I’d consider reserving an upstairs room at BAYARD’S [1 Hanover Square, 212-514-9454], occupying a stately former men’s club called India House. The many banquet rooms are adorned with antique ship models and chests of drawers filled with 19th-century commodities (including hemp!). The menu is luxurious, featuring roast pheasant, poached Dover sole, caviar, and foie gras.
All-aboard: Bayard caters to large groups.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Depending on the state of your marriage, this can be a joyous or a glum occasion. There are two ways you can go here. If it’s extra romance you seek, I’d pick Williamsburg’s ALLIOLI [291 Grand Street, Brooklyn, 718-218-7338], a Catalan tapas bar with a nice wine list, wonderful small dishes, and a backyard tenement garden right out of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Winter, I might head out to the West Village’s BLUE MILL TAVERN [50 Commerce Street, 212-352-0009], whose interior reads like film noir, slinging retro comfort food, including Cobb salad, Coach House black bean soup, and (sigh!) prime rib.
On the other hand, maybe you want a noisy place to forestall verbally picking over the remains of your romance. A frenetic, hopping place like PASTIS [9 Ninth Avenue, 212-929-4844] provides plenty of distractions, but even better is SEA [114 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, 718-384-8850], where bargain Brooklyn-style Thai can be washed down with a Lethe of potent cocktails.
Bummer! But how to react? An Irish wake might be just the thing, and where better than one of the city’s new crop of Fenian gastro-pubs, serving food stunningly better than their hard-drinking predecessors. Way downtown, ULYSSES [58 Stone Street, 212-482-0400] provides a double barroom with lots of booths, and a convivial crowd that spills out onto tables on the blocked-off street. The fish-and-chips is superb, and pricier fare runs to steak, lobster rolls, and raw shellfish. In Woodside, DONOVAN’S [57-24 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, 718-429-9339] has long been a favorite for plainer pub fare and pints of Guinness delivered at precisely the right temperature. And I can guarantee the barkeeps will be plenty sympathetic.
How to throw a banquet
We’re talking ten or more people here. Always negotiate ahead of time with the restaurant. Visit the premises and pick a table. Pay a deposit to secure your reservation. Above all, customize the bill of fare. Under no circumstances should a large party be permitted to order from the entire menu, or chaos will result. Agree to two or three appetizer and entrée choices, pitching to the strengths of the restaurant. If you’re artsy, create a special commemorative menu to hand out at the banquet. Try to negotiate a discount, perhaps by offering to pay in cash. Discuss the dietary and access needs of particular guests.
How to get those difficult reservations
Want to celebrate a special event at some hot-ticket spot? Make friends with the reservationists by being super-polite on the phone. Consider posing as your own secretary. More important, be flexible, with a script that goes something like: “I’m dying to eat there and am completely flexible about day and time. I can dine at 5:30 or 11.” Inquire about unreserved walk-in tables or bar seating. If you’re willing to arrive right when the place opens, or an hour before it closes, your chances are excellent. But always have a backup place selected.