Ask the Critics: The Sweet Spot


Everyone I Know asks: Do you know where I can the find a restaurant that serves inventive, exceptionally prepared food at dirt-cheap prices with a fun atmosphere and plentiful booze?

Dear Everyone I Know: I am not a magician. I cannot conjure up a restaurant with the food of Per Se, the atmosphere of Balthazar, and the prices of Papaya Dog. I can, however, share the the restaurants that come close to hitting that sweet spot of desirable characteristics: casual, comfortable places with a lively buzz, a hip aesthetic, tasty grub, and prices that allow me to continue ordering cocktails after dinner is done.

My standby on the Lower East Side is Café Katja, an Austrian restaurant owned by an affable man by the name of Erwin Schrottner, who can regularly be seen bounding around the narrow dining room checking up on customers. It has a no-reservations policy and is usually comfortably full, with regulars sitting at the small bar and dates packed into tiny two-tops. Everything, from the decadent Emmentaler sausage to the hickory-smoked salmon, is solid, and the quark dumplings are some of my favorite things to eat in the entire city. Pair that with liter glasses of Austrian beer and a menu that never breaks $20, and you have yourself a winner.

Rockmeisha might not be the best izakaya I’ve been to, but it’s one of the hippest and its West Village location can’t be beat. Don’t get me wrong; the food is quite good, especially the ramen (made with a pig-foot broth) and the grilled chicken wings. It’s just that I’m so in love with the romantic, Tokyo-noir atmosphere and Sun Records jukebox that I can sit in there for hours just drinking bottles of Yebisu without even worrying about what I’m eating.

Roberta’s … well, you don’t need really need me to hype Roberta’s to you. You can order a $10 Margherita pizza or a $26 wood-fired pork chop and leave equally impressed. You might want to snack beforehand so you don’t become delirious during the inevitable hour-long wait, which luckily you can kill in the buzzing back bar area.

I would be a bad half-Filipino if I didn’t mention Purple Yam, home to perhaps the best Filipino food I’ve had outside of the Philippines. Sure, it’s not as cheap as the authentic home-style spots in Woodside, but it’s money well spent. The clean, understated décor is easy on the eyes, and the restaurant definitely has a warm, friendly atmosphere, perhaps thanks to its location deep in residential Ditmas Park. The fresh lumpia, consisting of a rice crepe stuffed with Napa cabbage, leeks, and mushrooms, is a good bet, as is ordering a cold bottle of San Miguel.

The reborn St. Anselm is an excellent new addition to this category as well. The restaurant has recently found its footing with reasonably priced grilled dishes like a $15 hanger steak served with garlic butter and $10 whole, simply prepared mackerel. The fact that Joe Carroll, the man behind Spuyten Duyvil next door, owns the place ensures a carefully considered beer selection, while the neighborhood guarantees a chatty, attractive crowd.