Unless you’re a total Grinch, this can be a pretty magical time of year to be in New York City — the Big Apple really brings its A-game to decorations, holiday markets, and festive events, and if you can stomach the crowds, it’s worth seeking them out so they can tug on your old holiday spirit heartstrings. Plus, it gives you an excuse to eat in an area of town you might not find yourself in often. We’ve rounded up spots both celebratory and casual near NYC’s best holiday spectacles, good places to keep your consumption high going — or take solace from the shopping hordes and the cold.
South Street Seaport Rink
Celebratory: Barbalu, 227 Front Street
This elegant Italian restaurant recently resurfaced after Hurricane Sandy put it out of commission for almost a year. Pop by for a plate of pasta and a glass of wine, or cozy up with your family for a feast.
Casual: Cowgirl Sea Horse, 259 Front Street
A throwback to older days in the city, this wacky Southwestern-Cajun spot is worth a trip at least once in your life. If you’re skating on the seaport, that might as well be now. We’re fans of the gumbo, the nachos, and the pies — and the ice cream baked potato, of course.
Union Square Holiday Market
Celebratory: Gotham Bar & Grill, 12 East 12th Street
We stopped by this city mainstay recently and immediately wondered why we don’t book a reservation more often. If you’re seeing the sights with your parents, treat them to chef Alfred Portale’s fine fare to cap off a romp through Union Square.
Casual: Ngam, 99 Third Avenue
Ngam was our pick for best Thai restaurant in NYC this year, and chef-owner Hong Thaimee’s pad Thai, in particular, will warm you to your bones. Stop by for one of many iterations of the dish.
Grand Central Holiday Fair
Celebratory: Grand Central Oyster Bar, 89 East 42nd Street
You’re touristing, aren’t you? So it’s as good a time as any to pop in on this old New York City classic. Suck down a dozen mollusks and a seafood tower, and have a glass of wine.
Casual: Sakagura, 211 East 43rd Avenue
Okay, casual is a bit of a misnomer here, but it’s worth dipping into this basement-level Midtown izakaya for Japanese small bites and one of the best sake lists in the city. This spot is peaceful, too, which might feel nice after the ear-splitting noise levels of the crowds you just experienced.
The Holiday Shops at Bryant Park
Celebratory: Ai Fiori, 400 Fifth Avenue
Let Michael White’s team quietly stun your date, your friends, or your family after you’ve had your fill of the crowds at the holiday market. Package your Italian dinner as a four-course feast for $94, or, if you’re feeling really spendy, spring for the seven-course tasting menu or a platter of tagliatelle covered in white truffles.
Casual: Lan Sheng, 60 West 39th Street
A number of Szechuan restaurants duke it out for supremacy in this part of town, and one of the top contenders is this no frills joint serving up tongue-tickling stir fries and noodles and tea-smoked duck. Don’t miss the dan dan, the spicy cumin lamb, and, if you’re feeling adventurous, the duck tongue with hot pepper.
Columbus Circle Holiday Market
Celebratory: Betony, 41 West 57th Street
Eleven Madison Park alums Eamon Rockey and Bryce Shuman planted a winner in midtown when they opened this refined and well-edited fine dining gem earlier this year. This is a good stop for a cocktail at the bar, even if you don’t plan to eat.
Casual: Totto Ramen, 366 West 52nd Street or 464 West 51st Street
If you can stand the cold, trek down to one of the locations of Totto Ramen, located just a block apart from one another, where you’ll find belly-filling and bone-warming bowls of some of the best noodle soup in town. Just be prepared to wait.
Rockefeller Center Tree and Ice Skating Rink
Celebratory: La Grenouille, 3 East 52nd Street
You’re in the heart of New York City old school fine dining country, and you’re seeing one of New York’s most iconic Christmas traditions. So perhaps it’s appropriate to drop into this decades-old fine dining temple. If you’d rather not spring for the $105 prix fixe, belly up to the bar and tuck into mushroom risotto, littleneck clams, and chestnut soup a la carte.
Casual: The Halal Guys, 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue
If you’re looking for a really cheap and really quick bite, consider making the pilgrimage to one of NYC’s best-known food carts and fill up on some spice-speckled gyro and chicken. And don’t worry about missing it — just head to the intersection and look for the line.
If you’re on someone else’s Amex: Le Bernardin, 155 West 51st Street
Hell, it’s the holidays. So if you can get a reservation and the expense account, why not?
Central Park Skating Rinks or the Met’s Christmas Tree, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue
Celebratory: Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto, 903 Madison Avenue
If you’re attempting to impress a love interest after you revealed your lack of skills on the ice rink, make up for it over chef Cesare Casella’s date-worthy Italian fare in this cozy spot. Shell out for the full meal, or grab a bar seat and dig into a platter of cured meat paired to sparkling wine.
Casual: JG Melon, 1291 Third Avenue
If you’re up for the hike over to Third Avenue, you’ll be treated to one of New York City’s best burgers in this homey old haunt. Most of the menu comes in right around $10, which makes it a good place for dinner and a beer if you overspent on the hot chocolate and gifts.
Prospect Park Skating Rink
Celebratory: Saul, Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn
This beloved Boerum Hill institution relocated to stylish digs in the Brooklyn Museum a couple of months ago. Warm up après skate with the $40 three-course prix fixe — a considerable deal — or snack on charred octopus and sunchoke soup while you sip a cocktail.
Casual: Chuko, 552 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn
If you’re really cold, brave the icy chill for a few extra minutes and be rewarded by this excellent Prospect Heights ramen shop. And vegetarians take note: the meat-free broth is compelling enough to woo carnivores.
Artists & Fleas, 70 North 7th Street, Brooklyn
Celebratory: Reynard, Wythe Hotel, 80 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn
This scene-y place is run by the crew behind a number of Brooklyn’s iconic hipster haunts (Marlowe & Sons, Diner, Roman’s). It’s a nice place to take your out-of-town guests if they want to see the shiny side of Williamsburg that feels like a movie set. It’s also a good spot for a classic cocktail or a post-dinner amaro.
Casual: Hotel Delmano, 82 Berry Street, Brooklyn
More of a cocktail joint than a restaurant, this sexy den is a nice stop for a date. Fill up on bar snacks and be romanced by the superb roster of cheeky cocktails (but say you’re with your parents — you’ll find a killer martini here, too).
Brooklyn Night Bazaar, 165 Banker Street, Brooklyn or the McCarren Park Skating Rink
Celebratory: Glasserie, 95 Commercial Street, Brooklyn
Okay, okay. It’s sort of a hike up to Glasserie from McCarren. But if you’re not usually over in Greenpoint, it’s one worth making: chef Sara Kramer is turning out Middle Eastern-slanted stunners. If you’re not up for the one-mile walk, jump aboard the G Train or the B43 bus.
Casual: Calexico, 645 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn
We’re fans of the fish tacos at this growing chain of Mexican joints that sprung from a street cart. Order a couple and a margarita (perhaps of the frozen variety). You’ll feel beachy in no time.
LIC Flea & Food Holiday Market
Celebratory: M. Wells Steakhouse, 43-15 Crescent Street, Queens
It’s a bit more than a five minute walk, but since you’ve hiked out to Long Island City for a festive activity, you may as well round out your day by checking in on this brand new (and white-hot) M. Wells production, where you’ll find meats on the menu that range from steaks to rattlesnakes.
Casual: Alewife, 5-14 51st Avenue, Queens
Head to this cavernous beer hall for a platter of pub fare and a pint of craft beer. The sudsy temple boasts one of the best draft selections in the city, and it provides a good primer to those curious about the best offerings coming out of the Empire State.