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The Mary-Kate Olsen to the Upper East Side’s Ashley, the Upper West Side, labeled a dining wasteland, has long shivered under a cloud of misunderstanding. And while it’s impossible to ignore the massive uptick in real estate development and mallification the area’s undergone, the neighborhood’s options have expanded to include some truly creative eating. As the numerous Chino-Latino restaurants that once dotted this landscape have faded away, many of the new outfits setting up shop are either popular local mini-chains, like Xi’an Famous Foods and the Meatball Shop, or concepts that would otherwise do well downtown. Like so many of New York’s rapidly changing puzzle pieces, it’s a mix of satisfying stalwarts and glossy newcomers. Here are the 10 best restaurants in the neighborhood.
10. Sura Thai, (2656 Broadway, 212-665-8888) Three years ago, Joey Phadungsil came on to overhaul the menu at this modern Upper West Side Thai restaurant, and she installed a broad range of regional specialties from both northern and southern Thailand. Her fragrant blue crab fried rice, though, is our repeat order. Swaddled in a banana leaf, a heap of fresh crab sits over eggy fried rice, its brininess imbuing the grains with salty sweetness. Lunch specials are particularly inspired, including diced chicken with chile garlic sauce, Thai basil, and a fried egg. Embracing the neighborhood, Phadungsil has even put together serious brunch plates like Thai crepes stuffed with duck confit and Thai-style fried chicken over french toast.
9. Awadh, (2588 Broadway, 646-861-3604) Awadh, a smartly appointed restaurant from chef/owner Gaurav Anand of the celebrated Mughlai restaurant Moti Mahal Delux, champions North Indian cooking. Most impressive are the slow-simmered “dum pukht” dishes, made famous in the city of Lucknow, which have found a home in the bi-level dining room. Some of the chef’s greatest hits, like sublimely moist cream-cheese-marinated murgh tikka chicken, make an appearance, but coconut shrimp curry and lamb biryani cooked in a handi (a squat Indian crockpot) showcase the regional style best. Anand installed ex-Daniel sommelier John Slover to consult on a European-heavy wine list of varietals robust enough to stand up to such intense flavors.
8. Gray’s Papaya, (2090 Broadway, 212-799-0243) The sole remaining location of a cultish, legendary New York hot dog chain — and an offshoot of Upper East Side original Papaya King (which opened in 1932) — this 24-hour fast-food mecca serves a tremendous tube steak. Mustard and sauerkraut’s our go-to, though everything from chili, cheese, and tomato-spiked onion sauces are available. The eponymous papaya drink has a beguiling, almost generically “tropical” flavor, though it’s hard to pass up, thanks to nostalgia. Forget white truffles and Barolo, a snappy Gray’s Papaya frankfurter with a frothy papaya juice is the city’s true food and beverage pairing.
7. Barney Greengrass, (541 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-724-4707) Uptown’s answer to Russ & Daughters, Greengrass opened up shop a few years before the Houston Street darling. Gary Greengrass deals in old-world hospitality, preserving (with an equal amount of vigor) traditions as much as his sumptuous smoked fish and deli meats. Fish is the deli’s calling card, and no visit is complete without a taste of Nova Scotia salmon, buttery smoked sturgeon, or paprika-laced sable. Each slice yields with luxurious softness, sporting mild smoke and saline richness. Such luxury comes at a price, but it’s worth the puffed-up admission for this spectacle of old New York wonderment.
6. Saiguette, (935 Columbus Avenue, 212-866-6888) Find beastly banh mi on locally baked bread at this tiny corner shop on upper Columbus Avenue, where locals come for excellent Vietnamese food at reasonable prices. Pho achieves admirable depth thanks to an inspired mix of animal parts including beef eye round, brisket, shin, tripe, and tendon. And don’t overlook rich curry laksa with chicken or shrimp, and red curry chicken folded with sticky rice and steamed in banana leaves. Lunch patrons get 10 percent off listed menu prices automatically.
5. Flor de Mayo, (484 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-787-3388) Of the remaining Chino-Latino restaurants that once flourished in this neighborhood, this bright, kitschy diner is the most consistent. The menu highlights several Latin American cuisines, mining for dishes like bronzed Peruvian rotisserie chicken and Hong Kong-style crispy ribs covered in house-made sweet-and-sour sauce. Squid ink fried rice bridges the gap between the two cuisines, but most people stick to traditional dishes like lomo saltado. Balanced, fruity sangria and strong, generously portioned Polynesian cocktails round out the experience.
4. Sal & Carmine’s, (2671 Broadway, 212-663-7651) This family-owned pizzeria has been slinging some of the city’s best cheese-and-sauce-topped bread for over 50 years. Founded in 1959 by Sal and Carmine Malanga, the shop’s now run by Carmine and Sal’s grandson, Luciano Gaudiosi. We could wax poetic about the towers of pizza boxes stacked high, Carmine’s no-bullshit attitude, and the shop’s resistance to delivery, but the parlor’s success could easily be predicated on its product alone. Yeasty dough bakes to a terra-cotta brown underneath, which complements a helping of aged mozzarella. Completing the picture is the pizzeria’s bold sauce, which has a concentrated sweetness and tang that bolsters everything it touches.
3. Jean-Georges, (1 Central Park West, 212-299-3900) Surely one of the grandest rooms in town, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Nouveau French stunner has reigned as an extraordinary dining experience for nearly two decades. Although its three-course prix fixe and two-course lunch options have risen in price, the latter remains a solid deal for sampling this level of cooking from such an influential chef at a relative discount. As much its own restaurant as it is a less expensive sibling to Vongerichten’s flagship, Nougatine won’t disappoint if the main event is short on space. Still, nothing beats the original.
2. Dovetail/Telepan, (103 West 77th Street, 212-362-3800)/(72 West 69th Street, 212-580-4300) Choosing between the high-minded, vegetable and greenmarket-centric cooking at Dovetail and Telepan feels like choosing between parents as a child of sustainable, artisanal divorce. Both New American restaurants hold a Michelin star, and both feel classic and comfortable while providing top-notch, beautiful food and pinpointed service. They’re similar in genetic makeup, but each place stays true to its chef’s vision. However, since we might as well make this metaphor even more uncomfortable, while both Bill Telepan and John Fraser hold special places in our city’s dining scene, we’d have to give weekends to Dovetail — the $32 four-course brunch is one of the better dining deals in the city, and especially welcome in this zip code.
1. Bustan, (487 Amsterdam Avenue, 212-595-5050) Chef Efi Nahon, formerly of midtown Middle Eastern favorite Taboon, expands upon that cuisine at this colorful Upper West Side restaurant. Painting with a broad Mediterranean brush, Nahon uses a taboon oven to add char to octopus and a browned top to lamb cooked under pastry crust in a terra-cotta baking dish. Olive wood chips perfume everything that exits the custom-built furnace. Desserts offer a chance to try something new, like the Levantine cheese pastry kanafeh, or silan, a kind of bizarre sundae composed of shredded halva, sweet cream gelato, crispy rice, and candied nuts.