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Jul 10, 2008 10:36 AM

Eating without the din near Columbia University?


I'm spending the summer not far from Columbia Univeristy. The good news is I have a gorgeous neighborhood! The bad news is I've got to eat out two or three times a week, and I've got to be able to converse during dinner. Plus, what would really be nice is to find some restaurants where whoever is cooking food understands food or cooking -- or something!!! I have the feeling if I looked into most of the kitchens around here I'd find literature majors or law students with summer jobs, indifferently following a cheat sheet.

Anyway, the priorites are:



FOOD I CAN EAT A COUPLE OF TIMES A WEEK. (I can't eat foie gras, or fried chicken, incendiary sauces three times a week, for example.)

Some places that have been recommended that I'd like your opinion about:

La Mirabelle

Some places I've already tried and don't want to go back

Havana Central
Community Food & Grill

I ate at Henry's, and while it's a nice space, at those prices I need some menu guidance. The mezza plate I had combined too many flavors that clashed. The hamburger was overdone. What do they prepare well? No point in ordering the pistachio-crusted something if nobody in the kitchen understands making a pistachio crust. (Ditto Community Food & Juice, which I take it is really a brunch place, and I was there for dinner. But the place is just too jammed up.)

Any other ideas beyond what I've mentioned? I'm not afraid to go to Harlem, but soul food is not everyday cooking for me. I already like the grilled tapas and salads (dressing on the side) at Floridita's Tapas on 125th, and Pisticci on La Salle has some nice items -- but both get crowded and noisy on weekends, so i'm looking for more.

Can you recommend civilized dining spots near Columbia? . I'm curious to know if there are any old neighborhood haunts around that I'm missing. I'll pass on mediocre Chinese, but I can do Chino-Cubano if the seating isn't cramped and the noise is low. I think what I'm really looking for is a nice, quiet owner-run place that can cook for me and a companion when I can't cook at home.


PS: Do you know if Terrace in the Sky is okay with weeknight drop-ins who order a couple of appetizers or just an entree? Can you eat at the bar there?

PPS: I sometimes long longingly into Tom's -- not because I've ever been a Seinfeld fan, but because of all those empty booths at dinnertime. Is there anything edible in there?

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  1. I'm also looking for opinions about

    Bello Sguardo
    Bistro Ten 18
    China de Puebla
    Indian Cafe
    Lemongrass Grill

    I pulled this list off a Time Out search for "quiet, conversation friendly.'" Any opinions?

    I realize the food may not be exciting, but if it's fundamentally fresh and prepared with some care, and served in a peaceful space, great.

    I left Toast off the list because I assume it's just a sandwich place, and when I passed it, it looked like a beer hangout. Did I get the wrong impression?

    Hope somebody can help. Maybe I'll try a search for "romantic" restaurants on the UWS and see what that turns up.


    5 Replies
    1. re: summerUWS2008

      Acqua--can get pretty loud when it is crowded, though during the summer the sidewalk seating actually keeps the inside pretty quiet. The food is definitely not exciting, but it is a pretty solid neighborhood option.
      Alouette--pretty quiet, especially if you get a table upstairs. And the food is lovely, though again, not earth-shattering.

      Luzia's--I tend to find this place is always quieter than I expect, but only because it is never very crowded. I cannot entirely speak to the food, since I have only eaten the vegetarian/fish dishes, which have been pretty greasy, though I do enjoy the sangria. And they serve this bacalao spread for bread that is delicious.

      Regional on 99th and Bway is usually pretty quiet, as I recall. I have been disappointed the last few times I have gone, foodwise, but I still enjoy a glass of wine and some appetizers. And while I have never been to PicNic for dinner, I imagine it would fit the bill also--I think it is around 103 and Bway.

      1. re: PetiteSyrah

        Thanks very much for those detailed responses. I'll put Alouette on the short list, and i'll look up the other places.

        If a Portugese place can't make good fish dishes, I think I better skip it.

      2. re: summerUWS2008

        Definitely try out La Mirabelle. It's not exciting but the food is basically good (putting aside the side vegetables on any dish). There are a couple of newer bistros, with some outdoor space, on Columbus in the 80's (Citron and Cassis) which I haven't tried. Zeytin, though the prices have risen sharply in the past year or so, might also work for you.

        1. re: amstrgy

          I have always been curious about La Mirabelle - I actually lived in that building before it was there - but we never seem to remember to go there. Any dishes that they do particularly well?

          1. re: amstrgy

            go in with low expectations to BISTRO CASSIS -- it was entirely mediocre back when it first opened for a brief time near me on w14th st. maybe they got their act together?

        2. I hated Metisse, not good food or service and kind of small for conversing. There is a thread here on that area with lots of recommendations. There is an Italian place on Bway very near Metisse. I don't remember the name but the space is large and comfortable.
          I used to like Cafe Pertutti on 113th for brunch. It seem to have changed hands so I don't know now. Bistro 1018 was good the few times I was there.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Hobsonby

            Thanks! Do you have a link to that thread or know what search terms might work? I tried "columbia' but not much turned up. I'll try Morningside Heights.

            Too bad about Metisse! I hope the Italian you're referring to isn't Campo at 111th or so -- where I took one bite of an overcooked linguine bathed in pancetta-lard and could not eat it. I left the whole plate of it sitting there. It has a very large back room, and had I found the food edible, I would have asked them to turn the music down, or at least switch to something other than disco. Some people appear to like the thin-crust pizza there, however, which I didn't try.

            I don't need brunch. Any menu recommendations for dinner at Bistro 1018?

          2. A recent wave of improvements to the UWS dining scene has been slow to creep northward. I recently closed the book on three years as a Columbia grad student during which I struggled painfully to find decent chow (let alone chow which meets your parameters).

            -Thai Market is a nice exception. I recommend it unequivocally.
            -Indus Valley and Max are good for the neighborhood.
            -Bistro Ten 18 is competent but seriously overpriced.
            -Cafe Swish has great service and is acceptable in a pinch if not a tad uninspired.
            -The Columbia Faculty House (just east of and behind the Law School, ask for directions as it's hard to find) serves cheap and decent buffet lunches on weekdays in a nice old townhouse dining room. No CUID required. Not sure what their summer hours are, though.
            -Trusted friends recommend "A" (aka A Restuarant and Wine Room or something) on Columbus, but I never made it over there. BYOB.
            -Walk down Morningside Park (caveat: park closed after dark) for CH Lower Harlem faves. I used to enjoy strolls to Amy Ruth's and Africa Kine.

            Skip Terrace in the Sky unless you are AARP-eligible and enjoy cooking techniques and ambience from the era of your birth. Lemongrass Grill is a consistently horrible chain (again, in this category, Thai Market is the move). You will not be able to converse privately, nor eat proper food, at Amsterdam Cafe, Radio Perfecto, Hamilton Deli, Strokos, the Heights, or really anywhere within a three-block radius of campus (with Cafe Swish possibly excepted).

            Good luck. You'll need it!

            6 Replies
            1. re: D...DF

              Thank you for the copious information -- and the wish for luck! I do feel I need it.

              I've heard Thai Market is good but cramped and noisy. Wrong? I can converse there?

              I've also heard "A" is tiny. I'll walk by.

              I do enjoy cooking techniques from the era of my birth--actually from BEFORE my birth (I spend most of my time in Europe,) Even outside the UWS, I've had so much bad "imaginatively combined flavors" in NYC over the past few weeks, I'll never complain about a so-called boring menu again.

              I've mostly used Swish for simple take out, like noodle soup, because when I pick in the window, it looks like people are racing through their dinners, and the staff is racing around, too. Also, a lot of the offerings looked sugary.

              Thanks again!

              1. re: D...DF

                faculty house is closed until fall 2009

                1. re: lauralb

                  And even if it was open, as someone who has had to eat dinner at Faculty House a couple of times a week during some stretches, it can get a bit tiresome, even though the dinner buffet is basically good. I thought its best years in recent history were when Joe Ciampi was managing it in the late 1990s (we had our wedding in Faculty House while he was there), but he quickly moved on to bigger and better things.

                  1. re: lauralb


                    Thanks very much for digging up that recent thread. Very helpful.

                  2. re: D...DF

                    The Columbia Faculty House was closed for rennovations all this year. I don't think that they are open now.

                  3. I wholeheartedly second Thai Market. Ouest (French) is great, Spiga (Italian) is very good, tho seating can be cramped. Africa Kine is good for Senegalese home cooking. Cafe du Soleil is good for outdoor seating, an ok wine list, and good roast chicken and frites, ok coq au vin. Flor de Mayo has decent roast chicken.

                    Terrace is fine with weeknight drop ins. It's always empty. (I think the food is completely mediocre.) Don't know about eating at the bar; haven't seen one.


                    Turkuaz -- decent. good bread, doner, and mucver; everything else is just ok.
                    Metisse -- not as good as cafe du soleil
                    Lemongrass Grill -- bad
                    Luzia's -- some items decent, others bad
                    North-west -- lovely wine list, good food, not at all loud
                    Savanna -- mediocre

                    9 Replies
                    1. re: cimui

                      Faculty house has been closed for months and will be closed for probably another year. All of that above is true about the Terrace (unless it is graduation time and then it is mobbed and you can't get in.) That being said, I can't believe that if you are nice and good natured, the staff wouldn't welcome you and your dinner partner just for a quite drink and something to sustain yourself -- plus a lovely view. It is certainly quiet.

                      1. re: elizabeth2929

                        Thanks, elizabeth. I have a dim recollections of being taken to Terrace in the Sky on 3 separate occasions in my life, and can't remember what I ate, although the last time (which was last summer, come to think of it), I remember thinking it wasn't as boring as I expected it be -- but I still can't remember what i ate.

                        I'm good natured! I want to be loved by a restaurant and taken care of.

                      2. re: cimui

                        cimul, I had heard Thai Market was good but too noisy and cramped for conversation. I'll take a look at those other menus.

                        Is the outdoor seating at Cafe du Soleil on B'way? I can't take those trucks when I'm trying to eat.

                        Otherwise, this looks like a bleak summer for eating out!

                        Thanks again!

                        1. re: summerUWS2008

                          thai market is not cramped -- esp. not on a week night. when it first opened, you had to wait 1/2 an hr or more for a table, but no longer. most of the time, when i drop in with friends (generally around 8ish), it's empty enough for us to pick our table and far from loud. weekends probably still get busy.

                          outdoor seating at cafe du soleil is on b'way. there's a decent amount of space between you and the street. don't think there are too many garden patio dining areas around these parts.

                          i'm curious where you're moving to the uws from.

                          1. re: cimui


                            I spend almost all my time in Europe, around the Mediterranean, mainly in Italy. I'm not moving here. I'm subletting for the summer. I used to live in Manhattan, but i lived on the East Side (in the same hundreds!) and spent almost all my time midtown. My recollections were that is was not this tough to find nice places to have nice meals when you needed it -- although I have to say that since living along the mediterranean, where fresh, seasonal-only food is the norm, classically prepared, it's tough for me to warm up to what New Yorkers are chasing in terms of chow. It reminds me of a kinda wannabe Barcelona, without the access to really great ingredients. And even in Spain, I find that Barcelona seems to be ripping people off with a reputation for "creative" when the food in places like San Sebastian, Andalucia and the best of Madrid will knock your socks off for flavor. If you've had perfect gazpacho, watermelon gazpacho just tastes like a failed experiment.

                            Also, outside of London -- which still has terrible food! Don't fall for the press releases! -- I can't think of anyplace else where people judge a restaurant because of the decor, or avoid a restaurant because the other patrons aren't their demographic. Where I've been living, people only go out to enjoy the company of their friends and/or family and eat well. When they sit down, they're there for the night. There is no second seating.

                            I've heard so many good things about Thai Market, I'll try to head there on an early weekday sometime soon.

                            I think there is a garden behind Symposium. (See my note below about dandelion greens.)

                            Thanks again!

                        2. re: cimui

                          Just wanted to add a couple more recs. (I was doing a speed posting, before, and should've thought it out, more--sorry!)

                          gabriella's (mexican, lovely outdoor patio and excellent tequilla list)
                          cafe con leche (dominican / cuban)
                          miss mamie's spoonbread (southern food -- but might be too heavy for everyday and the decor is pretty much cafeteria style, if that bothers you)
                          charm thai is also not bad for grilled dishes, though not nearly as good as thai market
                          zeytin is about as good as turkuaz, but is strong on different items

                          1. re: cimui

                            Thanks for the extra recs! Decor is unimportant. I love good tequilas and outdoor patios. I also really like Turkish food (the one place on the Med I never get to!). I'll track down Thai Charm.

                            I saw cafe con leche from across the street, but it looked so tiny, I didn't look any closer. I'll check it out.

                            1. re: summerUWS2008

                              on second thought, cafe con leche will probably be too greasy for you to eat everyday. they sometimes have good mofongo (it depends on how recently it was made), and good cubanos, but a lot of the menu is probably not what you're looking for. (i.e. the paella is terrible.)

                              kefi (greek) is loud and cramped, but it has excellent food (lovely, tender grilled octopus, veggie-heavy small plates made with good ingredients). if you happen to dine during off hours for new york city, you may want to drop in. it sounds like your kind of thing.

                              skip the appetizers at charm thai. but order all the appetizers (and skewers) at thai market -- esp. the daikon radish cake appetizer and grilled calamari.

                              since you mentioned northwest and terrace in the sky, and a need for 'civilized' dining places, i'll throw out a couple of recs in this category. none of these places is right by columbia, but they are all within walking distance or a short subway ride -- about as far from columbia at northwest:

                              1. ouest (which i've already mentioned) consistently serves some of the best food in the city, most seats have lots of elbow room (try to get a banquette). the space and service are friendly, bistro-relaxed, and fine for either everyday dining if you can handle the price point or a special occasion. i think they do sweetbreads and red meats exceptionally well. the fresh baguette served wtih dinner comes to you hot out of the oven.

                              2. dovetail (new american, continental influenced) also has pretty good food, impeccable service. it's a bit more staid of a dining room. portions are smallish, desserts are good (sometimes a bit weird).

                              3. 81 (new american / continental influenced... we should come up with a new term for places like these... euroamerican?) -- i like this place, but you should know that it gets mixed reviews, esp. from people who say the food is overpriced. if you're coming from europe, you may be less worried about that, given the weak dollar. food is sometimes oversalted, but overall, preparations are consistent, the dishes use good ingredients, and the chef knows how to keep things flavorful, but simple. i recently had wonderful dayboat scallops there.

                              4. telepan (euroamerican greenmarket). a lot of people love this restaurant and find it inventive. i'm not sure why, but i just don't love this restaurant in the same way others seem to. i like the chickpea pancakes and found the house smoked brook trout pretty good, but in general, think the food is less interesting than reading the menu would suggest. i think i also hold the dowdy dining room and indifferent service against them, unfortunately. desserts are weak.

                              5. Compass (new american) -- haven't been recently. liked it in the past, but should let others who go more frequently than i do review it.

                              6. Sushi of Gari -- I have never had good fish, here, but i have also never sat in front of gari-san, himself. there are chowhounds whose opinions i trust, who say that the fish is actually excellent if you're seated in front of gari-san and do a true omakase (not a set menu). s. of g might be worth your time.

                              1. re: cimui


                                Thanks so much!

                                Ouest gets sterling reviews from everyone that i have talked to. I suspect I would need a reservation, even on weekday nights, but there are sometimes that I need to plan for eating out, and thus do make reservations.

                                Coming from europe, not only do prices look cheaper, everything tastes undersalted! Dayboat scallops are great when they're left alone.

                                Thanks again for these copious descriptions. They really do help.

                        3. Dinosaur BBQ is not a couple times a week place and it can get very crowded and noisy, but the tables are spaced enough that you can converse. But most important, the food is quite good and reasonably priced. Don't miss their gigantic meaty wings. Great beer and bourbon selections as well.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: bobjbkln

                            Thanks for the info on Dinsaur BBQ. You're right: It's not a couple of times a week place. I really need a decent bistro, although I am so fond of eating non-European food when I'm not in Europe-- I just wish more of those restaurants were in bigger spaces.