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"Game Changer" restaurants for an NYC trip

Hi, there.

We're two SF 'hounds who are coming to NY for 5 nights. We have a decent budget and are looking for "game changer" restaurants that are doing exciting, delicious food, interesting presentation, or something that's unique to the NY scene.

Neither of us have been to NY in many years, and definitely not on someone else's (big) dime.

One thing that's important to me is that we don't have dinner at places where we could be having the same dishes in SF or LA. (eg., I looked at Spotted Pig's menu, and it looks a lot like what's going on here, but maybe I'm wrong?).

Here's the list we're working from. Thoughts? And advice on which could be as good of an experience at lunch?

Eleven Madison
Momofuku Ko
Le Bernardin
Red Rooster
Del Posto

Thanks so much--

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  1. Others may disagree, but I would suggest skipping wd~50 and Le Bernardin. The Bay Area has a number of restaurants that deliver more exciting and more delicious food: Coi, benu, Atelier Crenn, Meadowood etc.

    There's nothing like EMP on either coast, so whether it's for lunch or dinner, it should be a treat (though I prefer lunch given the lighting and $70 markdown on the tasting menu).

    3 Replies
    1. re: degustingdiary

      Super interesting points, thanks. Really glad for the confirmation on EMP, though--

      1. re: degustingdiary

        Meadowood is more exciting than wd~50? I clearly ate at a different restaurant.


        1. re: degustingdiary

          I've been a long-time lurker here, but I made an account just to say please please don't skip WD~50. It's not just molecular/modernist gastronomy, it's really Dufresne's genius you're experiencing, and there's no other restaurant like it.

        2. EMP is amazing but you MUST book at 9am Eastern 28 days (4 weeks including the current day) in advance. Be prepared to get only an early or late time for dinner, especially on a Fri or Sat. They only do lunch on weekdays not weekends, and are closed Sundays.

          If you're into molecular gastronomy, WD-50 is basically the only game in town. So it depends how much you like modernist cuisine and how often you might visit Chicago or DC or Europe.

          I like Ko but I think for a visitor already doing so much high end dining, maybe do Ssam Bar instead for a change of pace.

          Le Bernardin IMO is quite subtle and you really need to love fish and all seafood to appreciate it. It's not like you'll have a bad meal there but if you're into game changers, and bold flavors, and experimental cuisines, maybe it's not the best choice. They only do lunch on weekdays, and are closed Sundays.

          Similarly for Del Posto, I think an upscale rustic place like Locanda Verde or Babbo better represents the spirit of NYC. Their weekday lunch prix fixe, however, is a good value, given the amuse and petit fours that you receive.

          There's also a lot of exciting, delicious, interesting food happening below the high end--many chefs are now doing creative stuff without being formal. Momofuku Ssam Bar, Empellon Cocina, Minetta Tavern, Fatty Cue, Recette, Txikito, Public, etc.

          Shopsin's, Russ & Daughters, Katz's Deli, Gray's Papaya, Sigmund's Pretzel are also only in NY experiences/foods.

          See also:

          10 Replies
          1. re: kathryn

            You always post such great stuff, but why do you mention Gray's Papaya? Do you like their stuff much? I don't, and it therefore doesn't matter to me that it's a "real New York place."

            That's my only demurral on your post.

            1. re: Pan

              Their hot dogs are OK, I like their juices, and yes, it's an "only in NY" type of experience.

              1. re: kathryn

                I thought the trend started in Florida.

                1. re: kathryn

                  I find their hotdogs nothing special and don't like their papaya drink.

                  1. re: Pan

                    That douche Bourdain is always talking Gray's. I lived in the Village for years and ate at the 8th street location once, and that was more than enough.

                    1. re: Worldwide Diner

                      I thought Bourdain loved Papaya King on 86th Street & Third Ave.

                      1. re: ellenost

                        Maybe it's Papaya King. Not sure if there's much difference.

                        1. re: ellenost

                          When he lived in the Village, it was Greys, now he's on the Upper West Side I believe it's now Papaya King.
                          Basically the same thing except for the onions.

                      2. re: Pan

                        I worked across the street from Gray's for years and have consumed scores of their "recession beater specials" and while there's nothing particularly special about them,they sure came in handy after a night drinking before I hit the trains.

                2. To say that WD-50 is similar to Coi, Benu, etc, because they all use modern techniques and have playful presentation is a bit like saying that Manresa and Del Posto are similar because they both use ovens and saute pans. Is there anything in Crenn's flavor profile that hews too close to Dufresne's? No. Both chefs are, in a sense, non-regional. They embrace - flavor-wise - many different influences. They're completely different experiences in the mouth, even if both make foams out of liver or turn halibut into lightbulbs or whatever.

                  Wylie is quite unique - as are Crenn and the rest. Each perhaps tips the hat to certain traditions (in Wylie's case, often the flavors of NYC - bagels, pastrami on rye, eggs benedict, Chinese, etc) but each has their own voice, moreso than you could say for, say, two Italian chefs from opposite coasts.


                  The rest of the list:

                  EMP: a keeper. One of the best in NYC.

                  Ko: a keeper, if you can get a rez. If not, take a night to go to Momofuku Ssam Bar. You'll have a wait for a table, more than likely, but you can have a drink at their new bar (Booker & Dax) next door while you wait. The food is excellent, the vibe is fun.

                  Le Bernardin: I'm a little less-than-enthused with Le B. It's certainly not BAD by anyone's metric, though I find the service a bit stuffy - but hey, that's Midtown. With all respect to Ripert and the kitchen, who do as good a job as is humanly possible at what they do - I just don't find what they do terribly interesting. I'm just a little (personally) bored by Haute French is all, I think. That said, of the "big three" French names (along with Daniel & Jean-Georges) I suppose they're the best. Maybe. It's not Daniel, at least.

                  Red Rooster - good, not great. Honestly, I'd go to Samuelsson's old haunt, Aquavit, which has become - and I know this is sacrilege to some to say - better than when he was there. I don't know if you have and high-end Nordic food out there, but they've been excellent of late. They definitely had a "down" period after Samuelsson left and before Jernmark, the current chef, found his personal groove, and sadly that's the period when Sifton at the NYT revisited them. The room is a little stiff (those Scandinavians love their right angles for some reason...) but better than it used to be. (It used to be in the back, with no windows...)

                  Another Nordic options is ACME - very buzzy, hot place right now, especially on the weekends - ex-chef from Noma in the kitchen. Simpler, more rustic food, but pretty damn excellent.

                  Del Posto: It's great, but I'm of the opinion that if you can get a rez at Babbo, they're the standard-bearer. DP is a more "refined" experience, yes, but Babbo is a NYC treasure. And I just like the food more.

                  You also might want to consider Corton and Bouley as possible alternates to any of the above.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: sgordon

                    Agreed on the Del Posto/Babbo point, espeically now that you can get lunch at Babbo (and reservations are not hard to come by).

                  2. If you like light and pristine seafood preps. Le Bernardin would be a great choice. Try the lounge for lunch. They serve the full menu there as well as the bar menu and the City Harvest three course special for $45. It's also less formal than the main dining room and you can pretty much walk in at any time and get a seat at the bar or one of the lounge tables.

                    Del Posto is good too. Momofuku Ko is interesting but I think you have a lot of high end asian-influenced restaurants in the Bay Area.

                    For something unique try Corton. Picholine is also wonderful, especially if you like cheese.

                    I'd skip Red Rooster.

                    1. Forgive me but I see no "Game Changers" in the restaurant line up , just more admittedly excellent but safe dining.
                      Game Changers? Fatty Que,Minetta Tavern,ShriPraPhai,Purple Yam,Hill country,Katz, just to name a few.
                      I'm going to take some flack for this, but while the OP's line up{except Red Rooster} is most likely the creme de la creme of NYC dining, they can hardly be considered as contemporary "Game Changers"just more established dining for elderly, affluent, folks who wishes not so much to be out of their comfort zone but experience a Roman Holiday.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Duppie

                        How are Fatty Cue, Minetta Tavern, ShriPraPhai, Purple Yam, Hill Country, Katz game changers? These restaurants serve traditional comfort food for the most part.

                        1. re: Duppie

                          I agree with this.... But, at the same time, I think the NY-SF dining scenes are remarkably similar. I don't think any of the places you named are particularly game-changing either. It's funny that the OP singled out the Spotted Pig as the last time I was in SF, I didn't find much nose-to-tail-style cooking, particularly not on par with Bloomfield's.

                          My overall recommendation: don't look for game changers. Just look for the best in class that the city has to offer. EMP, Ko, Babbo, Spotted Pig, Fatty Cue, Minetta Tavern (not my favorite for food, but very New York), wd-50, Empellon, Pok Pok, Acme, and so on...

                          1. re: loratliff

                            "I didn't find much nose-to-tail-style cooking, particularly not on par with Bloomfield's."

                            Incanto would count. It's Italian, instead of pub influenced, but still known for whole animal dinners. Not my favorite place, but I think Bloomfield is overrated too.

                        2. As several others have already suggested, I would nix Bernadin from your list. Also agree that Babbo will be more interesting than Del Posto, if you can get a resy. Atera is also interesting, if you haven't been to his prior restaurant in Portland you may want to look into it. It's received mixed reviews here, but I liked it a lot.

                          I would also consider one or two meals in Brooklyn or Queens.

                          1. I think Michael White's food at Marea and Ai Fioiri is changing the game far more than Batali's. WD-50 and Ko are well worth it. Also, have you considered spots in Brooklyn -- Isa, Roberta's, Allswell etc?

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: chompchomp

                              Just wanted to mention that the chef at Isa left recently, haven't seen many reports since the change.

                              1. re: chompchomp

                                As of right now, the only game that Isa's changing is its own (by jettisoning its forward-looking menu and replacing it with typical American Bistro gruel).

                                1. re: Sneakeater

                                  Eek! American bistro gruel? Darn. Well, the other restaurants I listed are mighty fine.

                              2. EMP and Corton should be #1 and #2 for for "nothing like it on the West Coast." For me, I think I liked Corton's 'style' more, but EMP is definitely the more 'fine' of the two.

                                wd~50 is unique - but I certainly prefer Atelier Crenn for 'mg.'

                                Babbo is not only more interesting than Del Posto, but more delicious and more fun in my opinion.

                                I liked my brunch at Red Rooster - but I'd not call it a 'destination' and I certainly liked Ssam better than Ko for a Chang fix.

                                Other in NY to consider that don't have a SF equal in my opinion: Shopsin's, Daniel, Aldea, and Per Se. Yes I realize TFL is out there - but imo they are very very different restaurants in many ways.


                                11 Replies
                                1. re: uhockey

                                  I cannot believe you just said "SHOPSIN's, Daniel, Aldea, and Per Se..."

                                  1. re: Wilfrid

                                    Actually, I can't believe he said "Shopsin's, DANIEL, Aldea, and Per Se"

                                    1. re: sgordon

                                      There is no "fine French" on par with Daniel in SF (haven't been to Masa, so perhaps I'm missing something there) in my opinion, and certainly not in LA. Cyrus, I guess, is close - but it is quite out of the way and soon to close.


                                      1. re: sgordon

                                        I don't recommend Daniel to anyone who isn't known to the house (but it is just a little bit better than Shopsin's).

                                        1. re: Wilfrid

                                          I wasn't known to the house. They treated me very well.


                                          1. re: uhockey

                                            I think you may underestimate the Daniel organization's media savvy.

                                            1. re: Sneakeater

                                              I understand what you are saying and I've no doubt that may be part of it.


                                            2. re: uhockey

                                              Also, I'll repeat, the difference isn't treatment. It's food. They don't treat strangers badly. But they reserve the good food for people they know.

                                              1. re: Sneakeater

                                                I would disagree - I think it is the treatment. It's always seemed there's two "levels" of service at Daniel - and I know I'm not the only one to notice it. If you're not known to the house (or you don't order three-digit wines, thus becoming "known" rather quickly) you get noticeably stiffer, even at times snootier service.

                                                Also, I think the food's more interesting at Shopsin's.

                                                1. re: sgordon

                                                  Regardless, there is nothing like either of them in SF.


                                        2. re: Wilfrid

                                          Name a place that is MORE New York, and LESS San Francisco than Shopsin's? Maybe Katz's or Russ & Daughters - but beyond that?


                                        1. Empellon Cocina is a very smart suggestion.

                                          1. Alas, I'm a simple visitor to NY. Of your list, I only have an opinion on Del Posto; while somewhat upscale and well executed fare, I feel its not very different than many similar restaurants in almost any city of North America. To me, its more of a stuffy place to impress your grandmother for her birthday rather than a "game-changer".
                                            But then again, I'm more along the lines of Duppie's comments above.

                                            1. I don't think there's anything like the chef's table at Brooklyn fare or Blanca in SF (except for maybe the chef's counter at Saison) and I think they're more of a "game changer" than the restaurants you listed.

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: PorkyBelly

                                                ...but there IS Saison, thus eliminating those two from contention based on the OP's original criteria.


                                                1. re: uhockey

                                                  Even though they're similar I would still pick Brooklyn Fare over Saison.

                                              2. Really appreciate all this input. Based on recs on this thread, the current list is:

                                                Eleven Madison Park
                                                Momofuku Ko (possibly lunch--is that ok?)

                                                On deck:
                                                Ssam Bar
                                                Fatty 'Cue late night

                                                6 Replies
                                                1. re: Fig Newton

                                                  Momofuku Ko is more expensive and much more elaborate at lunch than at dinner. I think they only do lunch a couple days a week, so do keep that in mind. Not sure if some of the really famous perennial dishes (i.e. the foie gras "snow") are served at lunch or if they're just part of the dinner menu...

                                                  Ko, Babbo, and EMP will be the toughest rezzies (Corton & WD shouldn't be too hard, as long as you're doing it around 30 days before) - but that's a good set of backups.

                                                  If you're going to be here over a weekend, you might want to consider Public for brunch - seems like it would be up your alley, very creative (i.e. tea-smoked salmon w/ yuzu hollandaise, blood pudding waffles with foie gras butter, etc.) and a fun, relaxed vibe. They're also a great dinner option for your back-up list. (Not that you need any more confusion by us throwing more names into the blender!)

                                                  1. re: sgordon

                                                    Thanks! Reservations at WD50, Corton and EMP are obtained. Not confident that we're going to keep the Corton res--we're a month out, and I am already feeling fatigue from the idea of that many tasting menus in a week. Though this is a once in a lifetime trip, so I may have to push through that feeling. ;) Thanks for the note about days of the week for Ko lunch ... I didn't notice that previously, and would have been disappointed. We are only going to be in town Sunday night through Friday, so that knocks out Public. Though that sounds amazing.

                                                    1. re: Fig Newton

                                                      Call Babbo at precisely 10am Eastern time one month in advance to the numerical date. For example, today is the 23rd of July, and at 10am, they began taking reservations for the 23rd of August.

                                                      1. re: Fig Newton

                                                        Public does offer a "Sunday Supper" on Sundays - 5 off-menu courses for $50, a total steal, they use it to try out new ideas that might find their way to the regular menu. That said, it's another tasting menu - no choices for the courses, etc, and there's no way to find out beforehand what the menu will be - so with so many other meals in that style already on your docket, it might not be what you're looking for.

                                                      2. re: sgordon

                                                        Yes, the famous shaved foie gras torchon is served at both lunch and diner at Ko. I've started preferring the dinner to the lunch at Ko since the exquisite soft cooked egg with onion soubise, caviar and fingerling potato chips is served only at dinner. Reservations are a bit easier to obtain for lunch than dinner. Lunch is $175 and takes 3 hours and is available only Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and dinner is $125 and takes 2 hours and is available 7 days a week. Hoping to get a dinner reservation at Ko soon.

                                                        1. re: sgordon

                                                          ...Public's Brunch is good stuff.

                                                          And the Foie snow is on the lunch menu - the egg is not.


                                                      3. Atera!

                                                        Also - if you keep at it, it's possible to get a reservation at most places, if sometimes at inconvenient times.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: wea74

                                                          Definitely Atera!
                                                          Daniel is stuffy and lame--the food has fallen off majorly.
                                                          Del Posto is good but not great and vastly overpriced. Would recommend Casa Lever over it, but nothing cutting edge either.

                                                          I actually really like Le Bernadin too, I don't think many places seafood places on the west coast compete at this level.

                                                          Acme is great food albeit not a game changer...
                                                          Takashi is a unique take on Yaki-niku I haven't seen anywhere else.
                                                          Kin Shop style Thai food is very NY.
                                                          Red Farm

                                                        2. Katz's is probably more unique to New York than any of these places. You can't get great pastrami in SF. You also can't get great smoked fish like you can get at Barney Greengrass.

                                                          Another thing that's unique to New York is New York cheesecake. I was just talking about this in another thread. You can get S&S Cheesecake at Zabar's, but it might be a whole pie, and perhaps you can get slices at Eileen's, a much-beloved place I haven't been to yet. Someone will know. And black & whites also don't exist, or aren't anything decent, outside of New York. There are various kinds of New York desserts , and if you are interested in them, search out threads covering them or/and put up a query. I have a local good black & white place (Moishe's, which also makes excellent rugelach and mandelbrot), but I recall a more expensive place on the Upper East Side (I forget their name) is said to be the best in Manhattan.

                                                          SF has some pretty good pizza, but you might also want to try one of the newer pizzerias here. As with most other things New York, Kathryn can give you a good list. I frequent South Brooklyn Pizza, but that's because it's right near me and sells excellent slices. Co, (which I haven't been to yet), is one of the most lauded pizza restaurants in Manhattan right now.

                                                          So basically, what I'm saying is that even on an expense account, if you want uniquely New York food, don't do all high-end stuff. A lot of that is some variety of international buttery/creamy cuisine. Not WD-50, clearly - that's avant garde - and not the Momofuku restaurants - they serve eclectic gourmet cuisine. But is Le Bernardin so unique? For that matter, is Del Posto? I had one meal there, and it was not that great. If you want high-end Italian food, there are several places that are likely to do a better job for you. I don't know how unique Ai Fiori is, but I doubt you can get that quality of high-end Northern Italian in SF, and I do find their cuisine creative.

                                                          By the way, I liked my meal at Red Rooster a lot more than the others seemed to have liked theirs. I thought it was great, fascinating food, and great cocktails, too, but since you have limited time, you may want to look elsewhere.

                                                          9 Replies
                                                          1. re: Pan

                                                            Re: pizza, don't forget SF now has Una Pizza Napoletana, which is some pretty A+ stuff. Also, I find Michael White's cooking at Marea and Ai Fiori not just high-end Italian, but imaginative and delicious.

                                                            1. re: chompchomp

                                                              I did forget about Una Pizza Napoletana moving to SF. I haven't been to Marea, but Ai Fiori is currently my favorite restaurant in New York.

                                                            2. re: Pan

                                                              The OP seems to have vanished so we may never know where they ended up.

                                                              I think "game changer" restaurants are different from "only in NY" type restaurants, so I found it to be a bit of a complicated request.

                                                              1. re: kathryn

                                                                I agree. I believe the OP was not so much looking for culinary "Game Changers" but to confirm and add to their list of tried and true established trophy restaurant portfolio.
                                                                Which is fine....They had limited time if not limited funds and wished a New York culinary experience and hopefully their wish was fulfilled.
                                                                But "Game Changing"? Perhaps next time.

                                                                I look forward to their review and hope it adds to the experience.

                                                              2. re: Pan

                                                                "You can't get great pastrami in SF."

                                                                Sure you can, and you're better off in LA for it than NY anyway.

                                                                1. re: sugartoof

                                                                  Dem's fighting words Partner............

                                                                  1. re: sugartoof

                                                                    You can get great pastrami in SF? Where?

                                                                    1. re: Pan

                                                                      A bit off topic but Robert's Corned Meats as a provider, and Wise Sons is copying Miles End approach.

                                                                  2. re: Pan

                                                                    > A lot of that is some variety of international buttery/creamy cuisine.

                                                                    This. It is so true and it bothers me.