one classic nyc dinner experience
I'm a former New Yorker (9 years in Seattle) bringing a friend to NYC for her first time ever. We are only going to be there for 3 days (4 nights) and would like to have one nice dinner to round out the Katz's-soup dumplings-pizza-falafel-garlic knots-cocktails. I'm thinking more on the classic, long timer and still fresh side than hip-eat-here-now. My initial thoughts were Po, Da Umberto, One if by Land, etc. Am I heading in a good direction? Suggestions are hugely appreciated!
You are heading in the wrong direction - as if you needed one more poster to tell you that.
Lots of great ideas from the NYC 'hounds here. I wouldn't waste a meal at any of the places you list, and I live here so opportunity cost is lower.
My suggestions for NYC 'classics' that are not just about nostalgia but actually serve great food:
Blue Ribbon Brasserie
We are going in May, and the dinner will be either Sunday or Monday (arrive Newark 5:30pm Saturday, leave Tuesday afternoon). I lived in NY (bklyn mostly) for 11 years, and moved to Seattle 9 years ago. I've been to most of these places (and I suppose it was when they were new-ish) and have a lot of warm fuzzy memories of them, and I suppose that is part of the reason I want to do a "classic" dinner... retracing the footsteps and introducing someone to all the reasons NYC is amazing.
Also, in response to Sneakeater's "Da Umberto: OK, but why travel to go there?", while Seattle and Portland have amazing restaurants, there isn't a great deal of what might fall into classic old school east coast Italian, and having grown up on all price ranges of that, I miss it a lot.
If you have good memories of Da Umberto, you should go there by all means.
But "classic old school east coast Italian" is so dead in New York, as a genre, that a new restaurant, Carbone's, is getting a tremendous amount of attention for self-consciously recreating it (in the space of an old, not very good, "classic east coast Italian" place that was forced to close by a rent hike).
There are lots of remaining examples, but they're mainly hangers-on that are fading fast and are essentially outside what you might call the NYC culinary discourse.
I know you didn't want anyplace "new", but you really might want to try one of the more modern Italian places that have supplanted the old-school ones. Ciano is very nice. Dell'anima is much lower-key, but is consistently very good. Perla, if you can stand the noise (and can get in).
(Somebody else can recommend Marea. I just don't get that place.)
Minetta Tavern, even if it shares the name with it's previous tenant, is decidedly not a "classic long-timer" (though I'm sure it will be, in time) and was until very recently the very definition of a "hip-eat-here-now" establishment - maybe it's a year or so removed from that status, but much closer to it than "old-timer" for sure.
Po is fine, if a bit generic. As someone else pointed out, had Batali not cut his teeth there, I'm not sure anyone would ever mention it.
OIBL - bleh.
I'd consider these long-timers:
Balthazar (always a classic)
Aquavit (very fresh since the new chef took over a few years ago)
Luger's / Keen's (not really "fresh" but not exactly stale, either...)
Union Square Cafe
Ssam Bar is a classic to me, but probably not the kind of place OP was looking for...
Gramercy vs. Babbo....
My experience is that GT exists to make customers happy while Babbo exists to serve the best food and make the chef happy.
I have been to both places about 5 times. The food at Babbo is outstanding. But ... I don't want loud rock music with my high-end dinner. I don't want to sit next to the slamming kitchen door. I also don't want to get a whiff from the mens' room when that door opens. And I don't want to be condescended to by wait staff. If you are willing to put up with rudeness and some discomfort for outstanding Italian food, go for it.
GT on the other hand, serves very good food although I think it is not quite as stellar as Babbo. But I always leave happy. It's quiet. The staff is gracious without being obsequious.
I've never found the music at Babbo terribly loud, but then I spent a great deal of the late 80s at Slayer and Black Flag concerts. So when people talk about the "loud rock music" and it turns out to be, say, R.E.M. played at a volume you can still converse over - not so much of an effect on me.
No idea about this "slamming kitchen door" business or the whiff of the men's room - seemed to me the closest table to either was a good ten feet away, but I've never been placed in either of those tables, luckily.
I don't think the food is intended to make the chef happy - that's something I'd ascribe more to places like Atera, WD, Corton, etc. I like many of those kinds of places, mind you - just saying they're a bit more chef-driven while Babbo, at heart, is a neighborhood joint serving comfort food, Just very elevated and often amazing comfort food.
In terms of service, Gramercy is the standard by which others are judged. The apex of the Danny Meyer style - professional without ever being snooty, always engaging. The worst service I've had at Babbo was perhaps at worst perfunctory, but never ever have I experienced rudeness or condescension.
For the most part, I find the food more exciting at Babbo. Of course, it's a MUCH harder reservation to get, so it might be a moot point deciding between the two - depending the date the OP wants to go, it might be decided for them.
Well, for example, I asked one waiter if the menu was designed Italian style (that is, a dinner consisting of appetizer, primo (pasta or soup), secondo (meat or fish) with contorni (sides) or American style (where a pasta would be considered a main course). He said "You can order whatever you like".
Hmm. I knew that. But it didn't answer my question (which I thought quite reasonable).
Re tables, one time my wife and I had the ground floor table all the way in the back, near the kitchen. In a place that, say, had $10 to $20 entrees, I'd say fine. But that's not Babbo.
Re music - I may be at the opposite end from you, and it is a matter of preference, of course. I like a quiet restaurant.
We agree about the food though - Babbo is amazing.
Ah, when I've dined in the bar - with one exception - it's been AT the bar, so never experienced those back tables. Otherwise I've been upstairs in the reservations room. I find the noise level a bit lower upstairs as well, since you're not competing with the boisterous bar scene, which can get pretty hopping.
Yeah, that was a reasonable question for sure, and an odd way to answer it. I think of their menu as more Italian-style, personally, but it often depends which antipasti are ordered - some (like the lamb tongue or octopus) are pretty generous, while others (say, the herring) are really just a few bites. Same could be said for the pastas - the ravioli and tortellini are more app size, others could be entrees. That's really my only complaint about them - with the exception of secondi (which range from generous to VERY generous) the dish size can be a little inconsistent. Can be tough for a newbie who hasn't made their way around the menu yet.
Usually we'll shoot for the "full Italian" (maybe splitting a pasta) and if we're too full by the end, just skip dessert. Once we made a meal entirely out of antipasti. It varies.
I think you're headed in the wrong direction.
Po is fine -- but nobody would think about it ever if Mario Batali hadn't cooked there 15 years ago. Now, it's just one of many pretty good mid-priced Italian places in New York.
One If By Land is barely decent.
Da Umberto: OK, but why travel to go there?
I think the best Old Skool Still-Existing New York Places are the Meat Houses: Luger's, Keens.
If you don't want that, maybe an Old Skool French place like L'Absinthe (for my money, perhaps the single most underrated place in New York City) or, the usual choice in this category (but to me, very pricey for its quality), Le Grenouille.
Le Bernardin has been open longer than Po and remains about 18 times as good. But I suspect you (justifiably) don't want to spend that much money (although One If By Land is pretty costly).