There was a long list of things I wanted to do on my recent trip to New York City: walk through Central Park, tour the neighbourhoods, go up the Empire State Building … But high on the list was one other thing: to dine in some of the most famous restaurants of New York, the places we’ve seen in movies and TV shows our whole lives. The Big Apple has some of the world’s most celebrated eateries, and on this trip I wanted to get a taste of them.
Since this was only a four-day stay, I needed to make my choices quickly. But with the help of my friend Roberta Kravette, author of the great Destination: Wildlife website, I managed to visit three iconic restaurants. Two are the standard-bearers of New York high society; the third is more like a familiar hangout you feel you’ve already visited.
If there’s a New York restaurant that qualifies as an institution, it must be Sardi’s. For 90 years, this eatery on West 44th Street has been the heart of the Broadway Theatre scene, the go-to watering hole for actors, critics and theatre-goers. The Tony Awards were conceived in Sardi’s, and the restaurant is still the location for a lot of other awards ceremonies and Broadway opening parties.
What Sardi’s is most famous for, however, is the hundreds of celebrity caricatures that line its walls. Everyone from Jackie Gleason to Michael Moore, the most recent honoree, has a place of honour on the walls of Sardi’s, and it’s worth a visit just to look around the restaurant and spot your favourites.
Roberta and I arrived late for lunch, after wandering through the city’s great ethnic neighbourhoods. And it was obvious that we’d missed the noon rush, if there is one these days: the restaurant was almost empty. So much for needing reservations. It could have felt a bit awkward, but Sardi’s staff welcomed us like long-lost friends. If we were expecting snooty service, we had the wrong restaurant; the waiters and maitre-d’ couldn’t have been friendlier.
If Sardi’s is a tradition, its menu is pretty much traditional, too, though with an upscale touch or two. The lunch menu included things like jumbo crabcakes, cannelloni au gratin, marinated pork chops and something called the Sardi’s chop salad, filled with just about everything you might desire.
I chose Sardi’s special salad, loaded with tender slices of beef steak (photo at top), while Roberta had the vegan mango curry with a mound of rice. Both were tasty, and more than adequate to stoke our engines for more adventures in the afternoon. We passed on dessert.
But of course, we had to have a few photos, and I wandered up to see the upstairs dining room and catch a glimpse of Bob Hope’s caricature, positioned prominently beside the staircase. In truth, a lot of Sardi’s caricatures are of people I didn’t recognize – but if you’re looking for your favourite actor, he or she is probably there somewhere.
Tavern on the Green
One of the most famous restaurants of New York is noted just as much for its setting as for its food. Since 1934, Tavern on the Green has been one of the city’s most scenic spots to have lunch or dinner, with the green lawns and huge trees of Central Park as a backdrop.
In fact, the restaurant was originally created out of the sheep hold that sheltered the animals from the nearby Sheep Meadow. It grew to become an integral part of Central Park, and of New York life. In its heyday, from the 1930s to the 1970s, there was dance music at night, and the trees were wrapped in twinkling lights. Over the years, people including Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Grace Kelly and John Lennon were regulars.
Today, the restaurant still retains its old-time charm, at least from the front. I arrived after a visit to the park with Roberta and her photographer friend Dennis Newsham (more about that in a later post) to find a baronial-looking building replete with lots of dark wood and crystal. The great room where we waited wouldn’t have looked out of place in Tudor England.
Then we were led into the main rooms, and the setting went from dark and traditional to bright and modern. We sat in an indoor patio surrounded by glass, with a lovely view of the park and the outdoor patio, above which hung a skein of lights – it must be a magical place to have dinner and drinks on a summer evening. Behind us, a platoon of white-clad chefs turned out meals in an open kitchen.
The lunch menu was as modern as the surroundings, leaning toward salads and light offerings. I tried the chicken paillard, a thin cutlet of grilled chicken with a balsamic sauce and a mesclun salad, while Roberta had sautéed vegetables, and Dennis chose a salad.
The food was good, though not great, but we shared a big serving of apple strudel for dessert, and went away happy. (Since it was no one’s birthday, we skipped the Tavern’s famous birthday cake, filled with ricotta cheese and whipped cream – how many kilometres would it take to walk that off?).
If you don’t recognize the sign on the restaurant in the photo above, you’ve probably never watched Seinfeld. In most episodes, sooner or later the cast would end up debating the current dilemmas in a diner called Monk’s. And the exterior of Monk’s was Tom’s Restaurant, seen here.
In reality, Tom’s is not entirely synonymous with Monk’s. Only the exterior shot of the restaurant was used for the show – the interior was a set in Hollywood. But the sign became such a familiar sight that Tom’s is now know as “the Seinfeld restaurant”.
That makes it one of the famous restaurants of New York in my book, so I just had to come by and take a look. What I found wasn’t the Monk’s diner of the TV show, but in truth, it wasn’t far off.
Tom’s is located in the Morningside Heights district, just above Central Park, and it’s an authentic, old-time neighbourhood restaurant. At lunchtime on a Friday, locals and Columbia University students were crowded into booths and lined up along the counter, where friendly waiters were serving up diner fare.
Being on my own, I hopped onto a stool at the counter, a few feet from the spot where a large picture of Cosmo Kramer looked over the crowd. Around me, people were digging into chicken wraps, ham and cheese sandwiches and gyros — Tom’s is Greek-owned, so there’s a little feta and tzatziki in the mix.
But since this was an old-style American diner, I felt I had to go with something classically American: a burger and fries, with a coffee. I’m sure someone sat on this very stool back in the ‘50s and ordered the same thing. Somehow, it brought back memories …
As I got the bill, I asked the counter man: did the Seinfeld guys every show up at Tom’s? “Oh, yeah,” he said. “They’ve been here. Jerry’s a real New Yorker.”
So, three of the most famous restaurants of New York, with three very different looks, menus, and clienteles. It was a culinary adventure I won’t forget for a while. And even including Sardi’s, it wasn’t as expensive as you might expect. That was partly thanks to Roberta, who nobly picked up the cheque at the Tavern on the Green. But even without her kind help, I would have got home with my bank account intact.
There are cities where I wouldn’t dare tackle any of the top restaurants without reserving a year in advance and taking out a mortgage on the condo. But even today, it’s still possible to sample the famous restaurants of New York and come away happy – and full.