Let us be the first to admit that we're not an ideal restaurant critic. We don't have the money to eat at the swankiest places (not often, anyway). We are biased in favor of quiet residential neighborhoods, especially the Upper West Side, where we live. We're not well-versed in foodie jargon and have even been known to use the term yummy. Perhaps worst of all, we refer to ourselves using the editorial we (or, as we prefer to think of it, the royal we). We do so even though this book has only one author and even though the practice flies in the face of grammatical consistency (see first sentence above). How can you trust someone like that?
In any event, this isn't the definitive New York restaurant guide. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes here knows that such a thing is impossible. We asked various friends and colleagues what their favorite restaurants were. Not a single place appeared on more than one list. Ask the question of 10 different New Yorkers and chances are you'll get 10 different answers. If any two people give the same answer, they must be sleeping together.
What this is, then, is a guide to more than 100 favorite eateries written by someone who's consumed thousands of meals at hundreds of New York restaurants. We've lived between the Hudson and East rivers—on what the late Spalding Gray once described as "an island off the coast of America"—since 1975. We tend to favor places that are (of necessity) affordable and (by temperament) offbeat. We don't mind threadbare decor as long as it's cosy. And we tend to eat in residential neighborhoods—our own and others—where tourists rarely penetrate, where real New Yorkers live.
As you've noticed, this is a slim volume—we wanted to give out-of-town visitors something you can read cover to cover on the plane. We also hope that fellow New York residents will find interesting ideas that'll lift you out of the rut into which all hardworking people fall from time to time.
None of these reviews is negative—with little more than 100 restaurants in the book, we simply eliminated anything unworthy of your patronage—though we hasten to add that none has been bought either. We showed up and ate anonymously, just as you would, and paid for everything we ate.
Knowing that even good restaurants go out of business, the book actually includes 107 listings as a hedge against obsolescence [the website, obviously, will vary over time]. If you show up to find a closed door, please accept our apologies and drop us a line via the email address given at www.quietriverpress.com. We can't guarantee responses but we'll read all your comments and complaints with interest. Sorry we can't print the email address here—to avoid spam and virus assaults, it may have to change from time to time.
Our idea of the perfect restaurant is a place where you walk in whenever you're hungry without having to reserve. We hate crowds and resent having to wait for a table. We like service to be reasonably speedy, especially since we often walk in with a specific idea of what we want to order. Most, though not all, of the restaurants in this book conform to our standards of informality, economy, and speed. But for special occasions you'll also find some more formal and pricey places.
Everyone wants to know what a meal will cost before visiting a restaurant. Here are our price guidelines: $ indicates a wide choice of low-priced menu items, $$ stands for moderate or mixed pricing, but not outrageous, and $$$ embraces a small handful of deluxe places.
Please be warned that these are the roughest of guidelines. We opted for a deliberately vague three-point scale, as opposed to something more elaborate, because things in the restaurant business are always changing while books have a certain degree of permanence. What you end up paying depends on what you order. Even if money is tight, don't neglect the restaurants in the moderate category—many of those menus provide a good deal of latitude to the budget-conscious diner.
We've tried to hit as many neighborhoods as possible, including several outside Manhattan that are worth a subway trip. Subway directions are provided for all restaurants. You can get a subway map in any station at what New Yorkers persist in calling the token booth (though MetroCards have replaced the tokens themselves). The Metropolitan Transit Authority provides an online map and service advisories at the URL listed in the back of the book.
Where reservations are recommended, seating is limited, or only counter service is available, we tell you so. The possibilities of takeout or delivery are also indicated. Be warned that delivery is generally limited within a tight radius around the restaurant. Don't expect a small restaurant in the Village to deliver to your hotel in Times Square. Space prevented us from specifying delivery limits—you'll have to call.
Listings also include: name, generic description of cuisine, street address, cross street, phone, website (if any), hours of operation, credit cards accepted (or a cash-only warning), and a brief review.
At the rear of the book are appendices with listings of restaurants by type, listings of restaurants by neighborhood, a guide to tourist attractions by neighborhood with nearby restaurants, a tribute to defunct restaurants we've known and loved, and online resources.
No food-related book would be complete without a few words about health. We're old enough to recall when doctors advised patients to eat a balanced diet and to eat in moderation. Nowadays this good advice is drowned out by quacks who write bestselling books advocating fad diets. The Happy Pig (now veering recklessly from first person plural to third person singular) prefers to live the old-fashioned way: we eat everything and try not to over-do it. While writing this book, we actually lost weight, while still managing to visit lots of previously unexplored restaurants and having a great time. At home we eat modestly because a Healthy Pig will live to enjoy more meals.
The Happy Pig is a fair-weather carnivore and a secret vegetarian. We eat meat but only when we eat out. Somewhat ironically, that does include pork. Someday we'll pick up the New York Daily News and read:
THE HAPPY PIG
IS A CANNIBAL!
Many perfectly sane people prefer not to eat meat. We have tried to point out vegetarian-friendly menu items from time to time but only a few of the restaurants in this book are entirely free of "food with a face." We apologize to vegetarians, vegans, and those on a dairy-free regimen for our lack of attention to their needs. The book, however, is oriented toward the mainstream. A true vegetarian's guide to New York dining would be a separate book. Perhaps we'll write it someday.
If cleanliness is next to godliness, most New York restaurants are hell. Crowded kitchens in old buildings don't lend themselves to sanitary perfection. We dutifully checked out every restaurant in the book and found that the majority had at least a few minor health-code violations. Had we eliminated every restaurant with which the city's department of health found fault, we'd have had to scrap the book. Violations are a moving target: a restaurant that has none today may have several tomorrow, and vice versa. So don't let a few minor ones change your evening plans. However, if your immune system is compromised, you may wish to check out the city's online list of violations.
When dining in New York City, drink water. Our tap water happens to be excellent. It comes from an elaborate series of reservoirs upstate and is piped down into the city. New York tap water actually used to win contests! Due to development encroaching on the reservoir system, it's not as good as it used to be, but the city is doing what it can to preserve its water supply. Rather than spend billions to build a filtration plant, the city prefers instead to acquire land around the reservoirs to protect the watershed.
We run our tap water through a filter pitcher at home but have no reluctance to drink unfiltered water in restaurants. Of course, drinking water is a good way to stay within budget, and if you order coffee or tea, you'll be drinking tap water anyway. They just put caffeine in it and charge more. Local laws require restaurants to serve tap water free, on request, and nearly all the places featured here bring it without being asked. Best in this respect is the Jackson Diner, in Queens, which simply leaves a large pitcher of ice water on each table. We wish all restaurants would do the same.
Tipping is part of dining out. Be a happy pig when dining, by all means, but don't be a mean pig when computing tips. The usual formula is to look at the tax on the check, multiply it by two, and round up to the nearest dollar. Sales tax in New York City is (at this writing) 8.625 percent, so double it and the minimum tip comes out to 17.25 percent.
Be warned that the sales tax on your bill will occasionally deviate from the correct number. It's easy to guesstimate the 8.625 percent tax by moving the decimal point and subtracting a little. The error may be a deliberate miscalculation—one that benefits the house as well as the waiter—but is more likely a mistake made in the heat of battle by someone working in a physically exhausting profession. You have two forms of recourse: Insist on a corrected bill, or just deduct the difference from the tip.
If you are exceptionally happy with the service—if someone has gone out of his or her way to be cheerful or efficient—a tip of 20 to 25 percent would not be out of line, especially if you're drunk. If the waiter is unbelievably slow, or otherwise offends, express your displeasure by dropping it to 15 percent, but don't go any lower than that. Undertip only in the most extreme cases. We all have bad days—don't you?
While penny pinching is an integral part of this book, please don't save money at the expense of people who serve you in restaurants. They often earn the minimum wage, or less, and depend on tips to pay for rent and groceries. Many don't receive health insurance and can't afford to pay for it themselves. So err on the side of generosity. Give the waiter the money you saved by drinking tap water.
Smoking has long been illegal in New York City restaurants with more than 35 seats and is now banned in smaller ones as well as bars and clubs. For the one-third of humanity who smoke, this is a nuisance, and really, we do sympathize, but for the other two-thirds of us, the smoking ban represents progress. Service workers benefit the most. No longer are restaurant workers and bartenders required to ingest large quantities of carcinogens as a condition of their employment. But the majority of consumers benefit too. It is now possible to go out for a night on the town without coming home smelling like an ashtray. The smoking ban is one of the things that make New York a civilized city.
New York is, however, a rather hard place for young families. So if an infant's pacifier lands in your soup, just grin. Staying at home all the time would drive young parents insane. Don't make them feel unwelcome.
Sometimes we think people just don't know how to behave in public. Please be advised that it is not polite to spend any portion of a meal yapping into a cell phone. Whether or not you are dining alone, the people around you are not paying good money to eat their meals in a phone booth.
However, it is fine to have a conversation with yourself as long as you just move your lips. The staff won't mind. They've already seen everything. Half the people around you are out on parole. Welcome to New York—have fun!