Top Vibe Dining Spots in Manhattan

by Alan Philips
01.14.2010

  

Since the days of Caligula’s Roman orgies, the idea of entertainment, food and drink have come together to make for a much more satisfying experience. The first time I heard the term “vibe dining” was from Sam Hazen, former chef of vibe dining pioneer, Tao. He inevitably absorbed this term from Tao proprietors, Mark Packer and Rich Wolfe, who could easily lay claim to pioneering this concept (Packer ran vibe dining palace Canastel’s in the early eighties). With that said, there are plenty of others who could also lay claims to this term, including Jeffrey Chodorow (China Grill and Asia De Cuba) and Stephen Starr with his Philadelphia/New York Empire, Continental, still one of my favorite restaurants to this day. Last but not least, you can’t leave off the late, great Warner Leroy, who’s trendy venue, Maxwell’s Plum, was the inspiration and blueprint for so many of the afore mentioned restaurants. Drew Nieporent, proprietor of Nobu and Tribeca Grill, said it best when comparing New York with San Francisco: "The number one [difference] is that people go to restaurants in San Francisco for the food, not the mood." We are New Yorkers, we want it all or nothing at all.

THE “NOW” LIST:

Abe & Arthur's
In my mind, this place is the current king of scene-based dining. Eugene Remm and Mark Bernbaum have managed to put out an incredible product, in the right location, with a great energy and spectacular eye candy. I have received feedback from people of all ages and one thing is clear: the food is deliciously consistent with delicious and juicy meat (both on and off the plate). There are multiple bars, a club downstairs and different seating areas that can all be considered prime. How the restaurant evolves will be interesting to see, but as of now, it's firing on all cylinders.

BLT Prime
Laurent Tourandel is without a doubt a supremely talented chef. He and his partners have always been able to attract the right crowd, building a brand that has spawned an empire, spanning all the way from New York to Hong Kong and Puerto Rico. With that said, the cooking and ambiance at BLT Prime are a perfect marriage of classical excellence and modern interpretation. The soundtrack, the cougars, the popovers with chicken liver pate and the Dover sole, make this the consummate female-friendly (and therefore male-friendlier) steakhouse. 

Cipriani Downtown
Oh how the critics love to hate on the Cipriani’s, although the restaurant has been serving up consistently high quality and delicious Italian dishes for years. It’s curious how the critics forget that Italian is supposed to be made with high quality ingredients prepared well and simply. Why would I want Prosciutto reduced into caviar balls when I can have the beautiful and powerful flavor in a restaurant bursting with sex, money and consistency? Now that the boys have beaten tax evasion, let’s let Giuseppe and Arriggo get back to what they do best: providing the most consistently overpriced (yet mysteriously satisfying) Italian food in one of the most important social destinations of our age.  

Gemma
The opening of this restaurant was the unofficial stamp on the Bowery as a realistic, all-night destination. No longer is the Bowery just for those who remember CBGB and Patty Smith, but now it is the next focus for New York’s constant reinvention. Following this restaurant’s arrival, Daniel Boulud, Keith Mcknally, John Varavatos, the Crosby Street Hotel, Double Crown and so many more have followed suit. Gemma is this neighborhood’s anchor with consistently well-priced Italian fare, including a Branzino that could compare with any Trattoria or bistro in Manhattan. I was there about a month ago, and I could honestly say there were two girls for every gent at the bar, multiple celebrities were having dinner or drinks and the “no reservations” policy made it easily accessible. Gemma is great – now let’s just hope it has more staying power than its Westside sister, La Bottega.

La Esquina
Serge Becker should be awarded the downtown visionary of the decade prize for this one.  What could be cooler than walking through a take-out bar and through the kitchen?  Into an authentic Mexican Taqueria, reasonably priced, in what I feel is the quintessential New York neighborhood, with a bar based around Tequila, the ultimate party drink not to mention a recent artisanal favorite.  I asked a close friend about the food and he said, I know I always like it, but it is really just a complement to the vibe.  Does that make “La Esquina” the quintessential vibe dining restaurant? All I know is that it is jammed all week long and there seem to be plans to take this show on the road. Vegas? Miami?  

Lure Fishbar
Lure started out as one thing and I believe became another.  I remember when it opened thinking that it was a serious fish spot that had replaced Canteen.  But in year 2 and 3 it has become more approachable, the volume and selection musically has become much more palatable, and the sushi quite good.  There is always a nice scene in the restaurant and the design allows for a bunch of really great tables.  I would have to give this restaurant the award for most improved and impressive turn around over the past year or so, and give John Mcdonald and his team applause for putting together what is definitely the best restaurant in its category, though I am still trying to figure out what that category is.   I will go with quasi futuristic yacht style seafood restaurant with sushi.  Hey a Grammy is a Grammy, at least they’re the best at something.

Minetta Tavern
Mcnally’s of-the-moment spot is the quintessential balance between great restaurant and vibe dining. Among other things, the one thing that makes the man great at what he doesis balance. Many people tell me that balance is the key to life, and whether that's true or not, I can tell you it’s the key to his successful restaurants. Not one single thing about his restaurants makes them great, but rather it's the whole package. With the mix of people, the authenticity of the food and décor and the overall consistency, Minetta - along with his staples like Balthazar, Morandi and Pastis - will always be good. If you are looking for the crème de la crème, it can be found these days in Minetta - the ultimate celebration of café society. I cannot wait to see what this man does when his new pizza joint, Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria, comes to the Bowery.

Nobu 57
Nobu has gone from a game-changing restaurant, to a global empire, and back to a game-changing restaurant. The man defined a new cuisine and, in doing so, changed Japanese cooking globally. How many mediocre local sushi restaurants serve yellowtail jalapeño rolls? How many Asian mega-restaurants have miso black cod? At 57th St, the Nobu team has a restaurant that is jammed at all hours of the day in a location that is not necessarily a cool and chic destination. Now the restaurant is way expensive, but dollar for dollar the value is there, as are the celebrities and the inventive preparations of the freshest ingredients available. Tribeca may have been first, but its younger and larger midtown counterpart is where the action can be found in 2010. 

Spotted Pig
With some help from close friend and consigliore Mario Batali, a chef recommended by Jamie Oliver, and a cadre of high-profile music-business investors Jay Z, A&R executive Ken Friedman opened Spotted Pig, the original gastro-pub in the West Village.  The Deviled Eggs, the Burger, and especially the Gnudi with Brown Butter and Sage along with a constant and unique vibe make this reasonably priced spot a continual destination.  The location definitely does not hurt, as well as the minimal seats available.  The question will be can they replicate this success at spots like The Breslin, without negatively effecting the original.  It did not seem they could at their short lived Meatpacking spot John Dory, despite stellar reviews.  I for one hope they do as I only hear good things and have only had good times at their locations.  The bar is perfect for drinking and snacks also,  

Standard Grill
If New York is the center of the world, then the Standard Hotel is the epi-center of the world, at least for people looking to go out and party. The fault line in the Meatpacking District once ran from the Apple Store through Pastis – but no more. The world shifted on its axis and everything important in the area circled right around this restaurant. The Standard is an entertainment paradise starting with the Bier Garten and topped off by the moment’s hottest spot: the lounge formerly known as the Boom Boom Room. Could you imagine being a tourist and booking a room at the Standard? What could possibly be better? When was the last time you took a trip to another city and were greeted by a scene like that?  The chef at the Standard is Dan Silverman (formerly of the defunct Lever House restaurant, uptown), and he has cannily constructed his one-page “American Bistro” menu to suit a range of currently trendy tastes. Like the city’s great brasserie genius, Keith McNally, Silverman has a knack for making everything on his menu sound delicious, and most dishes live up to their reputation.

Waverly Inn
A few years in and the Waverly still a tough reservation and considered a destination. My last visit included an appearance by twin tennis stars, a music visionary and a notable fashion designer. Most important though is that Graydon Carter can’t be there every night, but Chef John Delucie often is.  His food has thought, the restaurant is not too big and even without blaring music, the room has an energy that feels current. Waverly represents a moment, and lucky for us, its moment has not faded. There’s still time for us all to have a taste.

See you next week at Cocktail Hour, where more often than not one drink turns into ten and no one knows where and when the night will end.

-AP

 

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