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FOOD AND DRINK

9 MIN

How to Make Dinner Reservations Like a New Yorker

Are you hungry enough to score one of New York's toughest tables? If you can make a reservation here, you can make one anywhere

People go to alarming and impressive lengths to score a brag-worthy meal, from travelling thousands of miles to shelling out substantial bucks or standing in line for hours on end, not to mention making reservations weeks or months (or more) in advance. New Yorkers in particular want to see and be seen at one of the city’s It restaurants, making it challenging to score seats at the best of times, never mind peak hours and weekends.

Among the hardest reservations to make are tables at New York’s new and flashy establishments. The good news here is that once the shiny new polish starts to chip and the flames of hype begin to dissipate (usually some six months after a restaurant’s opening), “commoners” can finally squeeze in among the celebrities and VIPs.

There are also those well-reviewed new(ish)-comers where space is at a particular premium – restaurants with around a dozen seats, often around a counter. At tiny gems like Brooklyn Fare, Momofuku Ko, Blanca, Mu Ramen, Kosaka, Shuko, Take Root, and Rao’s, the extra precious real estate of a seat makes for even greater desirability. And hardest of all to book can be those classic spots that have achieved cult status for being consistently excellent: Eleven Madison Park, Le Bernadin, Blue Hill at Stone Farms, Peter Luger Steakhouse, Babbo, ABC Kitchen, Daniel, Jean-Georges and Per Se.

In fact, rumour has it that the public often doesn’t even stand a fighting chance at some of these spots. Premium tables can be usually reserved for house regulars, last-minute celebrity drop-ins and concierges with connections.

HOW TO NAB THE TOUGHEST TABLES

All in all, it can take a hearty mix of both inspiration and perspiration to land a table at the city’s best restaurants. You might find yourself waking up early to call the reservation line as soon as it opens, refreshing the website’s reservation status multiple times per day, or staying on-hold with a reservation hotline while in the shower.

Not surprisingly, there’s a booming online black market for restaurant reservations. New York is ripe with newly launched apps and online platforms that sell reservations obtained with or without the co-operation of restaurants, usually reserving spots under assumed names and then charging a flat fee (generally ranging from $7 to $50) or else auctioning them off to the highest bidder. So if you find yourself relegated to the no man’s land hours of 5:30 and 10:30 spots, or just can’t find a spot at all through tried-and-true free or cheap online booking systems like OpenTable and Tablesweep, you can might be able find to something that fits your social calendar a little better through apps including Reserve, Resy, Killer Rezzy, and SeatMe. There’s also Shout, which was started by two Columbia graduates and is fast becoming the Craigslist of reservation apps where people sell-off their coveted spots or offer to wait in line for you.

But if you prefer to stick to more traditional (and less pricey) routes, some tips: First, timing is everything. Try hitting the reservation systems around 10 a.m. (or sometimes midnight) when a new day of tables becomes available. Also keep in mind that procrastinators who check reservations systems within 48 hours of dream meal times might also be in luck. That’s the time frame when cancellations (and reserved seats for “friends of the house”) generally get released back into reservation systems for last-minute bookings.

Alternatively, the most pleasant strategy of them all is usually to pop into a restaurant for a drink at the bar. You might be able to politely charm the staff into a table that opens up later (and likely even dine comfortably at the bar anyway) or else try making a dinner reservation and good last impression on your way out. If you’re flexible, a decent table is almost always within reach.

With all of that in mind, here are a few restaurants that are worth some strategic planning and reserving a few weeks or months ahead. The extra effort will make everything taste just that much better.

THE RESTAURANTS

Momofuku Ko

Michelin-starred chef David Chang recently re-launched his East Village restaurant (first opened in 2008) in a larger location, which means you now have a fighting chance to experience his 17-course, $175 tasting menu. You can delight in Japanese dishes inspired by the chef’s international travels, including frozen foie gras over lychee, scallops in pineapple broth, crunchy Spanish mackerel sushi, crimson venison slices with fermented cranberries, and tortellini stuffed with Japanese squash. In addition to counter seating, there’s a freestanding bar and a handful of tables. Start your marks and hit the online reservations system at 10 a.m., at least two weeks in advance.

www.ko.momofuku.com
8 Extra Place, NY, 212-500-0831

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare

Hidden behind a high-end supermarket, Mexican-born chef Cesar Ramirez plays host to 18 fortunate guests feasting nightly around his kitchen counter. It’s the only three-star Michelin restaurant in Brooklyn and one of the most coveted communal dining experiences in New York. His 20-plus-course, French-Japanese fusion tasting menu (precisely $306) has Manhattanites making the pilgrimage over the Brooklyn Bridge. However, word on the street is that Ramirez is planning to move his tiny eatery by the end of 2016 to Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen (the current Boerum Hill space will likely morph into a casual Mediterranean restaurant). Make your phone reservation six weeks ahead of your dinner plans, preferably on a Monday at 10:30 a.m. (when the lines open).   

www.brooklynfare.com
200 Schermerhorn St., 718-243-0050

The Polo Bar

Ralph Lauren’s first restaurant is one of the most consciously clubby and arguably hardest tables to land in town. Even the bar doesn’t accept walk-ins. But despite being amongst the most exclusive spots in the city, it couldn’t appear more classically inviting. The Polo Bar exudes the same country club warmth and sophisticated Old New York style as Ralph Lauren magazine ads. It’s like entering a Woody Allen movie populated by well-heeled New Yorkers revelling in tweed jackets and riding boots. The instant institution is decked-out with rich pine panelling, equestrian paintings, aged leather banquettes, and lots of hunter green. Under a glow of cognac-coloured lighting, you’re likely to spot more than a few celebrities while indulging in all-American fare like crab cakes, veal chops, corned beef sandwiches, juicy burgers and steak. Wash it all down with a classic cocktail served by the most beautifully dressed (in Ralph Lauren of course) server you’ve ever seen. If you have any hope of joining the party, your best bet is to call one month ahead of time.

www.ralphlauren.com
1 E. 55th St. near. Fifth Ave., NY, 212-207-8562

Mission Chinese Food

Anthony Bourdain named chef Danny Bowien’s Lower East Side hit as one of his five favourite spots in the city: “It’s the most fun restaurant in New York. The food is just delicious. It doesn’t take itself too seriously.” The music is just as rowdy as the atmosphere, matched only by the wildly creative and eclectic Asian-inspired dishes that are surprisingly affordable (averaging around $15). Try the kung pao pastrami or house special roasted chicken filled with chorizo, raisins, olives and sweet pickles. The great news: Mission has recently started taking reservations, so you can skip the two-hour line. You might even be able to score a reservation with just one or two weeks’ notice.

www.missionchinesefood.com
171 E Broadway, NY, 212-529-8800

Cosme

Chef Enrique Olvera hails from Mexico City, and has brought New Yorkers his inventive mouth-watering and satisfying dishes including duck carnitas braised in their own fat and soda-pop, purple-corn tostadas topped with salmon tartare and fresh guacamole, scallops and poached jicama with lime juice and grated wasabi, and warm fluffy tortillas homemade (in the basement) with Mexican grown blue, yellow, purple and white corn.

www.cosmenyc.com
35 E 21st St, NY, 212-913-9659

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

If you’ve ever dreamed of experiencing the sensual pleasures of true farm-to-table dining, make your dinner reservation one to three months in advance and take the one-hour drive (or 35-minute train ride) from Manhattan to Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Set on 80 acres of bucolic farmland, Blue Hill is where acclaimed New York chef Dan Barber furthers his agenda of hyper local, organic food. You can stroll the manicured grounds of freely roaming chickens, pigs, sheep, turkeys, geese and hens, as well as honeybee colonies, fruit and nut trees, acres of vegetables, grain, berries and flowers, and a spectacular 22,000-square-foot greenhouse. And then reward yourself with the day’s harvest in the form of a $218 multi-course “grazing, pecking, and rooting” tasting menu or a three-course bar menu ($168) which promises to be unlike anything you’ve ever tasted or will ever taste in the city. The lovingly crafted and curated dishes are both primal and ephemeral. We tried tomatoes, asparagus, carrots and fennel (at the peak of their ripeness) presented over a bowl of earth, flavourfully poached home-grown chicken with creamy turnips, farm-fresh eggs baked in pasta shells over smoked tomato puree, and cannelloni made with field strawberries and creme fraiche. Each seasonal plate represents a creative commitment to the products and landscape of the Hudson Valley.

www.bluehillfarm.com
630 Bedford Rd, Pocantico Hills, NY, 914-366-9600

Andre Baronowski

A 'fence' of vegetables at Blue Hill Farms

Eleven Madison Park

With three Michelin stars and a James Beard award, Eleven Madison Park is one of New York’s most praised and alluring restaurants. Swiss chef Daniel Humm infuses a New York twist to French-based Nouveau American cooking in his $88 three-course and $125 eleven-course tasting menus (if that’s a little out of your budget, you can always indulge in the affordable $28 two-course lunch). Using the freshest local ingredients from Upstate New York, the food is classically simple and indulgent, from goat’s milk ricotta gnocchi and buttery lobster to peanut butter and chocolate palette for dessert. Eating under the Metropolitan Life Building’s theatrically high Art Deco ceilings while overlooking Madison Square Park is already a New York experience in itself. You can book up to 28 days in advance or attempt a seat at the no-reservations bar starting at 5:30 p.m.

www.elevenmadisonpark.com
11 Madison Ave. at 24th St., NY, 212-889-0905

Francesco Tonelli

Eleven Madison Park

Sushi Nakazawa

Rumour has it that not even chef Daisuke Nakazawa’s parents have been able to get a table at his New York Times four-starred West Village establishment. Nakazawa is the onetime apprentice of Jiro Ono, famed sushi-master and star of the documentary sensation Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The cosy, unpretentiously spare and always lively hotspot serves up a $150 omakase 20-course dinner of formidable Tokyo street-style sushi. So before attempting to make a reservation for the coveted sushi bar or dining room, say a little prayer and give it your best shot about one month in advance. The online reservation system opens at the stroke of midnight.

www.sushinakazawa.com
23 Commerce St., NY, 212-924-2212 

Bohemian

Speaking of gems from Japan, this clandestine “members-only” Japanese restaurant is hidden at the back of the Japanese Premium Beef butcher shop, a building previously owned by Andy Warhol. You’ll pass through a long hallway called “Basquiat Road” (it was also the address of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s home and studio) to reach a room with the intimate feel of a friend’s apartment equipped with a few couches, lounge tables, tatami mats, a central skylight, and a yellow pine bar (serving signature and classic Asian and American cocktails). Kiyo Shinoki, the former executive chef at Chanto, creates robustly flavourful American, French, and Japanese small plates. And after two in the morning, the space transforms into a lounge that chills to the eclectic sounds of everything from bossa nova jazz to Japanese rock. With its tucked-away location, secret reservation number, and cryptic restaurant website, you’re expected to get a referral from a previous diner. But if all else fails, you can always try emailing Bohemian for an invitation (ny-info@playearth.jp).

www.playearth.jp

(Here’s the kind of secret address and number): 57 Great Jones St., between Bowery and Lafayette St, 212-388-1070

Peter Luger Steakhouse and Rao’s

The only way to properly conclude this roundup is to recognize two of old New York’s most cherished and ageless classics, namely Peter Luger Steakhouse and Rao’s. The most notable difference between them is that you might actually dine at Peter Luger in your lifetime.

The 1887 quintessential New York steakhouse has become almost as much of a landmark as the Brooklyn Bridge. Williamsburg’s nostalgic favourite retains its unwavering fame for the tenderest and most juicy of USDA prime beef porterhouses, each carefully hand-selected by proprietor Jody Storch and dry aged for 28 days in the private cellar. Peter Luger does indeed take reservations, though a peak-hour time spot is likely next to impossible. But you can also always try your luck by settling in at the bar and schmoozing with the bartender, while getting your name on the waiting list. Or go at lunchtime and opt for the burger, which you’ll never see on the dinner menu.

Rao’s, meanwhile, was founded in 1896, and it’s the undisputed hardest restaurant in all of New York (and probably the United States) to infiltrate. The tiny, always good-humoured East Harlem Italian restaurant has earned such cult status that it’s practically (though not technically) a private club. Each of its few tables has a standing VIP reservation.

After a three-star New York Times review in 1977, owner (and former Sopranos actor) Frank Pellegrino came up with an ingenious system of time-sharing his restaurant’s four tables and six booths amongst a variety of VIP patrons on regular nights. The unassuming restaurant’s long-standing list of devoted regulars stretches back decades and any new reservations can only be purchased for an entire year, one year in advance. It goes without saying that when regulars can’t make their reservations, they usually gift them to friends. According to Pellegrino, for the last 40 years, every table has been booked every night.

What keeps its fiercely loyal patrons coming back for more is the restaurant’s reportedly vibrant and genuinely warm atmosphere, populated by New York’s most colourful characters from mafia ex-cons to celebrities. The lively ambiance is said to trump even Rao’s most mouth-watering of classical Italian home-style dishes (like simple but delicious lemon chicken, meatballs and veal chops). Apparently Martin Scorsese visited with Ray Liotta in the late 1980s and ended up casting about 21 extras for Goodfellas. And you can always count on a traditional Rao’s evening beginning with a drink concocted by the biggest character of them all, bartender Nicky the Vest, best known for sporting his assortment of over 50 waistcoats (some are said to light up and others to feature Looney Tunes characters).

But unless you’re an A-list New Yorker, celebrity, or politician (or a combination), or the likes of Woody Allen, Madonna or Bill Clinton, you’ll find it next to impossible to dine at the legendary Italian-American eatery. The phone lines are never open and there’s no online booking system. Your best bet is to try for a spot at the small bar that’s open to walk-ins (drinks only). According to legend, a few charmers sitting at the bar have even managed to sweet talk Pellegrino into the “house table” for two, the only table without an “owner.” If that doesn’t work and you’re feeling extra flush, the Friar’s Club every once in awhile auctions off a Rao’s table for charity at $5,000 to $20,000 for the night (excluding food and drink).

At Rao’s, there are no menus and no credit cards. But it’s a pretty sure thing that you’ll be sharing the room with some memorable personalities and that at some point Sinatra will start playing on the jukebox, and the whole restaurant will enthusiastically join in. It’s the most mythical table out there, and the one that’s most New York.

Peter Luger Steakhouse
178 Broadway, Brooklyn, 718-387-7400

Rao’s
455 E. 144th St., 212-722-6709

Published Thursday, May 19th 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Gabriele Stabile/Momofuku Ko

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