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40 Years of Important New York Restaurants


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Over on Gael Greene's website, as well as in NY Magazine's 40th anniversary issue, GG shares with us the restaurants she deems to have been the most important to NYC's dining scene over the past 40 or so years (Lutece seems to have snuck in, having opened in 1961, 47 years ago). The website provides a more thorough examination of the top spots, as opposed to the apparently edited version in the mag.

Having lived in the SF Bay Area for 16 of those 40 years (during which restaurants like Stars and Postrio opened), I find it hard to knock any of her choices - a few omissions, imo, include Balthazar (which was modeled after Stars, the great American brasserie) and, for argument's sake, let's say Ssam Bar (though my first love in the Chang mini-empire was Noodle Bar).

But, it's hard to find fault with places like Le Bernadin, River Cafe, Le Cirque, Lafayette at the Drake, Nobu, et. al.

Both Bruni and Levine have weighed in on their respective blogs, and there is both agreement and disagreement from both of them.

What restaurants would you deem qualified to make the list?

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

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I think it's a less-than-compelling list, with no clearly stated criteria. There are some no-brainers but several places I'd replace with others.

For example, if the idea is to acknowledge Warner LeRoy, Tavern on the Green seems more significant than Maxwell's Plum. Shun Lee isn't even good and there were other high-end Chinese restaurants, e.g., Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan, that were equally groundbreaking at their time. I don't even get the claim that Windows on the World was significant; certainly if it was significant its significance was not culinary. Its proximity reminds me that I'd pick Hudson River Club instead -- now everybody is using Hudson Valley ingredients etc. but HRC was a trailblazer in that regard. River Cafe? Clearly Larry Forgione's more important achievement was An American Place. Odeon? If the idea is to acknowledge McNally then of course Balthazar is the better pick. If it's about TriBeCa then what about Bouley or Montrachet?

The omission of the Momofuku phenomenon -- quite clearly the most important right now -- is inexplicable unless it's just Gael retaliating for her bad experience at Ko.

I don't quite get the explanation for why Union Square Cafe was omitted. Also the opening of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House was probably the most talked-about restaurant opening in history.

What do Ed Levine and Frank Bruni say, Mitch? Do you have those links handy?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
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Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Okay so, predictably, Frank Bruni has nothing to contribute to the conversation. Ed Levine makes some points with which I agree -- and I think we even make the same point about Forgione, so we must be right -- but I have two nits to pick with Levine: 1- he bases a lot of his arguments on the present (this is the problem with a no-criteria list, though); and 2- his suggestions of Peter Luger and Coach House don't even come close to meeting the "last 40 years" criterion.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In terms of the most glaring omission, to me that's one of the Momo restaurants (Ssam Bar, let's say). And, on the website, she expands her list to 16 restaurants, and Union Square Cafe is duly noted:

In fall 1985 the same shirt-sleeves casual and well-tended cellar with a neighborhood feel sets the tone at Union Square Café, flagship of what will be Danny Meyer’s ever-expanding feeding fief with an amazing dividend – Meyer’s leadership in the rebirth of Madison Square Park.

I don't know that I'd argue for the River Cafe to not be on the list - it spawned a generation of chefs and is still around. An American Place kinda came and went. Fairly quietly. As a matter of fact, I don't know that I'd argue for any of her choices to not be included; the problem is whittling down the list from a few dozen.

Bruni's blog both agrees and disagrees with some choices, and I think captures decently what the list is about - both in food and non-food terms...

it’s constructed with an eye toward the many different ways in which a restaurant can be important — ways well beyond the specific dishes it serves.

She puts Odeon (#9) on the list, noting how it helped put TriBeCa on the map and created a prototype for other French brasseries and bistros to come. I think that’s a smart choice...

Ed Levine also makes some interesting points - some about what's not listed - he misses Daniel and David (Chang), as well as Luger's (?) and Union Square Cafe - see above, and takes umbrage with a few others:

Odeon: Odeon might have predated Balthazar, but nobody can tell me that the food is better at the former. And if you want to talk about one restaurant that created a unique environment (featuring a glow that's never been replicated in this country again) Balthazar is the choice, not Odeon.

Other than the points I don't agree with (River Cafe), I agree with your other points about Ed that you mentioned.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

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Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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I don't think it's that bad a list. She makes clear that "social importance" is one of her criteria, which is how she justifies Windows on the World. She does not try to argue that it had any culinary importance. Not having been there at the time, I have no idea if the claims she makes for it are accurate.

She justifies Shun Lee Dynasty based on what it achieved at the time. Several folks on another food board seem to acknowledge that Shun Lee was indeed a trailblazer back in the 1970s, however much it may have slipped since then.

Odeon seems to me the most dubious of her selections. If you want to talk about the TriBeCa renaissance, Montrachet is more important. If you want to talk about Keith McNally, Balthazar is more important. But I say that having not been present when any of them burst on the scene.

And that's a critical point. Every restaurant she lists opened more than five years ago, and most of them a whole lot more than that. In that context, the omission of the Momofukus makes complete sense. Ssam Bar as we know it is only 2 years old. Nothing else she lists is anywhere near that recent. Ten years from now, we'll see if the Momofuku phenomenon seems as important as it does now.

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Sorry if this has been addressed before, but could you explain the "Momofuku phenomenon"? I am heading to NY in two weeks and would like to understand what it is all about before going.

Thanks.

Just trying to eat some good food and learn in the process with all the well versed foodies here. Please don't hold me too accountable for my so personal opinions! :)

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Sorry if this has been addressed before, but could you explain the "Momofuku phenomenon"? I am heading to NY in two weeks and would like to understand what it is all about before going.

I'd strongly recommend browsing the Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Momofuku Ko threads.

In brief, the argument is that Ssäm Bar serves three-star food in an environment that, in every other way, entirely demolishes the established expectations for a restaurant of that quality, i.e., patrons sit on stools, reservations aren't taken. Ko takes it even a step further, serving a $100 set menu ($160 at lunch), accepting reservations only on the Internet, and (like Ssäm Bar) forcing patrons to sit on bar stools in a highly pared down environment. There's also Momofuku Noodle Bar, which is similar to Ssäm Bar in some respects, but even more informal.

There's no question that the Momofukus have been the path-breaking restaurants over the last two years. But I don't buy the argument that Greene committed an error by omitting them, given that she didn't name any restaurant that opened after the 1990s. I gather she was listing places whose reputations had had a considerable period of time to settle—something that is simply not true of the Momofukus, however important they may ultimately be judged to have been.

Edited by oakapple (log)
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The other part of the "Momofuku Experience" is that the cooking seems improvisatory. You really get the feeling of a bunch of cooks sitting around in the kitchen riffing on what they think would taste good. And willing to try just about anything.

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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Thanks for the clarification... I'm just wondering now if this is supposed to be good or only cool, laying bare for the same price... :) Food shall be sensational, I guess. But this gets off topic. Thanks again.

Just trying to eat some good food and learn in the process with all the well versed foodies here. Please don't hold me too accountable for my so personal opinions! :)

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I don't know how to explain why, but as someone who was most certainly around at the time, to me, Odeon in its heyday seemed more important (whatever that means) than Balthazar in its heyday.

Interesting point, Sneak...I wasn't around during the Odeon's opening or heyday, but I can see it being on the list, especially if it led TO Balthazar. Whether anyone wants to dine there now, I guess, isn't really the question.

Also, what exactly was Balthazar's heyday, that isn't occurring even now? Put another way, isn't Balthazar as popular now as it ever was?

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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The other part of the "Momofuku Experience" is that the cooking seems improvisatory.  You really get the feeling of a bunch of cooks sitting around in the kitchen riffing on what they think would taste good.  And willing to try just about anything.

I would argue that most good cooks are improvising...here they're improvising with flavors so many in the "downtown" food community seem to really love.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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This is getting more complicated. What is the "downtown" food community?

I would argue that most good cooks are improvising...here they're improvising with flavors so many in the "downtown" food community seem to really love.

Just trying to eat some good food and learn in the process with all the well versed foodies here. Please don't hold me too accountable for my so personal opinions! :)

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While flumferring around the web trying to remind myself of the name of the original Odeon chef (it's Patrick Clark) (RIP), I came across this 2005 article from the International Herald Tribune (I can only assume they sourced it from the New York Times) about Odeon's importance.

I want to be careful not to overclaim here. As oakapple correctly points out, it was Montrachet a few years later that established Tribeca as a "fine dining" destination for people from Uptown. But it was Odeon that really introduced "fine dining" to that neighborhood, even if it was never the Citywide destination that Montrachet became. Within its demographic (which I was very much a part of), Odeon was very much a striking and important new thing. (I had my first Duck en Salmi there!)

It's also hard to remember how much better the food at Odeon was initially, under the late Patrick Clark, than it has been at any time since. Now, comparisons between Odeon and Balthazar seem ludicrous. But Balthazar wouldn't have wiped out Odeon as it was in the old days. (Of course, Balthazar has stayed consistently good, whereas Odeon hasn't.)

Edited by Sneakeater (log)
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But it was Odeon that really introduced "fine dining" to that neighborhood, even if it was never the Citywide destination that Montrachet became.  Within its demographic (which I was very much a part of), Odeon was very much a striking and important new thing.  (I had my first Duck en Salmi there!)

Well put, and an obvious reason for its inclusion.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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I beg to differ on a few points, Steve.

We are talking 40 years. How many on this list were eating out regularly in Manhattan 40 years ago.

Shun Lee, at the time was really ground breaking and the food was so much better and not as expensive as now. Before Shun Lee, it was Cantonese in some basement restaurant in Chinatown or for a treat, at Pearl's. Then came Shun Lee. A beautiful place, Americanized service, excellent, unusual Chinese food and a host who catered to his best known clients. From Shun Lee was spawned David Keh, Pig Heaven and on and on. No one had eaten orange crispy beef before. It was one of their signature dishes.

Now to Maxwell's Plum. It was a scene. It was a destination place. It was New York. It was very cool and it had very good and inventive food with young, rising chefs. I had my first Opera Cake made by Nancy Silverton there. They had an excellent duck.

Tavern on the Green is none of those things. It's sort of like Abagail Kirsch in Central Park. It never had vibe and it was not ground breaking. Maxwell's was. It is one of the few restaurants that I truly miss.

As for omissions, I'm sorry that Ms. Greene did not include La Cote Basque under Henri Soule. I think that it spawned many other fine French restaurants and figured significantly with the fashion/society crowd. Hence Truman Capote's novella under the same name.

I think it's a less-than-compelling list, with no clearly stated criteria. There are some no-brainers but several places I'd replace with others.

For example, if the idea is to acknowledge Warner LeRoy, Tavern on the Green seems more significant than Maxwell's Plum. Shun Lee isn't even good and there were other high-end Chinese restaurants, e.g., Uncle Tai's Hunan Yuan, that were equally groundbreaking at their time. I don't even get the claim that Windows on the World was significant; certainly if it was significant its significance was not culinary. Its proximity reminds me that I'd pick Hudson River Club instead -- now everybody is using Hudson Valley ingredients etc. but HRC was a trailblazer in that regard. River Cafe? Clearly Larry Forgione's more important achievement was An American Place. Odeon? If the idea is to acknowledge McNally then of course Balthazar is the better pick. If it's about TriBeCa then what about Bouley or Montrachet?

The omission of the Momofuku phenomenon -- quite clearly the most important right now -- is inexplicable unless it's just Gael retaliating for her bad experience at Ko.

I don't quite get the explanation for why Union Square Cafe was omitted. Also the opening of Alain Ducasse at the Essex House was probably the most talked-about restaurant opening in history.

What do Ed Levine and Frank Bruni say, Mitch? Do you have those links handy?

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Now to Maxwell's Plum. It was a scene. It was a destination place. It was New York. It was very cool and it had very good and inventive food with young, rising chefs. I had my first Opera Cake made by Nancy Silverton there. They had an excellent duck.

Tavern on the Green is none of those things. It's sort of like Abagail Kirsch in Central Park. It never had vibe and it was not ground breaking. Maxwell's was. It is one of the few restaurants that I truly miss.

I have to agree with Maxwell's Plum...though without ever having eaten there. Looking back on it's history, it sure sounds like a groundbreaking kind of place. Especially this snippet from Ms. Greene's description:

The ambition of its eclectic American menu -- hamburgers and chili to caviar and stuffed squab – wins Claiborne’s four stars in the late 1960s.

Makes it sound like it was the predecessor for every 1 in 2 new restaurants that open today.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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