Given that New York City has no shortage of recommendation-worthy restaurants, it's no surprise that we're inundated with best-of lists, each purporting to offer THE definitive guide to where to eat. Serious Eats is as guilty of perpetuating this trend as the next food website, though we take great pride in the exhaustive lengths we're willing to go for our lists—for our piece on the best pizza by the slice in New York City, we spent months traveling the five boroughs and tasting every pie with a decent reputation before we whittled our picks down to a mere 23 locations. But sometimes, when you're looking for the right recommendation, your best bet is simply to know who to ask.
Few people are better informed of the ins and outs of the city's food scene than the very folks who work in it. For this eating itinerary, we spoke to three of New York's top chefs about their favorite restaurants. Together, Alex Raij, chef-owner of El Quinto Pino, Txikito, La Vara, and Saint Julivert Fisherie; Esther Choi, chef-owner of Mokbar, Mokbar Brooklyn, and Ms. Yoo; and Alex Guarnaschelli, executive chef of Butter and television personality/Chopped judge, have put together a list of destination-worthy eateries that have you covered from morning to after-midnight. Find out what dishes you have to try before leaving New York, learn where to get some of the city's best cocktails, discover splurge-worthy fine dining experiences, and more.
It's worth noting that, because this is a subjective collection of recommendations, these chefs' picks are centered in the very areas that they live and work (namely, downtown Manhattan and north Brooklyn). For tips on how to eat your way through the outer boroughs, check out the rest of our New York City dining-out content, including our recently published locals' guides to eating and drinking in Brooklyn and Queens.
Best Late-Night Eats
If there's one population that knows the late-night eating scene, it's chefs. These after-midnight haunts go way beyond your typical bar food.
BCD Tofu House
For me, "late-night eats" 100% means K-Town! K-town is the street that really never sleeps, as most restaurants run 24/7 (and if not that, then at least until 4 a.m.). My personal favorite would be POCHA 32 and Soju Haus for some late-night drinking with delicious bar food, but for an actual meal I'd say go to BCD Tofu House. It's super authentic Korean, and even if you go at four in the morning, it seems like daytime in there because it's so busy.
It's a tofu house, and they specialize in this tofu soup that is to die for. It comes in all different flavors, and you can get your choice of spiciness level, which goes from one to five. There's a beef option, a pork option, a seafood option, and a plain vegan option. They make their own broth in house, and they make their own tofu. Rice comes on the side. I always get kimchi and pork, and I get mine spicy.
Great NY Noodletown
Great NY Noodletown has been my answer practically since I moved to New York. And now, since 2005 really, it's a neighborhood restaurant for me. It's a really phenomenal restaurant, really great at any time of the day. Everything there is good, and the irony is, it's called Great New York Noodletown and I don't usually get noodle dishes there. I usually just get roast meat and rice, and then the flowering chives are really important to me. But what I order depends on the time of day—if I go in the daytime I always get the baby pig, but if I go at night it's always already gone. I love to get the flowering garlic chive dishes, and personally like it best with shrimp or squid, but I assume a lot of people get it with fish, and then usually either hacked duck or some other kind of pork on top of the greens.
It gives you an incredible sense of New York's history. It's been so universally loved by every food critic, that I feel like you get an education of all the different critics and what they thought of it and what that restaurant has meant to the landscape of being in New York over this whole time, because you go there and there's like Ruth Reichl's review hanging on the wall, and many others. It's a restaurant that knows exactly what it wants to be, and then by being that it's super uncompromising.
Veselka's been there forever. It's a New York City institution. The atmosphere feels like a late-night diner, but it’s only with further scrutiny and investigation that you realize there are no cheeseburgers, grilled cheeses, or omelettes that typically litter the diner tables across late-night Manhattan. Instead, you have beautifully made borscht and pierogies in multiple flavors; some savory, some sweet—you choose your own destiny. The food is consistent and unapologetically itself. The energy varies depending on how many people are there. It’s calm. There is a feeling of comfort. The air is soothing. It’s unpretentious. It’s like home.
— Alex Guarneschelli, Executive chef of Butter and television personality/Chopped judge
New York has almost as many bars as it does restaurants. From an artisanal brewery with a neighborhood feel to a swanky speakeasy hidden behind a Japanese restaurant, here are a few favorites that won’t disappoint.
I love Angel's Share, which is a true, classic speakeasy that is hidden inside a Japanese izakaya in the East Village. They have really amazing cocktails and a cool vibe. Even the Japanese bar, which is called Village Yokocho, is kind of hard to find, because it's on the second floor. There's no obvious signage or anything. Once you’re in the bar, there's a door that people are going in and out of, and that’s Angel’s Share. It's confusing if you've never been there, but that's the whole point of it.
But then you walk in and it's really dimly lit with such a beautiful bar, and the bar has this really beautiful angel painting, which is I think why it's called Angel's Share. All the mixologists are Japanese and it's a very special, cool space. There's this one whiskey cocktail they make that’s infused with smoke—I don’t remember the name of it, because all the names are kind of crazy, and their cocktail list is really, really huge. When it gets brought to your table, they have a glass covering the smoke, and it billows out when they serve it to you.
— Esther Choi
I like going to Folksbier in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn. It's just super delicious, and it's got a great vibe. I love that place. Travis, who makes the beer there, he's also opening one in Red Hook, and it may be open but I haven't been to that one yet. The beer is made in the back, and then there's a bunch of long picnic tables, but it's very neighborly, but it also goes beyond the neighborhood—there are a lot of geeky beer people who line up outside during the day. We buy beer from him for the restaurants as well. In the summer he does a lot of fruity beers, which normally I wouldn’t think I would like, but definitely give them a try.
— Alex Raij
Pegu Club has a tiny air of fancy to it, while still being casual. It's not cheap, so it's not a place where you get dollar beers and oyster shooters. But when you've been working all day, if you're going somewhere late-night because you've had a long day at work, it's really the quality of the drinks and the taste, the creativity, and the combinations that make it.
— Alex Guarnaschelli
Brunch isn’t just a meal in New York, it’s a mood. Opt for a casual meal at a family lunch counter, an outdoor experience in Brooklyn, or an upscale diner with the fluffiest pancakes you’ve ever tucked into.
Sunday in Brooklyn
I really love staying in Brooklyn, where I live, because it's a little less crowded. I especially like Sunday in Brooklyn and 12 Chairs Café in Williamsburg. They're right next to each other, so if you can't get a table at one place, you can get a table at the other. They both have beautiful outdoor seating, where all the Brooklynites like to see and be seen.
Sunday in Brooklyn is your classic brunchy food, eggs and things, but done really well. They cure their own bacon, they make their own sausages, the bread is really good, the eggs are organic...it's really good, local, fresh food. And it's only two blocks from Domino Park, where the old Domino Sugar factory used to be, which is awesome. After brunch you can go and hang out at the park and get a city view. There's volleyball, there’s a doggy park, there's this cool water area where you can cool off. You can see all three bridges. It's just really beautiful and fun. There's also a taco bar there where you can get a margarita, too, so…
— Esther Choi
El Castillo de Jagua
For breakfast or brunch, I love lunch counters, so I like El Castillo de Jagua on Grand Street. I live in the Lower East Side so, for me, that’s one of my go-to's. It’s a little Dominican place, and my kids were raised in there on their rice and beans. They know my kids' names, and they’re just so sweet—whenever my 10-year-old daughter walks in there they all speak to her in Spanish and I think marvel at how much food she can put down. When I go there I usually just get fried eggs and platano maduros. My daughter loves anything with rice and beans, and also loves the stews, like carne guisada, which is basically beef shin cut up and braised in the same way they would do oxtail, and sancocho, which is a clear chicken soup of sorts. She’s a big soup person and loves soups for breakfast, so we’ll go get congee a lot too, usually from Wu’s Wonton King.
— Alex Raij
I go to Bubby's for blueberry pancakes. It's got an elevated diner vibe, which is really what you want for brunch. There's no fuss or fanfare. You can go in there in a mumu and sweatpants and just be yourself. I think that's important. I like the one in Tribeca the most. The pancakes are always fluffy, and they have tons of flavor, tons of blueberries. They come quickly. When the place is crowded, you can still get in and get out; you're not waiting forever. It's just a well-oiled machine.
If there’s a wait, I’ll order a blueberry scone while I’m in line—they have a case holding scones and muffins right when you walk in. It’s like a warm-up for the main event. They’re always baked fresh and studded with fresh blueberries. It’s a case study in how to eat nothing but blueberries for brunch.
Editor's note: The Tribeca location is closed for renovations until early September 2019, but you can still visit Bubby’s at 73 Gansevoort Street.
— Alex Guarnaschelli
If you’re looking to drop some coin for a celebratory meal, NYC will kindly oblige...but that doesn’t mean every expensive tasting menu or Michelin-starred plate is really worth the price.
One of the most fun, interactive, splurgy meals you can get in New York is at Cote, the Korean steak house where you can do a steak omakase—you can try different cuts in bite-size pieces. The service is phenomenal, like what you would get at a Michelin star place, but it's a little bit more casual in the sense that you're still doing barbecue at your table. They have this really amazing wine list. The server grills all the meat for you at the table. It comes with all these side dishes, and it's just a beautiful experience of what Korean barbecue is, but way fancier and elevated. I wouldn't say it's super white table cloth, fancy, you-have-to-wear-a-gown type of place. But it's definitely more upscale than your regular Korean barbecue place. And I would recommend dressing up, still, because it is a vibe. Everyone's out there to celebrate a birthday or something like that.
— Esther Choi
Shabu Shabu Macaron
I also love Shabu Shabu Macaron, which features NYC's first ever shabu shabu omakase. I am obsessed with shabu shabu or anything hot pot. It's run by two female Japanese chefs, and it’s counter seating only—I believe they only have eight seats, so you definitely have to reserve in advance. They have maybe two or three seatings a night. It's a tiny place, but the chef, who also owns the place, serves you directly. She cooks everything for you, kind of like doing a whole sushi omakase at a bar, but it's actually shabu shabu, which is a Japanese hotpot experience in which they cook everything in a broth in front of you. She'll do real fancy cuts of meat like Wagyu. It's been a while since I've been there, but it was really special.
— Esther Choi
Blanca is one of my favorite meals I've ever had in my life. To be frank, I've eaten a lot of good food, and I've had a lot of enjoyable meals, but this was such an over-the-top experience—and not just in terms of luxury. The food was quietly delicious. Sometimes those really expensive restaurants in New York are not that worth it, but Blanca definitely is. It's unique, it's superb, but it's also food you can’t get anywhere else. These guys are very intelligent cooks, and they cook outside of the box because that's natural to them, not because they're trying to push boundaries—they just want to make what they want to make, and they have a good criteria for what's delicious.
One of the things that blew my mind the most was a ravioli filled with goat cheese, but it had this caramelized flavor, which almost reminded me of dulce de leche, with poppy seeds and horseradish. I know that sounds all so crazy, but it was the most divine thing that I've ever eaten. It was bizarre, and delicious, amazing.
— Alex Raij
Marea is my current favorite for crudo and pasta. It's on Central Park South, so it's very sleek. It's in the old San Domenico space on Central Park South off Columbus Circle. I just think Michael White makes the best raw fish dishes and the best pastas in the city. And so it's kind of nice—you have a light raw fish appetizer, and then you have a bowl of pasta, and there's that real balance. They have a great wine list. They have a great staff. And if you want to talk about celebrity watching, you're going to see anyone from J-Lo to Steven Spielberg. One of the best things on the menu is crab, uni, and tomato pasta. It’s a tomato-based sauce but it’s very delicate and studded with bits of crab and sea urchin. It literally tastes like the ocean. And it makes sense the restaurant is called Marea!
— Alex Guarnaschelli
Can't Miss Bites
Don't leave New York without tasting these classics.
Bleecker Street Pizza
For me it's definitely NY pizza, because you really can't get a classic New York slice anywhere but in New York. (I mean, you can, but it just doesn't taste the same.) A New York slice is just a staple, so if you've never had it, you have to try it. I always get a plain slice, because that, to me, is classic New York, with all the free condiments: garlic powder and red pepper flakes and oregano.
Bleecker Street Pizza is my favorite. It's open pretty much 24 hours, so after a drunken night, it's perfect. They do it right because it's really crispy on the bottom, which is very important for me, with a good amount of cheese, and a good ratio of the tomato sauce to the cheese to the crust. It's definitely a tiny grab-and-go situation. You can order by the pie, but it's only take-out. You can kind of stand in a corner to eat, but I don’t recommend it, just because it's really busy there.
— Esther Choi
I’d say the slimy bomb at Yopparai. Yopparai is awesome little izakaya on Rivington Street with great sake and great hot and cold dishes. The slimy bomb is made with homemade natto, which is soybeans that have been fermented, and they get really stretchy. Almost like okra, natto gets this kind of sliminess, which can turn a lot of people off, but it has an incredibly savory flavor. I forget what else is in the dish—I think fish and Japanese vegetables—but I get it every time I go there.
— Alex Raij
Nom Wah Tea Parlor
There are so many things I would suggest, like a cinnamon cruller at The Donut Pub, lox and scrambled eggs at Barney Greengrass, shrimp tempura at Hatsuhana, or an egg sandwich at Eisenberg's. But I think I like the OG egg roll at Nom Wah Tea Parlor best because you get to go to that area—It's in an unusual little part of Chinatown. Nom Wah has been there forever, and the egg roll is big and delicious. The place itself is very authentic. It’s not fancy or dressed up. They have a big fan base of regular customers.
— Alex Guarneschelli
Editor's Note: The chefs' responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.