The New York Times once called the old Upper West “home-grown, lefty, maybe even a little new-agey.” We haven’t seen a definition of the New Upper West but those old elements remain, interspersed with the glossy buildings and glossy new people. West Siders debate the neighborhood’s boundaries but we’ll keep it simple by using Community Board 7 boundaries, which run from 59th Street (Time-Warner) to 110th and coincide with Central Park on the east and the Hudson River on the west. These boundaries, which are clear, have the advantage of letting you track changes in the neighborhood. CB 7 is the target area for this list of restaurants–all chosen for being moderately priced, sit-down places, with good food and friendly service. (The restaurants in Time-Warner and near Lincoln Center tend to be up a notch expense-wise, and will be reviewed in the next installment.)
Two early, consistent restaurant successes–Popover and Good Enough to Eat–were both opened in 1981, and are immensely popular to this day. They are the West Side’s lodestars.
Both are on Amsterdam Avenue, a street that may have gone through a more dramatic transformation than any other major street in Manhattan. Today it is lively and fun, with several restaurants per block, between, say, 78th and 88th. You can safely experiment on Amsterdam, confidently walking into places that strike your fancy.
I’ve always loved Good Enough to Eat, with its pretty but defiant white picket fence and its consistently excellent home-cooked food. “Only in New York would a neighborhood’s most popular sidewalk café be in front of a bus stop,” a Boston friend once said to me as we were eating at Good Enough–ingesting the fumes but having a marvelous time. The weekend brunches attract huge crowds, perfectly happy to wait in the long line, chatting with friends and petting passing dogs. Famous for corned beef hash, pancakes, French toast, and great bread. All meals are excellent here but the brunch attracts New Yorkers from all over. Cheerful news: Good Enough is moving June 12th to the old Avenue space on Columbus, and will celebrate its opening on June 13th.
Good Enough to Eat, 520 Columbus (at 85th Street) as of June 13, same phone: 212-496-0163
Some very forward-thinking people decided in the late ’90s that the chic, upscale restaurant, Fred’s, would work on then-gritty Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West. They were right–maybe because of the dog, a female black lab bred as a seeing-eye dog who flunked seeing-eye school (a sad tale that appeals to West Siders). Fred, says the owner, “epitomizes everything the restaurant stands for: loyalty, reliability, an ingrained desire to please, and a playful spirit.” Fred’s, the restaurant, aims for all of this, and succeeds. American comfort food, great mac ‘n cheese, meatloaf, burgers, mashed potatoes, salads. Large sidewalk café.
*Fred’s, 476 Amsterdam, phone: 212.579-3076
If you walk a few feet north on Amsterdam on Good Enough’s side of the street you’ll come to Hey Mambo in the same block. It’s a whole new thing for the Upper West–a high-style, fabulous-looking French-Italian fusion restaurant. Maybe this will be where the New Upper West meets the Old. It’s “more than food, more than ambience, more than service,” says the owner. It truly looks splendid to the naked eye. I was the only patron on a chilly afternoon and received attentive service. Hey Mambo is too new for any definitive opinion, but the brunch at $20 (which I haven’t yet tried) looks impressive, and the garden out back is a testimony to urban principles–really fabulous walls with cascading flowers, Italian-style, and buildings looming up all round in somehow a friendly fashion.
*Hey Mambo, 487 Amsterdam, phone: 212-595-5050
When the neighborhood first heard in 1981 that Popover would be opening, food lovers groaned. Popover was taking the space of the West Side’s best Italian fruit and vegetable man. But owner Carol Baer had a plan–she agreed to buy from him as long as he wanted to stay in business. Everyone was happy. Popover is now renowned for its excellent salads, healthy sandwiches, fresh juices–and fluffy popovers. (You get one with most entrées.) The vegetables and fruits remain superb.
Popover, 551 Amsterdam Avenue (87th Street), (212) 595-8555
Mamajuana Café originally opened on Dyckman Street in Inwood, where the neighbors were not very happy with the noisy crowds. It’s had a more peaceable time on the Upper West, perhaps because the good food (excellent tapas, pizza, seafood, paella, steaks) attracts an adult clientele–though the really superb drinks (and specials) draw as well. That makes perfect sense. The Dominican owners chose the name Mamajuana because it means a potion of wine, honey, herbs, and rum, which is said to be a natural aphrodisiac. Signature cocktails. Nice sidewalk café. Their reservation system is not 100% reliable.
*Mamajuana Café, 570 Amsterdam Avenue, phone: 212-362-1514
A favorite hang-out for fitness trainers and teachers from Equinox up the block, City Diner offers fresh, delicious, simple food. You can feel very good about yourself eating here in elegant, beautifully lit surroundings, with extraordinarily fit beautiful people in every booth. So if they’re eating it, it’s gotta be good for you, right? Basic diner food, plus excellent veggie burgers for the Equinox crowd. Open 24 hours.
City Diner, 2441 Broadway (90th Street), phone: 212-877-2720
Because Vareli is very popular with Columbia university students and faculty, you’ll find that it makes highly generous offers when Columbia is out of session. The 20-foot copper bar downstairs is well-attended and noisy. If you prefer quiet, go upstairs–lovely tables by the windows. Upstairs also has an electric fireplace, which draws romantic couples, and a cute outdoor section in the back. The New York Times warns that that Vareli’s is “is child-friendly by day, but more adult in the evenings.” Great fresh vegetables, which are supplied by the market they run across the street.
*Vareli, 2869 Broadway (at 111th Street), 212-678-8585
Pappardella is a traditional, gluten-free Tuscan restaurant and wine bar that can get lost in the Columbus Avenue hype. But it’s a neighborhood institution serving good food (including home-made pasta), wine, and, in the summer, home-made ice cream. Generous portions. Nice outdoor café. Restful place to stop after an excursion to Housing Works.
*Pappardella, 316 Columbus Avenue (at 75th Street), 212-595-7996
Spring Natural Kitchen is pleasant for everyone. Lots of young parents with babies taking advantage of the healthy food and gracious service mix easily with other customers–in part because the spacious room offers plenty of distance between tables. Spring Natural Kitchen is the sister restaurant to SoHo’s Spring Street Natural founded in 1973. Both “serve good, wholesome, unprocessed cooking from scratch, everything homemade from all-natural ingredients. That philosophy has been our inspiration for the last 39 years and just so happens to be all the rage today.” Good-sized sidewalk café.
Spring Natural Kitchen, 474 Columbus, phone, 646-596-7434
Owned by Marc Murphy, who also owns the Landmarc in Time-Warner as well as another Ditch Plains in the West Village, Ditch Plains has a neighborhood formula–but it’s a winning one. Lots of fun stuff to eat in a big fun room. Surfer Sundays and Mondays ($30 lobster clam bake), for example. Low-tide oysters every Tuesday and Wednesday. $4 draft beers. The staff is very oriented to handling children graciously early on–and then shift easily to their regular clientele when the kids clear out. Basically, everyone stays pretty happy here.
*Ditch Plains, 100 West 82nd Street (off Columbus), phone:212-362-4815
New Taste of the Upper West Side
The *starred restaurants above participate in the New Taste of the Upper West Side food festival, which runs from May 29 to June 1. You can meet the Upper West’s most interesting chefs, and sample unlimited tastings of food, wine, and spirits. Tickets, whose proceeds support neighborhood projects, including the beautification of Columbus Avenue above, can be bought online, and picked up at the will call desk onsite at Columbus Avenue between 76th and 77 streets.
Soirée in the Park, 7:00 pm, May 29: $150
Comfort Classic, 7:00 pm, May 31: $105
Best of the West VIP, 6:00 pm, June 1: $250
Best of the West general admission, 7:00 pm, June 1: $135
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association and director of its Center for Urban Innovation.