The food desert that characterized the Upper West Side restaurant scene for much of its history has been replanted over the last few years with with an amazing array of options. These days you can find most any cuisine and at almost any price level. One result is that restaurants are often packed—on a beautiful evening it’s possible to walk the length of Amsterdam Avenue, for example, coming back up Broadway or Columbus Avenue while spotting nary a single empty table.
We lay out a few of our favorites here, even as we mourn the many that have closed since the last time we did this, with our guide to Eating Well on the Upper West Side of Manhattan: 10 Moderately Priced Restaurants. But know that there are many more. If you get turned away from one, just head next door. We start at the northern fringe at Manhattanville, head through Morningside Heights and down to Columbus Circle, taking an expansive definition of the Upper West Side.
1. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
There once was a time when city dwellers scorned infrastructure, and property beneath bridges and viaducts, disdained as dark and dirty, tended to stay undeveloped. But now it’s the coolest of the cool. Always admired from afar, the Henry Hudson Viaduct, built in 1898, is equally treasured close up. So many interesting businesses flourish beneath it that the New York Times called it “a fertile nightlife microclimate.”
One of those is Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, founded in Syracuse by bikers who had been successfully selling brisket and ribs from a food truck. The biker theme (Dino calls its building a “retro roadhouse”) seems appropriate since Dino is a bit far afield, at the 12th Avenue end of 125th Street. Lots of New Yorkers say Dino has the best BBQ in town—a fighting topic, if there ever was one. Many Southerners claim NYC can never be a true BBQ mecca, since it’s just too far away from the regional base. But with its luscious ribs and chicken and good sides (Syracuse potatoes, fried green tomatoes, mac & cheese) Dino is strong enough to be a contender. Drinks are generously sized; 24 beers on tap; live music many weekends.
The experience can be wild, depending on the crowd (Columbia University meets uptown biker) and your server—some are much better than others. One caveat: we didn’t love the plastic plates for the sides. If noise is an issue for you, go for lunch rather than dinner. Reservations are a sensible tactic, though you need to make them a week in advance on weekends. One nice extra touch: Dino will text you when your table is ready, letting you stroll the Hudson River Greenway, rather than wait in the cramped lobby. Kids welcome. Do check it out before Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion is in full force.
700 West 125th Street
M-Th, 11:30 AM-11:00 PM; Fri-Sat, 11:30 AM to midnight; Sun, noon to 10 PM
2. Toast Chicken
Toast Chicken is adorable—and a little implausible. Its owner describes it as “truckstop gourmet.” Pretty much what was once called a hole-in-the-wall, TC is easy to miss as you march up Amsterdam toward General Grant Houses. With its huge kitchen it does a booming take-out business, but the actual restaurant is quite small, seating about 60 people including the bar. We sat at one of the two outdoor tables, where we got cheerful service from Francesca Gomez in between her duties handing out flyers to passers-by.
Like Toast 105, which replaced the renowned but unsuccessful Carne at 2737 Broadway at 105th Street and Toast 125 at 3157 Broadway, the newest Toast seeks “to feed what used to be a starved region,” Morningside Heights and Manhattanville. No one will starve so long as Toast Chicken, with its immense portions, stays in business. We ate the marvelous rotisserie chicken without qualm, having read that “All of their birds will have lived the good life: raised naturally, free roaming, all vegetarian diet, and antibiotic-free” at the Goffle Road Poultry Farm in New Jersey. We ordered a pitcher of very fresh beer from the list of eleven craft beers, and finished with hot cake donuts ($1.50 each). Toast attributes its fresh-tasting beer to their Pegas Craft Tap beer filling station, which it says is the only one in NYC. Happy Hour runs 4-7 PM 7 days a week, offering $5 drinks and 50% off wings. Toast Chicken has a lunch special for $8.95, and a dinner special (including draft beer) for $11.95. Our weekend favorite: the donut basket, which gives you four donuts with fresh apple butter and crème Anglaise.
1268 Amsterdam (between 122nd & 123rd Streets)
Open 11 AM-11 PM 7 days a week; bar often stays open later
3. Mexican Festival Restaurant
The SW corner of Broadway and 102nd Street seems to be one of those Manhattan locations where restaurants struggle. It’s had at least three Mexican restaurants that we know of—Mama Mexico, Maria Bonita, and now Mexican Festival. But this time the combo of well-balanced drinks, good food, large portions, and live mariachi music might work. To begin with, the place is pretty, which West Siders increasingly appreciate, and slightly romantic, without being overbearing.
We ordered the house margaritas ($12) and mojitos. Both were well-flavored, with ample liquor. The people at the next table raved about their jalapeño margaritas, which they were perfectly happy to share. Ferocious! We had planned to order guacamole, which friends had recommended. But the waiters (three of them) couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us if they used Haas avocados (which is what we wanted). “An avocado is an avocado,” said one. Not really. We passed. For an appetizer we decided on the Queso Fundido (melted Chihuahua and Oaxaca cheese plus choriozo), which was delicious and immense. We couldn’t finish our Enchiladas Campechanas or Carne a la Tampiquena, which we took home. The leftovers were even better the next day, which makes over-ordering far less of a risk. Mexican Festival Restaurant offers many specials, such as Margarita Mondays, when 12-ounce drinks are $6. But call first. The specials don’t seem to be listed any place official.
Mexican Festival Restaurant
M-Th, 9 AM- 12 PM; Fri, Sat, 9 AM- 1AM; Sun, 9 AM- 12PM
4. The Mermaid Inn
“American Fish: Eat Us Instead of Meat,” announces the Mermaid Inn. It’s a formula, but a sound one: cute wait staff, killer happy hour with dollar oysters, simple but superior seafood, and an attractive kids’ menu. Founded in the East Village, this tiny chain of three restaurants keeps its edgy feel while appealing to a full range of customers—young or old, chic or staid, everyone is happy at Mermaid. Our party consisted of three adults plus a two-and-one-half-year old, who was immediately charmed by the waitress telling him he was “fetching” while handing him a place mat and fresh crayons.
While Mermaid Inn’s famous old-fashioned crab boil ended, alas, with the close of summer, their Sunday Lobsterpaloozas continue. Mermaid’s web site may be the best in NYC’s food world, giving you all the info you need about locations, events, and specials but also educating you charmingly via School of Fish and Oysterpedia (“comparable to the complexities of wine”). On Mondays you can get 20% off your bill by saying Mermaid’s #SMM password. Reservations are strongly recommended. If by chance you can’t get in, try B. Cafe next door. B, which stands for Belgian, serves all-you-can-eat Moules Frites for $20, plus lively Belgian beer.
568 Amsterdam Ave (between 87th & 88th Streets)
7 nights a week for dinner, Sat & Sun for brunch
Mon, 5-10 PM; Tues-Fri, 5-10:30 PM; Sat brunch, 11 AM-3:30 PM, dinner, 5-10:30; Sun brunch, 11 AM-3:30 PM, dinner, 5-10:00
Tom Valenti’s Ouest opened to immense acclaim—and some doubt—in 2001, when the West 80s was far from a food destination. New York Magazine praised Valenti for “staking out the culinary wilderness north of Lincoln Center.” Swells poured in from downtown, and locals stared in disbelief. But Ouest gradually settled in, shaving some of its hip edges and cultivating a more welcoming manner.
Ouest’s food tends to be upscale bistro—comfort food with a fine wine list. Our waiter, who started us out with a nice olive oil spread and superior bread, brought our excellent drinks immediately, and then disappeared. We didn’t mind because we wanted to talk, and the room is quite a bit quieter than we remembered. (The semi-circular, red-leather booths are quieter than the tables.) We were surprised to see that Valenti’s celebrated braised short ribs were no longer on the menu, so ordered the grilled hanger steak ($35) with fabulous polenta and the pan-roasted chicken ($29), which is the cheapest entrée. Ouest is on the expensive side, but tempers its prices with a popular two-course Sunday brunch for $29, and participates in Restaurant Week with generous menus. The Post’s Steve Cuozzo warns that you should go in parties of four or more in order to merit a booth, rather than what he calls the “cramped banquettes.”
2315 Broadway (at 84th Street)
Sunday brunch, 11 AM-2 PM; dinner, 5-9 PM; Mon-Tu, 5:30-9:30 PM; Wed-Th, 5:30-10 PM; Fri, 5:30-11 PM; Sat, 5-11 PM
Though Gazala’s is relatively new (2010) to the Uppper West, it would have fit nicely into the old zeitgeist, which treasured authenticity and diversity of cultures. Its owner and chef, Gazala Halabi, was born and raised in Daliat el-Carmel, a Druze village of 15,000 in northern Israel. She calls her restaurant “a little slice of my village on Columbus Avenue” and notes that food is an integral part of Druze culture. The menu offers familiar Middle Eastern dishes with a twist. The bread, for example, is a pita that is made daily on a dome-shaped sagg griddle. It is thin, pliable, and subtle. The tabouli is very fresh, and the bourekas (cheese-and-spinach- or tomato-stuffed pastry) are wonderful.
But the star of the menu is the grilled whole fish platter, with a choice of orata (our favorite), branzino or barbounia (red mullet). Very nice kenafi for dessert. Prices are moderate, with apps averaging $8 and entrées $16. Gazala’s regularly features Groupons, which can convert the meal to an exceptional bargain.
380 Columbus Ave (between 78th & 79th Streets)
Open 7 days a week, 11 AM- 10:30 PM
7. Nougatine at Jean-Georges
Hard to believe that Nougatine is an adolescent—17 years old and headed for adulthood. When Jean-Georges Vongerichten hit on the brilliant idea of pairing his very expensive, formal restaurant at Columbus Circle with an informal, moderately priced alternative, the Time Warner Center was not yet built, much less an icon hosting remarkable tenants, like Jazz at Lincoln Center. These days the area is hopping, with visitors and New Yorkers pouring out of the renovated CC transit hub to shop, eat, and wander. As Time-Out New York once noted, “Savvy diners know that Nougatine offers Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s celebrated French-inflected fare, minus the staggering prices of his eponymous fine-dining temple next door.”
We went to Nougatine during Restaurant Week—a great NYC innovation that can nonetheless offer a slightly unnerving adventure at ritzy places. Nougatine staff couldn’t have been more gracious, seating us at a pristine table by the huge window overlooking Central Park. We were immediately given a choice of superb bread, which came with pure, sweet butter. Our food (gazpacho followed by grilled chicken) was very pleasant, but it was the warm chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream that made our day. Nothing beats RW prices, of course, but Nougatine routinely offers a three-course prix-fixe lunch for $38, and a five-course tasting dinner for $88. In good weather, nothing beats eating outside, beneath elegant umbrellas, on Nougatine’s Terrace, set high above the UWS’s busy streets.
Nougatine at Jean-Georges
One Central Park West (at 60th Street)
Open 7 days a week, 7 AM-11 PM (with short breaks among breakfast, lunch, dinner)
Find more UWS hotspots in Eating Well on the Upper West Side of Manhattan: 10 Moderately Priced Restaurants
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association. Get in touch with her @JuliaManhattan.