Call it old-fashioned, nostalgic, or as 1970s Woody Allen might put it, "looking through rose-colored glasses," but there’s just something so undeniably seductive about old New York. There were 10 coffee shops on every block, 99-cent pizza was actually 99 cents, and the Manhattan skyline was still made of brick and stone, not glass and steel.
There may be no way to recreate the past, but as any good New Yorker knows, there are still a number of eateries across the city that certainly come close. Some have been here since the glory days, while others are more recent additions, but a meal at each and every one of them is sure to deliver the classic, old-school New York experience that so many of us dearly miss.
From the moment it opened its famous iron gate in 1930, ‘21’ Club quickly ascended to icon status. The restaurant, which sits just north of the Theater District on 52nd Street, is identifiable even to the most naive of passersby, thanks to its storied array of ornamental jockeys outside, but the real excitement lies inside — under the Bar Room’s thousands of vintage toys that hang from the ceiling, atop the checkered red-and-white tablecloths, and inside the wine cellar that’s played host to several presidential collections.
Over the years, ‘21’ Club has called Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Henry Kissinger regulars; every U.S. president in the last 90 years has dined under its model airplanes and NFL helmets, with the exception of Barack Obama; and to this day, many patrons will carry ongoing tabs to be paid at the end of each month.
A visit to the historic restaurant will undoubtedly earn you a celebrity sighting or two, but dining at ‘21’ will also include a delicious meal of classic New York fare and a large serving of top-notch decorum. Try the crabcake and juicy filet mignon with a side of the renowned pommes soufflées, or if you’re really hungry, go for the truly enormous shellfish tower and lamb ragout tortellini. Either way, don’t forget to wear the required jacket (but if you do, ‘21’ will happily loan you one from their collection of Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren).
21 W. 52nd St., 212-582-7200, 21club.com
If it’s a legendary red-sauce Italian joint you’re after, Carbone is the answer.
The Greenwich Village hot spot from Major Food Group may have only opened in 2013, but take one step onto its “Godfather”-inspired tile floors, and you’ll swear Michael Corleone himself was in the backroom cutting into a colossal veal Parmesan. Carbone is, in its entirety, a tribute to the family-owned Italian-American restaurants of yesteryear, complete with kitschy artwork, a famous neon sign outside, and what might just be the best pasta you’ve ever tasted this side of the Atlantic.
The menu is on the pricey side, and you have to all but stay up until midnight 30 days ahead to get a reservation, but the food (and experience) are absolutely worth it. Order the tableside Caesar salad and the spicy rigatoni vodka or the lobster ravioli and double lamb chops. Keep in mind that although every dish on the menu deserves a spot on your table, they are all quite sizable and best ordered family-style.
181 Thompson St., 212-254-3000, carbonenewyork.com
To the blind eye, the corner of MacDougal Street and Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village might just look like another place to stand as you wait for the Comedy Cellar to call your name, but it’s a worthwhile destination itself.
Named for the Minetta Brook, which once ran from 23rd Street to the Hudson River, Minetta Tavern dates to the 1930s and was once a favorite hangout of E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound and Hemingway. But as its most famed patrons died off, the once illustrious eatery began to show its own age. As the restaurant neared its eighth decade, Minetta was on the brink of extinction, or at the very least of being forgotten, so it came as a great relief to many when acclaimed restaurateur Keith McNally (of Balthazar, Odeon and Pastis fame) came to its rescue in 2009. The undertaking seemed fit only for him, given his penchant for creating vintage-feeling atmospheres and bringing new life to tired spots.
Sure enough, McNally delivered. The restaurant is bathed in elevated nostalgia, with checkered floor tiles, old-school red leather booths, and stacks of New Yorker-esque cartoons and black-and-white photos on every wall. Minetta’s made a name for its steaks and world-famous black label burger, but there’s not an item on the menu that’s not delicious, and its pile of fries is perhaps the best in town.
113 MacDougal St., 212-475-3850, minettatavernny.com
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Opened in 1913 inside the recently finished midtown train station, the Grand Central Oyster Bar quickly became a legend in its own right, earning a reputation for top-notch seafood and a wide range of oysters.
The restaurant was long a favorite of tourists, commuters and locals alike, but in the 1970s, it fell into bankruptcy and faced several decades of difficulty and near abandonment. In 2014, though, the Oyster Bar underwent four months of renovations and welcomed guests to its storied vaulted chambers once again. The subterranean spot reinstated its red-and-white checkered tablecloths and expanded its oyster offerings monumentally, now serving more than two million every year.
89 E. 42nd St., 212-490-6650, oysterbarny.com
It’s almost impossible to overstate Pastis’s dominance in the New York dining scene of the early aughts. The Keith McNally restaurant’s iconic décor, delicious food and stellar service made regulars out of Anna Wintour, Sarah Jessica Parker, Salman Rushdie and Martha Stewart almost as soon as it opened its Ninth Avenue doors in 1999. Pastis was instrumental in bringing the Meatpacking District from crime and grime to its now irrefutable trendy, place-to-be status, and it played host to a number of literary masterpieces, A-list parties and even presidential meals.
The French bistro was constantly abuzz, and it remained at the height of its success for over a decade, but in 2014, McNally was forced to close the restaurant in the wake of soaring rent prices. He assured the city that some day, it would return, though, and earlier this summer, it did.
The new Pastis, located on Gansevoort Street just a block away from the original, is a near replica of its predecessor but, if it’s possible, with even better food. The brushed aluminum doors, the golden Parisian lights, and the signature paper menus are all there, and McNally and his new partner, Stephen Starr (of Le Coucou and Buddakan), have even brought back Pastis’s original subway tiles. Try the moules frites or the famous steak sandwich, and don’t miss the buttery pommes purees and escargot.
52 Gansevoort St., 212-929-4844, pastisnyc.com
As the Lower East Side becomes more and more gentrified, there’s one spot that’s somehow stood the test of time, and it sits proudly on the corner of Houston and Ludlow streets.
Katz’s Deli has been around since 1888. It’s the purveyor of pastrami, a beacon for brisket, and of course, where Harry met Sally. But whether you’re going to the landmark spot for late-night grub (the restaurant is open 24 hours a day) or to “have what she’s having,” expect the Jewish deli classics, including a towering plate of pickles for every table.
And don’t let the old-school operation fool you — you’ll be handed a ticket as you walk through the door, and you can opt for table service to order your food from a waiter, who will write on the ticket, or you can go through the line and watch your meat being sliced. Either way, you won’t pay for a thing until after you enjoy your turkey on rye or matzo ball soup, and on your way out, you will bring the marked ticket (don’t lose it; there’s a fine!) to a cashier and settle the bill there.
205 E. Houston St., 212-254-2246, katzdelicatessen.com
Russian Tea Room
Known around the world for its over-the-top décor and extreme opulence, the Russian Tea Room has been a haven for indulgent tourists and locals for more than 90 years.
With its 24-carat gold ceilings, spacious red leather banquettes, and priceless collection of art, the 57th Street restaurant has a rich history of star-studded clientele, from writers and artists to actors and politicians. Madonna once worked in the coat room; Dustin Hoffman filmed a scene of “Tootsie” at one of the booths; and countless celebs still grace its ornate carpet today.
Although renowned for serving one of the most incredible tea services in the world, The Russian Tea Room is so much more than a place for English Breakfast or Rooibos Chai. The extensive brunch, lunch and dinner menus offer everything from a caviar omelet to Kulebiaka salmon with onions, mushrooms and vegetables. And since this is, after all, the Russian Tea Room, be sure to sample one (or 10) of the 40 kinds of vodka available.
150 W. 57th St., 212-581-7100, russiantearoomnyc.com