Professional eater Howie Kahn surveys the staying power of the New York's restaurants du jour.
Every work meal beyond the five boroughs, it seems, no matter how impressive, ends with a moment of mental indigestion. I’ll be finishing something wonderful—fermented mushroom dipped in chocolate at Copenhagen’s Noma or one last xiao long bao at the original and holy Din Tai Fung, in Taipei—when I hear a predictable, but nevertheless nerve-racking question.
“What are the best restaurants in New York?” somebody at the table will inevitably ask, emphasizing how much they love the city, expecting me to agree with their assertion that New York, my base, is the best food city in the world. They’ll fold their napkins, and then their hands, anticipating a delicious answer. They’ll look at me, a professional eater, as if they’ve just said something utterly casual, easily solvable. I’ll scan the table for more wine.
I struggle with the question because it’s become increasingly complicated. Keeping up with the restaurant scene in Manhattan, where a chef of great acclaim does something new or notable seemingly every week (because somehow every chef has become a chef of great acclaim), demands a rigor and vigilance on par with religion. It’s a faith that disagrees with me. When I’m home, I mainly eat for comfort, sustenance, and efficiency—simple luxuries. I feel differently about food when I travel. Abroad, eating is a battle march—a road to cultural discovery that my GI tract is primed to conquer. At home, however, the place my stomach goes to recover, a good fresh bowl of pasta usually does just fine.
Recently, though, during a blessedly lengthy stretch without any overseas flights, I found the energy, and the appetite, to properly own my territory—to step away from stalwarts like Bar Pitti (rigatoni with peas) and the Odeon (burger, wine) long enough to smell the uni. I needed new answers to a question that requires current information; saying I love Le Bernardin (opened, 1986) and Gramercy Tavern (opened, 1994), while unwaveringly true, provides the same level of culinary conversational cred as claiming, amongst music aficionados, that I haven’t liked any new albums since Revolver or Let It Bleed. Classics, even the ones that remain artful and resonant, are one thing. Committing to the moment is another.
In an effort to get intimate with the local gastronomic present, I made some rules. I would treat New York like a destination. I would mindfully pause before entering any restaurant’s door, shaking off the stress of the day—baggage I wouldn’t carry elsewhere—and making brain space to treat the meal ahead like a journey. It would all play out over the course of seven days so the experience, like a trip, would be concentrated enough to shed light on larger themes. Mainly, how does restaurant-obsessed New York City eat now? And it would all happen downtown, not necessarily below the conservative boundary of 14th Street, but more within the purview of a downtown style of service, casually elegant to varying degrees, that’s become far too compelling not to make its way north. Sensibly, it would start with pizza.