Well before there was ever a Food Network to speak of, let alone the one that currently streams into over 99 million American households, and long before the advent of the celebrity chef, there was the celebrity restaurant. It used to be that the only people who went to places like Jean Georges and Le Bernardin were the upper echelon of New York society, but now anyone with $600 to splurge can get a table at any one of the elite dining rooms of their choice – chances are, if they know what they want, they will. So advice to the traveling tourists of New York – keep some bills in that pocket and come hungry. Whether it’s for a taste of Thomas Keller, Éric Ripert, Tom Colicchio or the next best chef undiscovered by the discerning glare of the Food Network cameras, there’s just so many unique offerings in this city.
In a city with more than enough exclusive restaurants, the famously exclusive restaurant is Jean Georges. It’s the name one drops in late ‘90s sitcoms when they want to suggest a certain class level, at once immediately recognizable to all and experienced by few. Jean Georges demands reservations weeks in advance and those reservations are simply not missed. The reputation oozes poshness, but the interior itself is airy and immaculate, white and pearly, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the park. The food is offered in small plates, prix-fixe, of either two plates for lunch and three for dinner, or the tasting menu of six dishes with a dessert tasting. And, as always, here’s why the tasting menu is recommended: because it’s Jean Georges. Trailing with it a constellation of stars from Michelin (three, always), the New York Times (four, always), and praise from literally every respectable food and travel publication, Jean Georges does not slack off on its quality or execution of fine French plates infused with choice east-Asian influences.
The Sex and the City movie made this place iconic (fans will instantly remember Big and Carrie’s engagement party as soon as they see the gigantic 34-seater banquet table in the middle of the restaurant), but its reputation in NYC as a opulent and high-quality Chinese fusion restaurant far surpasses its rep as a filming location. From the outside, it’s just a dark unassuming box marked with a sign, but the doors open up to a massive 17,000-square-foot Chinoiserie meets nightclub atmosphere: oak panels, tiles of Buddha faces and antique art works cover the walls, oversized opera-style chandeliers hang overhead, and lining the dining room are carved banquettes designed to evoke Shanghai in the ‘30s. The food is just as aesthetically intoxicating and tasteful – the Peking duck at Buddakan is one of the best you’ll find in the Northern Hemisphere, their dim sum selection is replete with classics twisted with an inventive approach (their vegetarian dumplings are made with a carrot-based dumpling wrap and served to look like real carrots). One of the best things about Buddakan, unlike its similarly upscale competitors, is that they’re not quite as exclusive – for their benefit. The space is massive and can accommodate large groups with a reservation, but even parties of two can get in at one of their smaller dining areas without calling ahead first.
In terms of French dining and seafood, Le Bernardin is a legend in this town. The original Le Bernardin opened modestly in Paris in 1972 by siblings Maguy and Gilbert LeCoze and quickly became one of Paris’ best restaurants, earning them a Michelin star a mere four years later. In 1986, the duo opened up their location in Midtown and in only three months, they received a coveted four star review from the New York Times – totally unprecedented. Since then, it’s been a shower of stars with every passing year and Le Bernardin has truly carved a name out for themselves in the highly competitive restaurant market in New York – all from such humble beginnings. Now, under the helm of Maguy LeCoze and super-chef Éric Ripert, of Food Network, Treme and multiple James Beard awards fame, Le Bernardin has not backed off on quality and continues to serve ingenious reimaginings of classic French seafood dishes. Offering both a tasting menu and a prix-fixe style choice of four choices from their menu of "almost raw" "barely touched" and "lightly cooked" fish. Fans of the humble lobster rolls will not regret ordering Ripert’s signature truffled lobster en brioche – just don’t don’t stress about the receipt afterwards.
Gramercy Tavern, a Flatiron District mainstay since 1994, is cool, chic, rustic, unpretentious and utterly New York. It serves nothing but New American food made from ingredients all-American, with a focus on fresh seafood and insanely decadent desserts. The dining room takes reservations and serves three-course prix-fixe meals or tasting menus with five seasonal small plates, all marvelously less expensive but just as superior as its more stuffy competition. The Tavern, however, is significantly more casual and is walk-in only, with its own separate menu of snacks. Their pub grub eschews fries and burgers in favor of dishes like a fish croquette served with a mixed green salad and smoked oyster sauce or Duck liver Mousse. Once the brainchild of legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer and Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio, Gramercy Tavern has now fallen into the hands of the very able Chef Michael Anthony (who won the James Beard award of "Best Chef: New York City" in 2012; yeah, that’s able), who has helped Gramercy Tavern win a number of accolades, including a three-star New York Times review and a James Beard Award for "Outstanding Restaurant."
Per Se recommends its diners call ahead – no less than a month in advance. And the order of Thomas Keller’s signature Oyster and pearls is non-negotiable – not that diners ever feel as if they’re in a position to negotiate. When Thomas Keller tells you to throw back an Island Creek Oyster topped with a "sabayon" of pearl tapioca and healthy amount of Sterling White Sturgeon caviar, you do it, and gladly. At the legendary multiple James Beard award-winning restaurant titan’s NYC flagship restaurant, they’ll only give you more than a few concentrated bites of every dish, turning each course into a little burst of curiosity and delight before another little surprise. What will it be next? Black sesame cornets filled with salmon tartare and red onion crème fraîche? Foie gras torchon glazed with persimmon and vanilla and saffron emulsion? More melt-in-your-mouth brioche? The reaction that Per Se is after is one of "What did I just eat?" followed by "More, please," but spread over nine courses in the seasonally changing tasting menu. Their large, multi-roomed restaurant on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle is always fresh and inviting, highlighted by his trademark blue door and is always packed. It’s for a reason, too, because food might never be the same ever again once diners step into Thomas Keller’s world.