Our 10 Best NYC Restaurants of the Last Two Centuries

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The 21 Club is decorated with a row of lawn jockeys, leading to earlier accusations of racism, till the faces of the jockeys were painted white.

6. 21 Club, 21 West 52nd Street (1930-present) -- Like Oscar's Waldorf, the 21 Club was the restaurant that defined "exclusive" for its age. It started as a speakeasy, and introduced the idea that you were to be judged by the table you were given -- the corners were reserved for celebrities. "One of the finest restaurants in the world, operated as though it were a private club," said restaurant critic Lawton Mackall in his landmark review book, Knife and Fork in New York (1948). The cellar contained a reputed 40,000 bottles, and the signature recipes included steak tartare, chicken hash, all sorts of raw shellfish and caviar, crab cakes, and Caesar salad. Even today, you can see the limos lined up in front of its premises, lavishly decorated with wrought iron and, rather absurdly, the figures of lawn jockeys named for famous patrons.


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Henri Soule (left) and one of his chefs compare fish.
7. Le Pavillon, 5 East 55th Street (1941-1971) -- Under restaurateur Henri Soule, Le Pavillon began life as Le Restaurant du Pavillon de France, the eating establishment of the French pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair. The food it presented was a revelation to New York diners, who were still eating French food directly descended from Delmonico's, with heavy cream-based sauces and massive portions. Le Pavillon presented the cuisine for the first time in its evolved form. The restaurant moved to Manhattan in 1941, and in 1964, near the start of his reviewing career, Craig Claiborne of the Times was still able to exclaim, "Le Pavillon is and has been since its opening in 1939 the finest French restaurant in New York and probably in the United States." Signature dishes included chicken braised in champagne, filet of sole bonne femme, lamb stew with vegetables, and beef bourguignon.

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The facade of Babbo looks much the same as when it was the Coach House.

8. Coach House, 110 Waverly Place (1949-1993) -- Owned by Greek immigrant Leon Lianides, this intimate Greenwich Village restaurant took its inspiration not from French cuisine but from sturdy American fare, and thus launched a movement that is still being felt today. In doing so, Lianides influenced countless of today's chefs, beginning with James Beard, who could often be seen at the bar eating a bowl of the restaurant's famous sherry-laced black bean soup. And chef Anne Rosenzweig noted enthusiastically, "Oh, those corn sticks, you thought about them for weeks before you finally went for dinner. It was a forerunner of the American cooking we do today."


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Chef and owner of Lutece, André Soltner.
9. Lutece, 249 East 50th Street (1961-2004) -- Under the direction first of founder Andre Surmain, and later André Soltner, Lutece was the natural successor to Le Pavillon as the place that hoisted the banner of modern French cuisine. But what a difference a couple of decades had made! Now the signature dish was foie gras luxuriously soaked in chocolate sauce with a side of bitter marmalade, an unctuous turtle soup, and an Alsatian onion tart that was soon copied in half the city's restaurants, and remains a dining standard today. In the early '80s, Mimi Sheraton rhapsodized over the apps: "[The] possibilities are extraordinary, whether you choose the puffy, crisp-crusted Alsatian onion tart, the fine juniper-perfumed duck mousse or foie gras baked in an eggy brioche dough, the feuillete puff pastry, filled with the whipped, creamed salt codfish, brandade, and then finished with a pink beurre blanc." Obviously, nouvelle cuisine had yet to make its mark.


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Daniel Boulud and friend.
10. Daniel, 60 East 65th Street (1993 to present) -- Of Lyon native Daniel Boulud, the Times' Molly O'Neill has said, "Half of Boulud is a big-city executive; the other half is a shy, fastidious Frenchman who cooked his way off his family's farm to the apex of his craft." He began at Le Cirque in 1983, but a decade later had started his eponymous restaurant (with a $2 million loan from the CEO of Playtex), by many considered to be the finest in town (others say Le Bernardin). By November 1993, he'd already received four stars from the Times' Marian Burros. When he moved Daniel from the location that currently holds Café Boulud in 1998, Ruth Reichl was quick to reassure us about the new location: "How's the food? Do you really need to ask? If you were a fan of Daniel, you know what to expect: First-rate French food from a talented chef at the peak of his powers." Typical main courses include roasted skate with arugula, "heirloom" tomatoes, black olives, saffron potatoes, and a fennel-tomato emulsion; and roasted rack of lamb with a lemon-rosemary crust, grilled radicchio, honey-glazed eggplant, and a sweet garlic panisse, a french fry made with chickpea puree.


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