Ask the Critics: The Sweet Spot
Everyone I Know asks: Do you know where I can the find a restaurant that serves inventive, exceptionally prepared food at dirt-cheap prices with a fun atmosphere and plentiful booze?
Dear Everyone I Know: I am not a magician. I cannot conjure up a restaurant with the food of Per Se, the atmosphere of Balthazar, and the prices of Papaya Dog. I can, however, share the the restaurants that come close to hitting that sweet spot of desirable characteristics: casual, comfortable places with a lively buzz, a hip aesthetic, tasty grub, and prices that allow me to continue ordering cocktails after dinner is done.
My standby on the Lower East Side is Café Katja, an Austrian restaurant owned by an affable man by the name of Erwin Schrottner, who can regularly be seen bounding around the narrow dining room checking up on customers. It has a no-reservations policy and is usually comfortably full, with regulars sitting at the small bar and dates packed into tiny two-tops. Everything, from the decadent Emmentaler sausage to the hickory-smoked salmon, is solid, and the quark dumplings are some of my favorite things to eat in the entire city. Pair that with liter glasses of Austrian beer and a menu that never breaks $20, and you have yourself a winner.
Rockmeisha might not be the best izakaya I've been to, but it's one of the hippest and its West Village location can't be beat. Don't get me wrong; the food is quite good, especially the ramen (made with a pig-foot broth) and the grilled chicken wings. It's just that I'm so in love with the romantic, Tokyo-noir atmosphere and Sun Records jukebox that I can sit in there for hours just drinking bottles of Yebisu without even worrying about what I'm eating.
Roberta's ... well, you don't need really need me to hype Roberta's to you. You can order a $10 Margherita pizza or a $26 wood-fired pork chop and leave equally impressed. You might want to snack beforehand so you don't become delirious during the inevitable hour-long wait, which luckily you can kill in the buzzing back bar area.