New York City is a bistro lover’s playground, offering countless opportunities for a great meal at a reasonable price. I have been searching out the good ones for years, since days of yore when Cue Magazine’s alphabetical listing of favorites in each of the city’s neighborhoods served as my guide. Finding good bistros in the Broadway theater district has always presented a problem, because bistros are frequently the local neighborhood restaurant, and the theater district is not a residential neighborhood. Therein lies the rub.
Many, if not most, of the restaurants in the theater district are totally dependent upon the tourist trade, and not local residents. The result of that business model is too often a less than satisfactory dining experience. The restaurant is going to see you today, and probably not tomorrow. Diners are typically in a hurry to make a curtain, and the dining experience is often secondary. Restaurateurs know this too, and treat the experience as a quick, one-time transaction. I believe that explains why it is so hard to find a good meal in the theater district, and the closer you are to Times Square, the more acute the problem. That is also why I think this list is special. These are the standouts, the exceptions. They are our favorite places to eat when we go to New York for a show, typically once a month for a Wednesday matinee.
We usually arrive at Grand Central on the 11:30 Metro North train, and have a noon reservation at one of the restaurants mentioned here. We have a leisurely 90-minute lunch with a shared bottle of wine, and have plenty of time for a 2 PM curtain. Our focus area is the geography allowed by the thirty-minute window we have to get from the train to the restaurant by noon leaving enough time for a leisurely meal and a walk to the theater when we are done. Most of the restaurants on this list are between Grand Central and the western border of the theater district on 9th avenue. The focus of the list is bistros, which will overlook some midtown / theater district standouts like le Bernardin on 51st, or Esca on 43rd, both on my list of NYC favorites.
Kellari Taverna (212) 221-0144 is a five-minute walk from Grand Central, on 44th Street between 5th and 6th. It is a very large (but still cozy) restaurant, and getting reservations for lunch has never been a problem. They seem to focus on a business crowd as much as the theater audience. As the name suggests, this is a Greek bistro, with some standout dishes focusing on seafood. Their octopus is fantastic. So is their daytime bartender, Eric, whom we have gotten to know a bit since we usually eat at the bar. There are lots of small plates to choose from. Start with a bottle of Santorini, a plate of olives, some hummus and a basket of the restaurant’s terrific rustic bread, and you won’t need much more from the menu (but do try the spanakopita).
Becco (212) 397-7597 is Lidia Bastianich’s value priced bistro on “Restaurant Row” ~ 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenue. They also have a very comfortable bar, which is a great place to have lunch with your new favorite bartender, Alvaro. Most of the entrees are in the $20 – $25 range, but it will be worth it to splurge on the kitchen’s signature dish – osso buco. For just $9 you can add any or all of three perpetual pasta dishes that some server will constantly appear with, cajoling you to try just one more helping. The wine list is also value priced at $25 for most selections, often from Lidia’s son Joe’s catalogue of Italian imports.
db Bistro Moderne (212) 391-2400 is right down the block from Kellari Taverna on 44th, next to the Algonquin Hotel. It is one of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants, and we have actually seen him there a few times. The kitchen is one of the best in the area, with a wine list to match. You can spend as much as you paid for your theater ticket here if you fall for a bottle of Burgundy, but you can also have a classic coq au vin and a bottle of cru Beaujolais for half the cost of Boulud’s flagship, Daniel. My favorite dish here is a bowl of escargot with chicken “oysters”, those spoon-shaped morsels scooped from a chicken’s lower back. I think I have ordered this same dish the last five or six times we dined there. Just fantastic.
Tout va Bien (212) 265 0190 Located on 51st Street between 8th and 9th, Tout va Bien (All is well!) is the quintessential New York French neighborhood bistro, operating since 1948. It is a tiny place offering classic French bistro fare, from onion soup and vichyssoise and escargot, to moules frites and beef bourguignon. It is also one of the few places left still serving the classic French bistro dish, tête de veau gribiche (calves head). The restaurant offers a great value. The prices are among the least expensive in the theater district.
Benoit (646) 943-7373 Alain Ducasse’s bistro on 55th between 5th and 6th. One of the prettiest bistros in New York, offering a classic Parisian bistro menu with all of the classics: coq au vin, steak tartare, cassoulet, escargot. A few extra blocks to walk, but well worth the trip.
Chez Napolean (212) 265- 6980 located on 50th Street, between 8th and 9th, is another old timer, serving classic French fare since 1960. Here you will find all of the standards, including one that is hard to find these days even in Paris – cervelle de veau (calves brains) sauteed in burnt butter with capers. The kitchen’s “signature dish” is steak au poivre, but there are too many wonderful classics on this menu to waste a trip on a steak. Try the saucisson chaud – a garlicky French sausage served as an appetizer with a vinaigrette dressing. Better yet, go for the offal classics like veal kidneys in mustard sauce, or the terrific creamy sauteed sweetbreads. Do try the lapin (braised rabbit) in white wine and mustard. A steaming crock of cassoulet is another traditional winter bistro offering that re-appears on menus in October just when the theater season is raising the curtain. Perfect timing, that.
Marseille (212) 333-3410 is on 9th Avenue at 44th. It is part of the restaurant group that also runs Nice Matin on the upper west side on 79th, and Cafe D’Alsace on 88th at 2nd Avenue, among others. The restaurants are updated art deco renditions of the (NYC) French bistros of yesteryear, offering stock bistro staples like steak or mussels frites or an omelet with fine herbs. The Marseille wine list is worth a peek, offering a good selection of wines by the glass and some reasonably priced bottles especially if you stick with their good selection of Rhones and Beaujolais.
One last suggestion for a quick bite, or a drink after the show. On Restaurant Row (46th between 8th and 9th) there is a semi-secret little hideaway named Bar Centrale. There is no name on the door, or sign to guide you, but it is easy to find. If you stand in front of Joe Allen’s Restaurant (the restaurants are affiliated), you will see a set of stairs to your left going up to a doorway. That is the entrance to Bar Centrale. When you enter, a hostess will greet you and the bar will be on your left. It’s a very nice bar and bar room that attracts the theater crowd from both sides of the stage. No password required. Tell them Rambler sent you.