Winter can be a slow time for restaurants, when a relentless cold front and post-holiday budgets keep away many from dining out in the year's first couple of months. Still, plenty of New York City establishments have recently opened their doors in the city's five boroughs and we say that these first few months just might be the best time to try them out — waits are shorter, service can be more attentive and seasonal ingredients are surprisingly plentiful. While covering the newcomers and gallivanting around as we're wont to do, here are a few trends we picked up on.
1. Farm Casual is bigger than ever
Head to any Sweetgreen location in the city during lunchtime and chances are that the line is out the door. The D.C.-based, locally sourced salad chain opened up two more NYC outposts this winter — in Nolita and Williamsburg — and wait times have showed no signs of slowing down. So-called “farm-to-counter” assembly line format Dig Inn marked its tenth opening in Flatiron this winter, with plans for an eleventh location and outer borough expansion on the heels of a reported $15 million investment this week. Franklin Becker’s Little Beet has given way to Little Beet Table, a sit-down version of his fast casual farm-to-table hit. In short, it’s never been hotter to eat both healthy and quick.
2. A tale of two cities
Take a look at Eater’s latest map depicting recent restaurant openings in Manhattan. You’ll notice that just one of the borough’s 20 “hottest” tables is located above 34th Street (thanks, Parm UWS). It’s not exactly news, but chefs and bartenders aren’t really flocking to open in Midtown and on the Upper East and West Sides these days. Despite indications of affordable rent (in NYC terms, naturally) and claims that these neighborhoods are becoming more desirable for the young and fashionable, new restaurants continue to cluster towards the lower parts of the island. In particular, the Lower East Side has seen an influx of establishments in the past few months.
3. The return of the tasting menu
More and more new restaurants are offering either solely prix fixe or, at least, the option to order a tasting menu. While it’s understandable that industry vets (Galen Zamarra at Almanac and David Chang at Momofuku Ko) and cuisine traditionalists (Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau at Shuko) would choose to go this route, it’s surprising that the more casual (Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food comes to mind) have the option to order from set multi-course menus.
4. The reservation game is a mess
As we reported last June, it’s getting ridiculously difficult to snag a table at a semi-normal time at city hotspots. Between setting aside these tables nightly for VIPs and losing tables to the increasing number of reservation services, new establishments rarely have an available 8 p.m. for two. And their responses have been somewhat disjointed. Many — smaller venues in particular — are operating on a first come, first served basis; some (Bar Primi and Ivan Ramen, for example) have begun to accept reservations after an initial rush of business, and others are partnering with third party reservation sites. With no one approach definitively rising above the rest, we certainly have yet to hear the end of this story.
5. Empire building: A seventh location is the new second location
Andrew Carmellini, David Chang and Danny Bowien are just a few of the big names to open NYC restaurants this winter. It has become the norm for these chefs to split their talents between multiple city kitchens, with some unveiling their, say, sixth location while already breaking ground on a seventh. As more and more recognizable individuals are attached to major restaurant openings, a relatively small list of names are accounting for a sizeable percentage of the city’s most well known establishments. Should we even talk about Major Food Group? Continuing their city conquest, the Torrisi boys and co. followed up Dirty French with the "coastal Italian" Santina and an UWS branch of Parm.
6. Queens, where good things are happening
Grub Street explored at length the lack of “big-deal restaurants” opening in Brooklyn lately, and speculated that rapidly increasing rents could be to blame for the borough's decline. The same cannot be said of the neighboring Queens, which is having a moment (though, in a more humble, quieter sense). In the past few months, spots specializing in Bhutanese, Tibetan, Szechuan, Nepalese and Thai cuisine (as well as ramen) have opened their doors under nondescript awnings and within places like malls and shopping centers. And many of them are legit. Mu Ramen holds its own against any Manhattan noodle and Dumpling Galaxy just might have the most impressive selection of dumplings…anywhere.
Read about what's going on in New York City on Food Republic: