99 ESSENTIAL RESTAURANTS®
Photo by David Penner
The late Taci Bek opened this brick-walled dining hall along a nondescript section of Midwood's Coney Island Avenue in 1988, and in the nearly 30 years since, he, his son Ersin, and a crew of Turkish cooks turned Taci's Beyti into one of the best Turkish restaurants in town. Inspired by the kebab-centric ocakbasi that dot the Turkish countryside, rustic recipes and presentations rule. After securing your seat, head to the back of the restaurant to peruse an array of meze — a lush eggplant purée, say, and artichoke hearts sautéd with potatoes — then settle in for the main event. Almost calzone-like in appearance, slices of baked meat pie called pide come filled with air-dried pastirma, the forebear of modern-day pastrami. Spit-charred lamb takes a spicy hit from sweet red chiles. Like Chinese weddings at dim sum banquets, there's a good chance you'll run across your fair share of Turkish family gatherings. Join in a toast before turning back to platters of whole trout and branzino, seared and succulent from the grill. The convivial, shareable feast feels well-suited to the restaurant's look-the-other-way BYOB policy. Meals end with inexpensive and filling desserts: Pan-fried milk pudding tastes like crème brûlée; and kunefe, a Turkish soufflé, is baked to order, its filling of velvety sweet cheese offset by a crunchy crust of shredded noodles.
Photo by Bradley Hawks
4508 Fifth Avenue
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.
It's impossible to talk about the Mexican culinary scene of Sunset Park without mentioning Tacos Matamoros, one of the longstanding fixtures of Fifth Avenue. The restaurant is a neighborhood stalwart large enough to accommodate families celebrating quinceañeras, and it holds a liquor license for those for whom margaritas are essential. The menu is ample, with pages of offerings that include antojitos, tacos of every stripe, surf-and-turf platters, guacamole, and flan. The food is crowd-pleasing, a fact that’s evident in the glee that spills over from nearby tables. It's also the only place in the neighborhood where you can get both a coctel de camarón and a cocktail and dine while perusing the bootleg DVDs and long-stemmed roses hawked by roving sellers. Three years ago Matamoros opened a smaller second location several blocks south on Fifth.
Photo by Dominic Perri
Brooklyn is the epicenter of the personal restaurant: The borough is full of chefs who've left rigid, hierarchical kitchens to follow their true passion, bending the rules of dining out while wearing their culinary hearts on their sleeves. You see more open kitchens in Brooklyn; more deliberately unfancy touches like drinks in mason jars; more wacky hybrid concepts. The most personal of all these restaurants may be Take Root, a twelve-seat Carroll Gardens establishment that serves a seasonally inspired New American prix fixe to one seating per night, three nights per week. Take Root is owned and operated by a couple: Elise Kornack does the cooking; Anna Hieronimus runs the front of the house (though Kornack delivers many dishes throughout the meal, describing them with such zealous intensity as to inspire awe). When they opened their space in January 2013, they were trying to preserve the feeling of home, and indeed the small front room can feel like your most put-together girlfriend's studio: warm and bright, with tasteful muted colors and a smooth soundtrack. Kornack gradually ratcheted up the intensity of her tasting menu, and she's now executing at a level unusual in any borough. Your meal might include Asian pear filled with chicken liver mousse; beetroot and kumquat salad; or butternut squash and mint floating in butternut squash tea. Each dish is stunning to look at and even more delightful to eat — Kornack has a novel take on flavor that makes strange bedfellows of seemingly disparate ingredients, with magical results. But the real magic of Take Root is this: The owners do more than serve you a meal, they bare their souls, inviting you into that vulnerable place where you can really start to get to know someone. Even the most cynical eater out there would be hard-pressed not to fall in love. (Reservations required, and you'll need to make one a month in advance.)
Photo by Dominic Perri
369 Seventh Avenue
Monday to Wednesday 5 to 11 p.m, Thursday and Friday 5 p.m. to midnight, Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.
When business partners chef Dale Talde, John Bush, and David Massoni found a Park Slope address that spoke to them, Talde envisioned building a glorified noodle shop that served a handful of dishes, some dumplings, and some soup. But as soon as they opened that restaurant, Talde, in 2012, they had lines out the door, and the neighbors, Talde says, seemed to want something more. "So we took the menu and changed it up. We gave it heartier, composed dishes." Dishes like “Pretzel Pork & Chive Dumplings,” Korean fried chicken, a whole roasted branzino, and wonton noodle soup; dishes so tasty and craveable that they can never come off the menu. Now the restaurant offers nearly 30 plates, plus occasional special feasts — Talde likes to explore his Filipino roots, turning out multi-course banquets filled with dishes he loved as a child. Meals are served in a window-lined dining room that glows warmly at night, by servers who toe the line between haute attentiveness and casual conviviality. Locals pack this place because it's fun, congregating at the bar for punchy, bright cocktails and kung pao wings even if they know they're never going to get a table. If you are dining, don't ignore the wine list — it's full of quiet hits that match well with the strong flavors of the food. Talde's success has been the bedrock of a growing empire; the partners own two additional Park Slope restaurants, and they've recently expanded into Jersey City with a second outpost of this restaurant and an Italian market. "I feel like the luckiest dude in the world," Talde once told us. "In two months I could be the head cook at Denny's and say, ‘Man, I had a fucking awesome run.’”
Photo by Robyn Lee/Creative Commons
7523 Third Avenue
Tuesday to Friday noon to 10:30 p.m., Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
When Tanoreen opened in 1998, it was a ten-table deli that served unique, homestyle Middle Eastern eats from an open kitchen. Chef Rawia Bishara, who owns the place with her daughter Jumana, drew from her Palestinian upbringing, turning out innovative fare that nonetheless remains true to her roots. (She learned from her mother to "color outside of the lines" in cooking, she writes on her website.) Over the past seventeen years, Tanoreen has morphed into one of the city's renowned specialists in Middle Eastern cuisine. Today the Bisharas serve the expected hummus, baba ghanouj, and kebabs, which are still some of the most popular items on the menu. But we go for the more elaborate specialties, like the eggplant Napoleon, the stewed okra, and the kibbe yogurt (lamb and bulgur meatballs stewed in a yogurt-garlic sauce). Fueled by success, Tanoreen has tripled its capacity over the years and added a bar program specializing in lesser-known Lebanese and Moroccan wines, Lebanese beer, and signature cocktails like a pistachio martini. The Bisharas also published a cookbook, Olives, Lemons, & Za'atar, that has given the restaurant an audience that reaches far beyond NYC.
Photo by Bradley Hawks
1503 Myrtle Avenue
Open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Most closets are bigger than Taqueria Izucar, one of the best taquerias in Brooklyn — if not the entire five boroughs. Suadero is the game here: It’s a cut similar to brisket, marinated with vinegar, garlic, and oregano, then braised until tender and finally crisped on the flattop and double-wrapped in tiny tortillas with a smattering of onion and cilantro. Taqueria Izucar is unpredictable. Sometimes there’s al pastor spinning on the tromo top, sometimes not. Occasionally the kitchen decides to brew up tepache, the fermented beverage made from pineapple husks. And not infrequently the storefront is closed when you need a taco most. Taqueria Izucar rolls on its own time. But when you do pick up one of those coaster-size tortillas exhaling steam, the suadero hot with a striking minerality and the salsas bright and spicy with green and red chiles, everything else is forgotten.
Photo by René Atchison
Tatiana Varzar opened her namesake Brighton Beach boardwalk restaurant in 1990, and the vibrant, boisterous banquet hall has buzzed along ever since, attracting customers with bumping tunes and plenty of neon. Varzar cooks from a roster of Russian standards (chicken Kiev is a standout), peppering in her own specials, like a goat-cheese terrine and a spicy lamb's-tongue salad. Although it's very good, the food at Tatiana isn’t the only draw. There’s also a pageant rather anticlimactically referred to as “The Show”: a dazzling revue of dancers and acrobats that flies by in 30 minutes. You can avail yourself of it only on weekend nights (when there’s also live music), but the performance is the longest-running show of its kind in the borough. On a shell-shaped stage, ornately dressed performers leap through the air, their faces illuminated by flashes of light and shrouded by abundant fog machines. You’ll find yourself applauding between bites of beef stroganoff or “blabber mouth” salad, which tosses chewy boiled beef tongue with tomatoes, parsley, and mayonnaise. It ain’t the cheapest night out, especially in this neck of the woods, but it’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
Photo by David Penner
782 Washington Avenue
Monday to Friday 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.
A Prospect Heights institution since 1936 and owned by members of the same family since the 1940s, Tom's Restaurant is part diner, part interactive museum exhibit. It's decorated with stained glass, faux flowers, and American flags. Find an archetypal chocolate egg cream, made in five easy steps with milk, seltzer, and chocolate syrup (always Fox's U-Bet) stirred with vigor and topped with whipped cream. Long lines form during primetime brunching hours, but the waitstaff will reward your patience with gratis orange slices, sips of coffee, and breakfast meats. Jim Kokotas (nephew of Gus Vlahavas, the devoted owner who worked in the restaurant from age nine up until his death in November 2014) has run the show since 2009, expanding the business to include a branch on the Coney Island boardwalk. In recent years the menu has swelled to fit the neighborhood's changing demographic, with specials like sweet potato latkes and spicy chicken or beef burritos. Tom's remains a community restaurant at heart, sustaining multiple generations of families on mammoth platters of meat loaf with eggs and potato hash, and fluffy lemon-ricotta pancakes rife with citrus tang and served with a trio of flavored butters.
Photo by René Atchison
All hail the khachapuri, Georgia's cheesy, yeasty gift to the world. Its four-ingredient dough is shaped into numerous forms and stuffed to remarkable effect with cheese, eggs, and butter. Since 1997 Toné Café (originally known as Georgian Bread) has produced incomparable versions of this gut-bomb: one a flattened, pie-shaped concoction; the other molded into the shape of a boat and filled with bubbling farmer cheese gratin. For years the vase-shape toné oven was cared for and tended to by a grizzled man named Badri, whose elongated loaves of shoti flatbread were as crusty as the best French baguettes. He has since retired, and the new owners have entrusted Lasha Chikhladze to carry the flour-covered torch. The breads form the basis of enthralling Georgian meals featuring sumptuous kebabs grilled over charcoal, or khinkali, fat dumplings filled with a mixture of beef and pork. With everything made to order, expect to wait. You will be rewarded with Georgian home cooking and the best Georgian bread in Brooklyn. The dairy and meat onslaught notwithstanding, vegans can dig into pkhali: minced vegetable salads stirred with ground walnuts, cilantro, and pomegranate seeds (the spinach version is a standout). Mashed beans get a similar spice mixture for lobio, which the kitchen serves on its own as a side dish or stuffed inside khachapuri.
Photo by Dominic Perri
271 Starr Street
Open daily, noon to 10 p.m.
In an area once dubbed the Tortilla Triangle for the quantity of tortillerias in operation, Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos is the most hospitable. The low-slung warehouse on Starr Street is a model for growth — the tortilla factory initially churned out hot corn disks for the neighborhood, and then the Lazaro family started hawking tacos from a cart out in front. That operation eventually became implanted in a corner of the factory, and then turned into a health-department-certified sit-down establishment. The tortilleria still produces thousands of tortillas a day, permeating the block with a warm, toasted-corn fragrance. Place your order at the counter, then take a seat inside the restaurant, where Mexican families dine next to the hungover, tattooed creative class and the occasional Manhattanite who makes the trip on Anthony Bourdain's word. Los Hermanos offers tacos, huaraches, and tostadas, and you can choose your favorite filling or topping. We like the cecina (salted beef), and the chorizo, which the kitchen cooks up with cubes of potato. Most plates come clobbered with shredded lettuce, cold tomatoes, and sour cream, but you can request that your tacos skip the trip through the salad bar. The tortillas are, of course, always fresh. Buy a package before heading home.
Photo by Dominic Perri
1524 Neptune Avenue
Thursday to Sunday noon to 8 p.m. (last seating at 7:30 p.m.)
A decade is a drop in the bucket for Coney Island landmark Totonno Pizzeria Napolitana, a beloved slice of historic New York City that has risen from the ashes twice in the past ten years — first from a 2009 fire, then from Hurricane Sandy. Founder Antonio “Totonno” Pero brought his yeast-risen magic to South Brooklyn in 1924 after working at New York’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s in Little Italy. “My grandfather Totonno was the first pizzaiolo in America,” says Antoinette Balzano, who now helps run Totonno. “He initiated making pizzas at Lombardi's — Lombardi's was a grocery store — which became the first licensed pizzeria in America, because of Totonno.” Ninety years later, the brand has expanded to Manhattan, but none of the other locations holds a candle to the original, its black-and-white-checkered floor as recognizable as the iconic pies for which it is known. What may be the most seasoned coal-fired oven in town cooks up char-speckled crusts sturdy enough to support generous layers of sweet, herbaceous tomato sauce and melted fresh mozzarella. Totonno doesn’t sell by the slice — the better to preserve the integrity of the product. Pizzaiolos prep and fire pies for as long as there's dough available, which for us occasionally means confronting a locked door. But generations of New Yorkers haven't minded, and neither should you.
Photo by Dominic Perri
229 South 4th Street
Tuesday to Thursday, and Sunday, 6 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
When it opened in 2010, Traif was an unconventional fit for its adoptive neighborhood, the traditionally Hasidic southern stretch of Williamsburg. "Traif" means "unkosher" in Hebrew, and the restaurant boldly celebrates pork and shellfish. But If the immediate neighbors aren't coming, others are. Over the past five years, chef-owner Jason Marcus and wife Heather Heuser have beguiled the borough with a menu of eccentric small plates served from an open kitchen to a modest and dark dining room and an enclosed patio. The bill of fare changes frequently — one recent standout combined seared foie gras with yukon potatoes, bacon, a sunnyside-up egg, maple syrup, and hot sauce; it ate like a Franco-American breakfast on steroids. Bacon doughnuts are a perennial offering, and worth ordering. Drinks are as inventive as the vittles; cocktails incorporate international influences in innovative ways (the “Winter Cabin,” for instance, brought a twist on an old-fashioned, combining Buffalo Trace bourbon, Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters, a spice blend, orange, and ginger). By the end of 2012, Traif had become so ingrained in the neighborhood that Marcus and Heuser opened Xixa, a Mexican-inspired offshoot of Traif, on the same block.
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