DUMBO may now be home to luxury lofts and trendy restaurants, to a charming waterfront park and a forthcoming mall in an old tobacco factory, but when The River Café opened in 1977, it couldn't exactly rely on a steady neighborhood clientele to fill its tables. Back then the area was an abandoned warehouse district, an unlikely location for a restaurant with lofty ambitions. It took founder Michael “Buzzy” O'Keeffe twelve years to secure the permits to build here, but he persisted, and once he opened, he soon found a global audience for his waterfront space. Over the years Larry Forgione, Charlie Palmer, and David Burke all stood behind the burners; the restaurant claims Forgione invented the phrase "free range chicken" while working here. Fast-forward nearly four decades and you can see the influence the River Café has had over its surroundings: The waterfront is now a charming place to stroll, and trendy restaurants abound. As testament to the kind of neighborhood this has become, the River Café now fits in so seamlessly, you might actually miss the entrance to the long driveway that leads to the place. With the panoramic view of Manhattan glittering across the river, you hardly need food to make this a worthy destination. But the food in itself is worth a stop. Fourteen years into his tenure, chef Brad Steelman continues to turn out pristine and subtly inventive continental fare befitting of its price tag. (You'll either eat a $120 three-course meal comprising your choice of appetizer, entrée, and dessert, or you'll drop $150 for the six-course chef's tasting and surrender to the whim of the kitchen.) This is one of the few dining rooms in Manhattan where jackets are still required for men, and where you're not really able to dine at the bar, so be aware, when you book your reservation, that you're going all in. For us that means ordering a bottle of Champagne (the better to enjoy the piano player) and making a night of it. This is an experience every New Yorker should have at least once.
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