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Soho

Aquagrill

photo by Penner

For 10 days after Hurricane Sandy, Soho went dark. The storm cut electricity downtown; most businesses not directly affected by flooding shuttered for the duration or operated on an abridged basis, flashlights in hand. But Aquagrill owners Jeremy and Jennifer Marshall embarked on no such staycation. Instead, they rented a generator truck, their staff trekked to work on foot, and business marched forward. Grateful Manhattanites streamed in for freshly shucked oysters and clams, lobster tails, crab claws, tuna tartares, savory bisques, chowders, and all manner of fishes grilled, poached, and roasted. In a word, the usual, because that’s how they roll. Today, the Marshalls count that period as one of their fondest memories in almost 20 years in business, even after countless summers serving trays and towers of shellfish on their buzzing terrace along Sixth Avenue, which, as soon as the weather warms, is always packed to the gills.

Balthazar

photo by Sylvia Paret

In 2004, when London transplant Keith McNally was already nearly 25 years and eight restaurants into building one of the most formidable dining dynasties in the city, the New York Times called him “the restaurateur who invented downtown.” Even in retrospect, that was hardly an overstatement, and if McNally is a culinary Edison, his light-bulb moment came with the opening of Balthazar, which he installed in the middle of Soho in 1997, transforming a leather tannery into a swanky French brasserie and bakery. The neighborhood came into its own around its new resident, the remaining warehouses giving way to chic fashion houses and posh eateries, forming the sparkling (and spendy) Soho we know now. While Balthazar hardly stands out aesthetically these days, it remains a linchpin of the area’s restaurant circuit, where VIPs, some of them famous, eat pastries and sip coffee over newspapers at their regular tables each morning; tourists attempt to wrangle a brunchtime seat; business types plot their next move; and dinnertime diners dig into classics like steak frites, which manager Erin Wendt calls the “foundation of the kitchen.” And that is Balthazar’s staying power: It is one of those rare spots that bring many walks of New York life together under one roof.

Blue Ribbon

photo by Dominic Perri

Brothers Bruce and Eric Bromberg birthed their multifaceted empire — a collection of properties that includes sushi bars and fried-chicken franchises — with this buzzing Soho restaurant that has served as a respite for chefs and industry folk with nocturnal schedules since opening in 1992. Blue Ribbon’s moniker is inspired by the famed Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where the brothers received their culinary education. A massive raw bar dominates the front of the room, where patrons jockey for seats and a 4 a.m. closing time keeps the counter humming with the sound of discarded shells clanking against ceramic. Oysters show up on most tables, as do New Orleans shrimp served in the shell with a silky Cajun mayonnaise. But surely the dish most synonymous with late-night downtown revelry is Blue Ribbon’s luxurious beef marrow with oxtail marmalade, spread on charred bread and chased with a sip of beer or a glass of inky red. The Brombergs’ fried chicken is one of the best renditions in town — so good that the brothers were willing to bet a fast-food franchise on it. For all of the restaurant’s bistro trappings, the menu harbors plenty of surprises, including a deep bowl of “wor matzoh for 2,” a take on matzoh ball soup that marries the fluffy rounds with an unusual assortment of non-kosher delights like shellfish and pork, plus poultry and root vegetables accented by vibrant herbs that pull the dish toward Southeast Asia.

Dominique Ansel Bakery

photo by Nicole Franzen

Each morning, humans from around the globe descend on this Soho bakery and wait for hours for a taste of the Cronut, the croissant-doughnut hybrid invented by pastry wizard Dominique Ansel. We’ve witnessed enduring lines like this before (see: Shake Shack), and they’ve often been a harbinger of a global empire. For now, those lines are proof that the former Daniel pastry chef had it right: There was a lot of room for innovation in New York’s bakery game. Dominique Ansel Bakery opened in 2011 on that very premise, and Ansel quickly received accolades for his flaky, caramelized DKA (Dominique’s kouign-amann), his baked-to-order madeleines, and the pastries he’d turn out from the ovens all day long (as opposed to baking everything in the morning as is commonly done). The year 2013 launched Ansel into the stratosphere: After Cronut-mania, he added bolder creations to his menu, like the frozen s’more and the magic soufflé. Innovation here is extremely tasty, and we can’t wait to see what the bakery does next.

Lure Fishbar

photo by Robert Menzer

For a moment not long ago, it looked as though Lure Fishbar would fish no further. Billionaire landlord Peter Brant was vying for a substantial rent hike, and owner John McDonald argued that his almost-10-year-old restaurant couldn’t survive the squeeze. So the restaurant’s high-profile celebrity and media clientele took #SaveLureFishbar to the Twitter and reeled in a win: McDonald and Brant negotiated a new 10-year lease, and the subterranean nautical oddity sailed into smoother waters. Which means chef-partner Josh Capon can continue putting out some of the freshest catches in town in a dining room styled to look like a yacht: porthole-evoking windows here and there, dark-wood beams angling overhead, cozy modular spaces at sleek ocean-liner pitches. It’s a full-on sushi experience in a markedly non-Zen setting, but settle into a plush semicircular booth for supple, melt-in-your-mouth raw offerings that practically flop off the rice they’re bedded on. Capon also trafficks in hand rolls and oysters, crudos and tartares; Lure digs deep in the raw-fish trenches, and if you’re dining here, so should you. If you like your fish cooked, find fetchingly prepared specimens, whole or filleted, grilled or steamed, in savory broths and curries. If it’s good enough for the stars that pack the house nightly, it’s good enough for you.