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When the long day of conventioneering comes to an end, all you want to do is unwind and turn off the stress-receptors for awhile. And there's no better way to do it than to relax with a fine meal. New York City is a worldwide dining destination, and its restaurant scene is in a constant state of growth and flux. We can only scratch the surface in this space, but even a small sampling will keep you food-happy for a long time.

Here are some of the best places to eat we've found in Manhattan, all just a short cab or subway ride from the Javits Center. Some are local favorites, some are hidden gems and some are new and changing. We've divvied them up by area, starting with those closest to the Javits Center in Midtown West and the Theater District (which, fortunately for convention-goers, contains the delicious buffet of choices known as Restaurant Row). Then we move north for a few choice stops on the West Side, then across Central Park to the East Side, then south to Midtown East, and finally we highlight some blue-ribbon winners in Gramercy Park and Madison Square. Cost, Unofficial Guide star ratings for quality and value (on a five-point scale, five being the best), addresses and phone numbers are all included (all area codes are 212).

Midtown West & Theater District

It's easy to miss the low-key entrance to soul-food monarch Jezebel (Expensive; Quality 4, Value 3; 630 Ninth Ave. and 45th St., entrance on 45th; 582-1045), but open the door and it's the Vieux Carré, sultry and seductive all the way. Fringed shawls hang from the ceiling like Spanish moss; large potted palms, camellias and vases of lilies bloom all around the room; oriental carpets accent the polished floors; and the walls are covered in posters—authentic French Art Nouveau and American Andy Warhol, and a few Josephine Baker biggies. Specialties include she-crab soup; Gula curried goat; smothered pork chops; shrimp Creole; barbecue spareribs; smothered garlic shrimp; Jezebel's green pea soup; coconut sweet potato pie; and pecan pie. This is an unexpected wow of a Theater District restaurant.

For a different spin on soulfulness, consider the nearby branch of Zen Palate (Inexpensive; Quality 3.5, Value 4; 663 Ninth Ave., corner of 46th St.; 582-1669). You don't have to be a vegetarian to get the good karma and vibes that come with the more than soul-satisfying cuisine here. This laid-back pocket of peace is done up with soft ocher walls and clouds on the ceiling. The veggie variations are flavorfully inventive, and some are surprising in their intensity. Try options like vegetable dumplings; spinach linguine salad with sesame peanut dressing; Zen lasagna; eggplant in garlic sauce; basil moo-shu rolls; stir-fried fettuccine; Zen ravioli with special sauce; fresh-squeezed vegetable juice; and tofu honey pie.

The czar of Russian cuisine is Firebird (Moderate/Expensive; Quality 4, Value 4; 365 W. 46th St., between Eighth and Ninth Aves.; 586-0244), where two spruced-up brownstones stand behind gilt-edged gates manned by a Cossack costumed sentry. The fabulously overdone, charmingly ornate interior, with eight rooms and two pretty bars, is decorated with chandeliers, lushly patterned carpets, Fabergé-ish objects, Russian wall hangings, ballet costumes and ancient books. Excellent selections include wild mushroom and three-grain soup; buckwheat blini with sour cream; lightly smoked salmon with cucumber salad and five-grain bread; kasha and wild mushroom salad; roasted eggplant caviar; crab and rice croquettes with mâche; grilled marinated sturgeon; Uzbek skewered quail; Karsky shashlik; roast chicken with bulgur-okra salad; pelmeni Siberian; and Armenian yogurt-spiced lamb.

Another thriving inhabitant of Restaurant Row is Italian fixture Becco (Moderate; Quality 3.5, Value 5; 355 W. 46th St., between Eighth and Ninth Aves.; 397-7597). The place is frequently thronged with theatergoers; the narrow dining area in the front, with its beamed ceilings, has a few touches that suggest a country inn, but tables are so close together that the happy din can become daunting. The upstairs dining room or the cute but smaller back room are better bets for less hectic dining. House specialties include sinfonia di pasta, unlimited servings of three pastas that change daily; antipasto of grilled, marinated veggies and fish; osso buco with barley risotto; grilled swordfish with balsamic sauce; Italian stuffed peppers; rack of lamb; homemade fruit sorbets; and ricotta tart with orange caramel sauce. Our advice: stick with the all-you-can-eat pastas and use the money you save on entrees to order a couple of extra bottles from their wine list. This way you're guaranteed to leave both happy and satisfied.

Despite its tucked-away spot on the Row, Moroccan emporium Lotfi's (Moderate; Quality 3.5, Value 3; 358 W. 46th St., between Eighth and Ninth Aves.; 582-5850) could just as easily be on a small street in Casablanca or Marrakesh. Traditionally tiled walls, blue-and-white pottery dishes and couscousières, art deco mirrors, a few brass lamps and menus in soft, gold-tooled leather folders enhance the authentic Moroccan feel, as do the spicy aromas coming from the kitchen. Choices here include couscous, the national dish of Morocco, in its many variations; lemon chicken tagine; fish tagine Safi-style (the hometown of the chef/owner); homemade "merguez" lamb sausage; b'stilla with chicken or the more traditional squab; breewats, a flaky pastry with many different stuffings; and a "deluxe" salad that offers six Moroccan mainstays.

Rounding out this cluster of Restaurant Row—area denizens is the huge and chaotic Churrascaria Plataforma (Moderate; Quality 4, Value 4; 316 W. 49th St.; 245-0505). This Brazilian place serves in the rodizio style, a Brazilian tradition where all-you-can-eat roast meats are brought to your table by skewer-bearing waiters. You're served the traditional plates of fried yucca, french fries, batter-fried bananas, and particularly good fried polenta. Management hopes you'll fill up on this cheap stuff, as well as the extensive salad bar (vegetarians will be more than sated: tons of salads, vegetables and even a few entrees in their own rights, like the good shrimp moqueca, a peppery stew with coconut milk), but savvy diners hold out for the meat. Pace yourself carefully as more than a dozen cuts come around. The best thing of all doesn't come unless you ask for it, though: unbelievably delicious black beans, made from specially imported small and silky beans. Spoon farofa (garlicky toasted yucca flour) over them. If you go, know that service is not particularly attentive or prompt due to this carnivore carnival's hectic atmosphere.

The dishes at Old San Juan (Inexpensive; Quality 4, Value 4; 765 Ninth Ave., between 51st and 52nd Sts.; 262-7013) successfully fill a rather surprising void in Manhattan's ethnic restaurant array. With its huge Puerto Rican population, the city should have more places accessible to nonnatives that feature the island's hearty, savory dishes. It's crowded in this decorless luncheonette, but that doesn't diminish the service, which would be more than reputable in a far more expensive establishment. Great options include cazuela de mariscos, seafood in a casserole served over yellow rice; asopaos, soupy Puerto Rican rice stews, in various flavors; mofongo, a garlicky mound of mashed plantains and pork cracklings, with crab or roast pork; churrasco Argentino, a grilled skirt steak; pasteles puertoriqueños, a comforting, tamalelike concoction steamed in a banana leaf; clams in garlic sauce; Argentinean empanadas; stewed goat; and caramel-crusted bread pudding. Most of the business is take-out, and if you just want something tasty, quick and cheap to bring back to your hotel room, you'd be hard-pressed to beat Old San Juan.

If, on the other hand, you desire a luxurious setting for truly upscale dining, a serious candidate for best restaurant in New York is Le Bernardin (Very Expensive; Quality 5, Value 3; 155 W. 51st St., between Sixth and Seventh Aves.; 489-1515). Formal elegance, without arrogance, suffuses this grand space, and the clientele dress and act accordingly. Blue-gray walls, adorned with fine classic maritime paintings in ornate frames, rise to a teak ceiling. Small roses top tables, handsomely set and graciously spaced. The specialty is seafood and French cuisine and only the very finest fish and celestial shellfish are accorded the honor of appearing at table here. Steamed black bass is one of the best dishes in Manhattan; with soft citrus notes and fresh coriander that gives it an Indian edge, its subtle complexity will have you shaking your head in disbelief that food could ever be this good. Other unbelievably good choices include yellowfin tuna carpaccio; lemon-splashed slivers of fluke with chives and lemon juice; warm lobster timbale in champagne-chive nage; seared, rare hamachi over sweet cherry tomato, onion and portobello escabeche; spice-crusted cobia, duck sauce, sauté of cavaillon melon and preserved ginger; warm chocolate tarte with melting whipped cream and dark chocolate sauce.

For an entirely different experience, make a pilgrimage to Soup Kitchen International (Inexpensive; Quality 4.5, Value 5; 259A W. 55th St.; 757-7730). In spite of Jerry Seinfeld's famous sobriquet, owner/chef Al Yeganeh is not a Nazi. He's a very conscientious man who has a few irrefutably logical rules: know what you want by the time you reach the window after your 45-minute wait (duh), have your money ready and move to the left so the next person can step forward and order. Al—as regulars refer to him, although not to his face—feels sorry for those waiting (he keeps raising prices to discourage crowds, to no avail), so those who ignore his prominently posted rules—thus delaying service—receive no bread. There's always a chicken-based soup (either chicken vegetable or chicken broccoli), comparatively light and simple, with plenty of meat and carefully cut vegetables. The chef's personal favorites are the bisques—either seafood, lobster or crab. These are the richest and most expensive choices, of an almost diabolical complexity. You'll find a not-very-spicy medium-thick chili (turkey, vegetable, chicken or beef), and often Indian mulligatawny (extremely complex and sweetish). The remainders are seafood chowders, various peasanty soups and delicious oddballs like mussels and spinach or bacon, lettuce and tomato.

West Side

East Side elegance on the West Side: It can only be the Mediterranean offerings at Picholine (Expensive; Quality 4.5, Value 3; 35 W. 64th St., between Columbus Ave. and Central Park West; 724-8585). The sophisticated atmosphere comes together with tapestries on the walls, lavishly framed paintings, ornate ceilings, shaded chandeliers, brocade banquettes and some well-placed French country touches. The "picholine" (a small green olive) theme appears on the pretty plates and the warm olive green of the lower walls. Virtually unbeatable selections include warm Maine lobster; foie gras, black mission figs, duck "prosciutto" and purslane; tournedos of salmon, horseradish crust, cucumbers and salmon caviar; Jamison Farm organic loin of lamb; baked to order warm Valhrona chocolate tart; and the famous Picholine cheese cart. There's no shortage of good food here, and the truly knowledgeable and pleasant staff will be happy to steer you in the right direction. Even desserts are excellent, but who has time for dessert when you have that incredible cheese cart running around the room?

For high-style chinoiserie with high-style Chinese cooking to match, visit Shun Lee (Moderate/Expensive; Quality 4, Value 4; 43 W. 65th St.; 595-8895). It's dark and dramatic: Large silver-white dragons with little red eyes chase each other across black walls above luxurious black banquettes and black floors, and soft halogen lighting flatters the complexion. Silver-white monkeys swing over the small bar in the entrance. Both food and mood are elegant, and both are reflected in the prices. Some of the same excellent food is available for a lot less in the adjacent, more casual cafe. Recommended choices include Szechuan wonton; steamed dumplings; beggar's chicken (order 24 hours in advance); Grand Marnier prawns; Cantonese sausage with Szechuan sausage; sliced duckling with young ginger root; lobster in black bean sauce; rack of lamb, Szechuan-style; and dim sum (cafe only).

One of the first places around town to offer southwestern fare, the tranquil and pretty Santa Fe (Moderate; Quality 3.5, Value 4; 72 W. 69th St., between Columbus Ave. and Central Park West; 724-0822) has been going strong for almost two decades. The bottom floor of this Upper West Side townhouse has been washed in soft Southwestern colors: coral walls, golden sand ceilings, white on the trim and on the candle-strewn, mirror-topped fireplaces. Acoma pots, decorated wooden bowls, handwoven Oaxacan rugs and a few typical Santa Fe oil paintings foster the feeling that you're nestled below the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Menu possibilities include Southwestern shrimp jambalaya; Yucatán chicken; black bean and sweet potato burrito; chipotle chicken Santa Fe; grilled cumin and chipotle pork chop; Southwestern grilled vegetable pizza; and scallop ceviche.

New York wouldn't be New York without hot dogs, and Gray's Papaya (Inexpensive; Quality 3.5, Value 5.; 2090 Broadway, at 72nd St.; 799-0243) is a New York institution. Orange counters, white tile, paper fruits hanging from the ceiling; it's not much cleaner than a public rest room, but who cares? It's open every day, 24 hours. What are the options? You got your hot dog; hot dog with mustard; hot dog with sauerkraut; hot dog with sautéed onions; and hot dog with mustard, sauerkraut, and sautéed onions. Although prices may have gone up by 50%, hot dogs are still only 75 cents a pop, and the recession special is by far the best deal in town at $1.95 for two dogs and a drink. The franks are grilled to perfection, leaving the skin crisp and locking in the flavor, and like all good wieners, they come regular or well done. Fruity tropical drinks provide the perfect refreshment to wash down the best dogs in town.

East Side

At the Italian cafeteria Iammo Bello (Inexpensive; Quality 4, Value 5; 39 E. 60th St.; 935-9418), a quick-moving queue snakes through the subterranean room, past myriad steam tables manned by hyperkinetic servers. All remaining space is crammed with long tables full of harried, ravenous eaters, forks and jaws working at a prodigious pace. It's all so fast-paced that you feel as if a request to pass the salt might elicit a hail of shakers flung at you from all directions. Iammo Bello means "come here, handsome," in Italian, but this no-frills bustling cafeteria depends more on its cooking than its looks to attract. Chicken francese (hot only on Thursdays, other days available cold at the antipasto bar) is downright scrumptious, and even rough, unsubtle dishes like lasagna taste soulful. Other options include wonderful heroes like chicken, veal, eggplant or meatball parmigiana (with good, funky Parmesan cheese rather than the usual clots of bad mozzarella); soups; and well-fried calamari (Fridays only). Skip the deftly flavored pastas if you demand al dente (impossible to achieve in a steam table), but you'll be missing a pretty good alfredo sauce.

If you crave Asian fusion and feel patient and/or lucky, try Rain (Moderate; Quality: 4, Value 3; 1059 Third Ave., between 62nd and 63rd Sts.; 223-3669). This is a very popular spot with the trendy, and only half the tables can be reserved; the rest are held for walk-ins, and that can leave you lifting libations in the bar for quite a while. Sporting a simpler look than its crosstown predecessor, this location has a row of wooden booths bathed in soft lighting and separated by hanging swaths of linen running along the wall. Selections include crispy Vietnamese spring rolls stuffed with shrimp, vegetables and glass noodles; Thai-style fajitas, a cross-cultural knockout that combines roast duck and Asian vegetables wrapped in moo-shu pancakes; and a delicate salmon fillet roasted in a banana leaf and spiced with pepper and garlic. And if your sweet tooth needs satisfying, the fried coconut ice cream is a must.

Think Happy Days if you walk in the door at EJ's Luncheonette (Inexpensive; Quality 3, Value 3.5; 447 Amsterdam Ave., between 81st and 82nd Sts.; 873-3444). It's straight-up 1950s "dinersville," all the way from the blue-and-white vinyl booths with Formica tables to the counter with blue-topped stools. This New York standby packs it in with people of all ages, solo diners, couples and families small and large. They come for the large portions, kid-friendly atmosphere and good, familiar food. There may be a wait, but service is so fast that once you sit down you'll be out before you can sing "Blueberry Hill." Choices include buttermilk or multigrain flapjacks with a dozen different toppings; ditto for the buttermilk or bran Belgian waffles; Caesar salad; EJ's club sandwich; salami and eggs, pancake-style; great home fries; macaroni and cheese; grilled tuna club with wasabi; Thai chicken salad; EJ's chicken Reuben; and Stewart's root beer float.

Midtown East

Indian restaurant Shaan (Moderate/Expensive; Quality 4, Value 4; 57 W. 48th St., between Fifth and Sixth Aves.; 977-8400) is an island of subcontinental serenity in a spacious, well-appointed, marble-floored dining room with decorative weavings on the walls. The attractive bar area, done in soft green, has a lovely, noteworthy chandelier made from 37,000 gemstone beads. A cool but comfortable quietude prevails. The classy, interesting cuisine is top-notch, as is the service. House specialties include dali batata poori, stuffed flaky pastry topped with tangy tamarind sauce—a fine opener; lobster krahi is a worthwhile splurge; shrimp Goa, a south Indian curry; pudina chaap, lamb chops tossed in a spicy mint sauce, a Parsi specialty; chicken, lamb and goat from the tandoor oven; gobhi alu matar, cauliflower, potatoes and peas with onions, ginger and spices; and alu baigon dahiwala, potatoes and eggplant cooked in yogurt, for veggie-only folks. The poori bread is a puffy delight.

The venerable Woo Chon (Moderate; Quality 4, Value 4; 8 W. 36th St., near Fifth Ave.; 695-0676) serves Korean fare on two levels: a rather intense downstairs space (spotlit and dramatically appointed with lacquered calligraphy, dark wood and Asian ink prints) and a slightly more laid-back upstairs room. Attention centers on the great bulgogi, sweetish garlic-marinated ribeye prepared on the grill set into each table (wrap the beefy chunks in lettuce leaves with a little rice and dab on sweet soybean paste). Unfortunately, the tableside grills are outfitted for gas flame rather than glowing coals, but Woo Chon's awesome marinade—so delicious they bottle the stuff for sale—and top-quality meat easily compensate. Kalbi (beef short ribs) are equally recommended. Panchan, the traditional gratis assortment of little vegetable and fish starter plates, are unparalleled in their freshness. Woo Chon elevates lowly pajun (crunchy/spongy pancakes with optional extras like seafood or kimchi) to an almost highbrow level, evoking subtle flavors from this snacky favorite.

For some of the best sushi in Manhattan, try Sushisay (Expensive; Quality 4, Value 4; 38 E. 51st St., between Madison and Park Aves.; 755-1780). The restaurant is startlingly simple, sharp-angled and bright with off-white and light wood walls and light wood tables. Understated Japanese floral arrangements add spots of vibrant color here and there, and a large, 20-seat sushi bar, manned by six sushi chefs and jammed with Japanese businessmen at lunch, forms the centerpiece. Best choices include special deluxe bento (appetizers, sushi and sashimi served in an elegant lacquer box); special makimoto (three kinds of rolled sushi); sea urchin hand roll, spicy codfish sushi, Japanese mackerel sushi and anything else that appeals on the à la carte sushi list. This is an excellent Midtown choice for the freshest of fresh fish. The ambience and service are friendly; the high prices reflect the location.

Another kind of Japanese cuisine is done to near perfection at the noodle house Menchanko-Tei (Inexpensive; Quality 3.5, Value 4; 131 E. 45th St., between Lexington and Third Aves.; 986-6805). Noodles are taken very seriously here, where they are made with great care for a discerning clientele. Soups are served in heavy iron kettles, with a wooden ladle for transference to your bowl. Several variations on souply themes: menchanko itself is an egg noodle soup of profound delicacy; it can also be prepared with a miso base, and additions can include hot, pickled vegetables, fish balls or a kitchen sink version called tokusei menchanko, dominated by chunks of fresh, flaky salmon that assertively flavor the delicate broth. There are two ramen soups, both topped with a succulent slice of yakibuta pork: hakata is a white broth (gingery and simple, but with great balance), and kikuzo is soy-based (the plainest of all, but no less worthy). Zousui soups are made with plump rice rather than noodles; Kimchi Zousui is particularly good, homey and quite spicy from the hot, pickled cabbage. Nagasaki saraudon is frizzy, thin, fried noodles with a sweetish seafood sauce; Nagasaki chanpon is the same, but in soup.

It's always fiesta time at Rosa Mexicano (Moderate; Quality 4, Value 4; 1063 First Ave., at 58th St.; 753-7407), complete with a boisterous bar scene in the front. Colorful cutout banners flutter from the dark rose ceilings over dusty rose adobe walls, star lighting fixtures twinkle, potted ferns add a little greenery, and traditional copper plates add a little elegance to the table settings. Above and beyond the usual Tex-Mex fare, this is as close to authentic, classic Mexican cuisine as you will find in New York. Be sure to order the made-to-order-at-your-table guacamole—it has become a renowned signature dish. Other house specialties include crepas de cuitlacoche (Mexican corn fungus—a real delicacy); enchiladas de mole poblano; posole (a stew with pork, chicken and hominy); alambres de camarones (grilled, skewered marinated shrimp); ceviche of bay scallops; menudo (tripe stew); enchiladas de pato (duck with a green mole sauce); and crepas camarones (crepes filled with shrimp in a chile pasilla sauce).

Gramercy Park & Madison Square

Diners hungry for both a classic tavern and an upscale American restaurant look no further than The Tonic (Moderate; Quality 4.5, Value 3; 108 W. 18th St., between Sixth and Seventh Aves.; 929-9755). The tavern room sports a beautiful polished wood bar and a few small tables toward the back. The long, narrow dining room runs parallel to the tavern room but keeps a separate identity. The chef here raises American food to a new level and does so effortlessly. Sea bass is on everybody's menu these days, but more often than not it's overcooked and overpowered with sweet sauce. Here, the sea bass melts in your mouth, and the chef's decision to coat it with Reggiano cheese is pure genius—beautifully extending the fish's buttery flavor and making it impossible to leave any on the plate. Guinea hen with chanterelles, summer truffles, corn—red pepper flan, and white asparagus-sauternes sauce is similarly addictive; other entrees include butternut squash bisque and sautéed Hudson Valley foie gras. For dessert, have irresistible warm chocolate brioche pudding or the wonderful trio of cheesecakes.

If you're looking for a low-key place to get surprisingly tasty plates of pasta at bargain prices (but you don't feel like a no-frills hole-in-the-wall either), consider Tre Pomodori (Moderate; Quality 4, Value 5; 210 E. 34th St.; 545-7266). Avoid the spotty appetizers (specials are often better and salads are always okay) and pricier entrees and cut straight to what they cook best: pasta. The linguine with baby clams is a splendid, classic version, very satisfying, and there's a broad range of other choices—18 in all. The linguine fra diavolo (black linguine with calamari and spicy tomato sauce) is worth checking out if you're not in a clamming mood. Risotto, sometimes a special, is also very good, as are the gratis crunchy toasts with tomato and basil. Service can be slightly confused but is always good-natured.

Celebrity chef Bobby Flay holds court at Mesa Grill (Expensive; Quality 3.5, Value 3; 102 Fifth Ave., between 15th and 16th Sts.; 807-7400). Flay has pizzazz aplenty, and this smart venue is the perfect place for him to strut his Southwestern stuff. Substantial columns, painted with bands of Southwestern colors, hold up the two-story-high ceiling. The lime green and yellow walls sprout tin lighting fixtures, and the banquettes are covered in a kitsch-cute "Hi-ho Silver" design. Every dish here has a spicy regional accent—even the romaine salad has red chile croutons, the red snapper is crusted with blue corn tortillas, and there's blue corn again in the biscotti. The appetizers are especially interesting and pretty on their Fiestaware plates, and the main courses are large enough to satisfy the hungry cowboys in the cookhouse. Good selections include shrimp and roasted garlic corn tamale; spicy salmon tartare with plantain croutons and cilantro oil; blue corn tortilla—crusted red snapper; and black angus steak with Mesa steak sauce, potato-corn taco and smoked red pepper—grilled onion relish.

Midtown has plenty of anonymous Irish bar/restaurants to choose from, but the standout is definitely Molly's (Moderate; Quality 4, Value 4; 287 Third Ave.; 889-3361). It's a classic Irish pub, woody and snug, complete with fireplace and lots of booths and tables. Typical pub food is grand (best cheeseburgers and shepherd's pie in Manhattan), and they transcend type with touches like a surprisingly worthy bread basket and fresh (gasp!), not overcooked, vegetable sides. The Guinness stout, properly creamy and not overchilled, is among the best in town. Avoid specials; stick with the main menu. Ask for fried onions on your cheeseburger (they're sensational), and request the special walnut dressing on your salad.