With rents perhaps the highest they've ever been and the dining public more fickle and distracted, restaurateurs in NYC played it safe in 2016, focusing mostly on hotel concepts and French and Italian fare. Forget about foam, smoke and other hocus-pocus, this past year was all about earthy Euro classics reinterpreted.
But of course, there were a few surprises. Below, in no particular order, we recount 10 of the most important dining experiences of 2016.
You've heard it all before but we'll say it again: Lilia was one of the most exciting places to eat in 2016. Chef Missy Robbins made her smashing return at this striking space located in a former auto garage in Williamsburg, where lines quickly formed for plates of luscious pasta, homemade mozzarella and creamy fro-yo gelato. After receiving three stars from the NY Times in April, getting a table here went from nigh impossible to "see ya never."
Must-order: Sea bass with salsa verde, cacio e pepe fritelle, housemade mozzarella, soft serve gelato
567 Union Street, Brooklyn; 718-576-3095
"Can this place be?" New Yorkers wondered while sipping rosé in a string-light adorned garden complete with live quail and a bathtub swimming with crawfish. The magic of Brooklyn's Olmsted, a scaled-back version of Stone Barns from alum Greg Baxtrom and horticulturist Ian Rothman, left jaded food writers (and just about everyone else) hopeful and inspired with its elegant and affordable indulgence. Sourcing produce directly from its own backyard (and elsewhere), Olmsted wowed diners with creations like carrot crêpe with little neck clams and sunflower petals.
Must-order: Carrot crêpe, oysters, frozen yogurt
659 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-552-2610
More wizardry abounded at Le Coucou, a restaurant that on paper should have been dull: a throwback-inspired French hotel restaurant in SoHo. But Francophile American chef Daniel Rose and vibe master Stephen Starr struck just the right tone — making classic French dishes exciting again with a stunning, glamorous space that somehow pulls off white tablecloths and candlesticks without pretension.
Must-order: Pike quenelle with lobster sauce, oeuf Norvégien, rabbit three ways, chocolate mousse
138 Lafayette Street; 212-271-4252
Speaking of magic, who knew a "speakeasy" restaurant could prove to be way more than just a gimmick? Before husband-and-wife chef/couple Angie Rito and Scott Tacinelli departed this charming Italian/Asian concept in October, it was truly one of the most unique dining experiences in NYC. After passing through cocktail bar The Garret East and hitting a buzzer for entry, guests watched the couple dazzle diners in their small open kitchen with incredible pastas, tartare, zucchini carpaccio and even a take on the Choco Taco. The couple will be opening a new concept for the Quality Branded group in 2017 but in the meantime, they just wrapped up cooking even more impressive stuff at their sold-out Pasta Omakase at NY Sushi Ko.
Must-order: Chefs have left but check them out next year!
Old-school French fare made yet another comeback in 2016 with spots like the charming Mimi leading the wave. Before departing, chef Liz Johnson (a Zagat 30 under 30) had folks lining up for plates of rillettes, braised meat and classic tarts for dessert. Mimi is the archetype of the Greenwich Village French bistro that even Woody Allen couldn't have imagined. Consider us charmed.
Must-order: Menu changes daily
185 Sullivan Street; 212-418-1260
Another speakeasy concept that impressed was this Japanese eatery hidden behind Fort Greene mainstay, Walter Foods. At the helm is Yael Peet, a 26-year-old Shuko and Frankie's alum with Jewish-Brazilian roots, an art school past and secret biker chick aspirations. Cool enough for ya? The seductive space and über-flavorful food includes plates of uni and mentaiko pasta and a rib-eye for two that's worth hopping on the subway for.
Must-order: Pasta, prime rib-eye, whole fish, potato salad
166 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn; 347-223-4811
Three stars from the NY Times, two Michelin stars — need we go on? Scandinavian food was another major trend this year along with newcomers Agern and Great Northern Food Hall. But most impressive: The talented young Fredrik Bersilius made his first stand-alone solo restaurant a major success, taking inspiration from Swedish roots and current New York life. Diners can opt for the full-on tasting menu in either 10 ($145 per person) or 19 courses ($215 per person). The Edda Bar and garden also offers à la carte plates and drinks for those who don't want to break the bank. Also look for his soon-to-open spot, Norman, a collaboration with restaurateur Claus Meyer, in nearby work/art/design space A/D/O to open in January.
Must-order: Tasting menu
45 S. 5th Street, Brooklyn; 929-337-6792
It's not often that a NYC legend reinvents itself, much less comes back from the dead. With institutions closing left and right, it's heartening to know that even after being closed for nine years (due to a building collapse), a legendary venue like Chumley's can come roaring back. Originally opened in 1922 in a former blacksmith's workshop, the speakeasy was the watering hole of choice for celebrated authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger and poets of the Beat Generation. The legendary literary hangout returned this fall thanks to new owner, Sushi Nakazawa honcho, Alessandro Borgognone. While food from chef Victoria Blamey is special enough, grabbing a drink at this legendary spot is a priceless NYC experience.
Must-order: Steak tartare, 86'd burger
86 Bedford Street; 212-675-2081
High-end Indian fare also saw a big surge in 2016 with restaurants like Floyd Cardoz's Paowalla, Tapestry and perhaps the finest new addition: Indian Accent. The New Delhi import from chef Manish Mehrota was like this year's high-end Babu Ji, wowing diners with elevated flavors within the refined setting of the Parker Meridien hotel. The menu focuses on composed plates that can be ordered in either three or four courses, or in a set chef tasting menu of nine.
Must-order: Potato sphere chaat, pork chile fry
123 W. 56th Street; 212-842-8070
NYC is a serious pizza town, and 2016 was a year filled with all kinds of new contenders including Pasquale Jones, Leuca, Massoni, Covina and Pittsburgh import Bread & Salt at Berg'n. But to make square-shaped deep-dish, Detroit-style pizza a runaway hit? That takes serious skill. Our hats off to the good folks at Emmy Squared, who killed it with their take on Motor City pies (admittedly a style close to our hearts) plus a seriously strong social media game. It's never been this hip to be square.
Must-order: Roni Supreme, The Emmy pie, Le Big Matt burger
364 Grand Street, Brooklyn; 718-360-4535