Hottest Tables NYC: The Restaurants That Defined 2013

By James Mulcahy  |  December 16, 2013
Credit: Cherie Cincilla

2013 was a good year for food in New York City. Some of our local stars branched out, the Brooklyn-ization of the food world kept going full speed ahead and ultra-high-end Italian (think entrees over $50) continued to draw huge crowds. Read below for Zagat's picks of the restaurants that mattered most in 2013, and make those reservations before your New Year's resolutions kick in.

  • Credit: Gabi Porter

    The Italian Stallions: Carbone and ZZ's Clam Bar

    The guys behind Torrisi and Parm (chefs Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi) landed a one-two punch on the city's dining scene, but this time in the West Village with these sister restaurants on Thompson Street. The first (pictured) runs with a kitschy, old-school vibe that both pokes fun at and celebrates red-sauce joints of yore, while the second is a super-small bar and crudo counter that serves high-end seafood and cocktails. Both spots come with sky-high price tags, but they've managed to attract the magic combo of sceney buzz and critical acclaim. You almost forget you're paying $52 for veal parmesan. 

    Carbone: 181 Thompson St.; 212-254-3000 / ZZ's: 169 Thompson St.; 212-254-3000

  • Credit: Alden Gewirtz

    The Industry Hot Spots: Estela and Charlie Bird

    These two midsize spots have a lot in common, despite their completely different menus (Estela serves eclectic small plates while Bird dishes modern Italian). They both found success by winning the industry folks first; the bait was the killer wine selection both places have. While the food at Estela is more creative and the vibe at Bird (pictured) is arguably more scene-y, both are packed nightly, and if you ask that in-the-know friend (or, ahem, restaurant blogger) where to go, it's likely that one of these will be at the top of the list.

    Estela: 47 E. Houston St.; 212-219-7693 / Charlie Bird: 5 King St.; 212-235-7133

  • Credit: Cherie Cincilla

    The Boston Transplant: Toro

    What can a couple of Boston chefs teach New Yorkers about Spanish food? A lot, it seems, as this Boston import from chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bisonette is now a massive hit. The menu is similar to the original location (one of that town's best restaurants); think traditional Spanish tapas and signature dishes like an uni sandwich with miso butter and pickled mustard seeds. With floor-to-ceiling windows, a plant wall and industrial wooden beams holding up the ceiling, the space is sexy, but the crowd is the real looker at the venue. Co-owners Doug Jacob and Will Malanti (hot off our latest 30 Under 30 list) know how to bring in the pretty people, and that they've done. The spot has also become something of a Food Network hangout - we spied Anne Burrell at the bar during our last visit.

    85 10 Ave.; 212-691-2360

  • A Dining Room for Hell's Kitchen: Gotham West Market

    Name aside, the Hell's Kitchen dining scene leaves a lot to desire. Although Ninth Avenue is overflowing with restaurants, most of them are standard-issue ethnic joints. There are a few decent beer spots on 10th Avenue (Hallo, Berlin and Pony Bar) and 11th Avenue - wait, there's an 11th Avenue? You might have not realized that before, but this new food hall has landed on a barren stretch on the culinary map. The Gotham Market is kind of like the Plaza Food Hall, but better. At the counter concessions, you'll find vendors like Blue Bottle Coffee, The Cannibal and Saltie, and both Seamus Mullen and AvroKo are on hand with new concepts (El Colmado and Genuine Roadside, respectively).

    The most exciting option of the bunch seems to be Ivan Ramen (pictured), which is already drawing crowds with NYC-via-Tokyo chef Ivan Orkin's crazy-good noodles. You might have to stand in line for that one, but thankfully there is plenty to snack on while you wait.

    600 11th Ave. 

  • A New Breed of Thai: Uncle Boons and Somtum Der

    Last year the story coming out of NYC's Asian restaurant scene was the emergence of fusion-loving, out-there Asian hipster cuisine. In 2013, we've seen a swing to more tradition-minded restaurants. Uncle Boons is a hip little spot in NoLita - witness the beer slushies being served at the bar and old-school movie posters that decorate the space - but the food isn't gimmicky or faddish. Some of the best dishes are relatively simple, like a kaffir-lime-infused rotisserie chicken and grilled blowfish tails with dipping sauces. Many of the dishes pack a heat that slowly creeps up on you, much like the appreciation for what is going on here (if it gets to be too much, reach for aforementioned slushie).

    Over in the East Village, the heat in the dishes at Somtum Der doesn't bother tip-toeing around, it just slaps you right in the face. The space is no-frills and you might have to wait for a table, but the prices are affordable and the Isan-style grub from the country's northern region is some of the most authentic you'll find in Manhattan.  

    Uncle Boons: 7 Spring St.; 646-370-6650 / Somtum Der: 85 Ave. A; 212-260-8570

  • Credit: Gabi Porter

    West Greenpoint Grows Up: Glasserie

    The emerging culinary neighborhood of 2013 was definitely, if unexpectedly, Greenpoint, especially the industrial western area of the neighborhood that borders on the East River and used to house shipyards and other nautical enterprises. Many of the new restaurants in the area ran with this seafaring vibe - from neighborhood fave The Bounty, which has a sail hanging over the dining room, to Andrew Tarlow's bar Achilles Heel, which has a weathered look fit for a sailor.

    The farthest flung of these eateries is also the anchor of the group. Glasserie calls a former glass factory its home, and once you make your way over to the water's edge, you'll be rewarded with a unique Mediterranean menu that is rife with Israeli influences. The large space is perfect for groups, which is good, because if you didn't order chef Sara Conklin's whole rabbit, which is meant to be shared between a party of three or four, you'd miss out on one of the best dishes to debut this year.

  • The Ultimate Omakase: Sushi Nakazawa

    Japanese food is having a moment right now in NYC. On the low end, there's a slew of new ramen shops with lines down the street, and on the high end, a renowned group of sushi chefs is reinventing traditional omakase sushi meals. Whether you're jamming to disco at Sushi Dojo or grabbing the chopsticks at hole-in-the-wall Sushi Ko, the counter is the place to be, especially if you manage to score one of the 10 stools at Sushi Nakazawa, a recently opened West Villager that is the best of the bunch.

    The eponymous chef Daisuke Nakazawa trained under Jiro Ono (of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi). For those lucky enough to get a counter seat, he offers a 20-course tasting for $150 - though if you are willing to sit in the dining room, the same meal is just $120. It may be tiny, but according to critics and crowds, the venue is mind-blowing, recently snagging a rare four-star review in the NYTimes.

    23 Commerce St.; 212-924-2212

  • Credit: Alden Gewirtz

    A Brooklyn Surprise: The Elm

    One of the biggest - and most surprising - food stories of the year was when modernist maestro Paul Liebrandt left his post at TriBeCa's Corton and decamped to set up shop in Williamsburg's King and Grove Hotel. Corton subsequently closed, and The Elm solidified this neighborhood's status as one of the most innovative culinary zip codes in town. The venue has tried to find a magic formula that both works with the neighborhood (witness the burger that was recently added to the menu) and Liebrandt's refined, slightly experimental taste (a chef's tasting counter dubbed The Little Elm recently opened in the back of the restaurant). While the reviews haven't been as widely positive as, say, similarly ambitious Aska in the same neighborhood, the chef has shown that where he goes, food lovers will follow.

    160 N. 12th St.; 718-218-7500

  • The Fine-Dining Newbie: Betony

    Despite an all-star team of chef Bryce Shuman and front-of-house guru Eamon Rockey, both of whom came from Eleven Madison Park, this Midtown eatery got off to a bit of a slow start. The decor of the 57th Street venue was refreshed, but it still kind of looked like previous tenant Brasserie Pushkin - a gaudy, tacky caviar-and-vodka palace. The general consensus was that it was just a poor man's version of EMP. 

    Then something changed: the reviews started rolling it. If there was one new restaurant that was helped by universally positive write-ups in 2013, it was Betony. Once the word was out, Downtown diners ventured to Midtown for a taste, and the restaurant embraced its fine-dining side while still keeping things casual at the bar (which, for the record, serves amazing cocktails). While industry insiders would have put their money on The Elm to be the high-end restaurant that defined the year, this sleeper crept to the top, surprising everyone.

    41 W. 57th St.; 212-465-2400

  • James Beard Winners, Act Two: Mission Cantina and Alder

    It was a big year for chefs Wylie Dufresne and Danny Bowien. Both walked away with major James Beard Awards, and both opened follow-ups to the NYC restaurants that put them on the map. Dufresne was awarded the title of Best Chef NYC after years of being nominated and losing out to his peers. After putting molecular gastronomy on the map at his fine-dining flagship wd~50, he decided to dial things down at Alder, a more-casual East Village restaurant that offers playful takes on pub food.

    West Coast transplant Bowien ignited the taste buds of NYC's dining scene with all that Sichuan peppercorn at his Mission Chinese and then was called out by the Beards as the Rising Star Chef of the Year. Late this year, he opened Mission Cantina down the block from his original (currently closed for renovation) on Orchard Street. This Mexican restaurant incorporates subtle Asian twists and shows diners why one day, it might be this San Francisco transplant that snags the Best NYC Chef award.

    Alder: 157 Second Ave.; 212-539-1900 / Mission: 172 Orchard St.; 212-254-2233

  • That Place With the Spring Pea Guacamole: ABC Cocina

    As a follow-up to his always-popular ABC Kitchen, Jean-Georges enlisted chef Dan Kluger to play around with the flavors of Latin America. The result led to one of the city's most talked-about dishes: a simple guacamole amped up with spring peas and sunflower seeds. Though it's not spring anymore, diners can still see how Kluger plays with Latin standards - by putting market-fresh ingredients at the forefront of the plate. This sexy restaurant is located in the space that used to house tapas-joint Pipa, and when we heard that was closing, we were a little sad. Not anymore. We suspect chic crowds will be jockeying for a table here long into 2014.

    38 E. 19th St.; 212-677-2233