18 Restaurant Secrets From Cities Around the U.S.

By Zagat Staff  |  September 10, 2013
Credit: Lucia

Whether it's off-the-menu items, hidden entrances or tricks for getting a table at your town's hippest hot spot, secrets abound in the restaurant and cocktail world. This week we're sharing some of our best-kept secrets with you, spanning 10 major U.S. cities. Keep these in your back pocket for fall travel.

  • Chicago: The Office

    Two years ago, Grant Achatz opened his über-exclusive, ridiculously expensive speakeasy below Aviary. We would normally call $20 for a cocktail highway robbery, but when mixologist Charles Joly painstakingly crafts each drink with flavor extracts from a rotary evaporator and innovative cocktail technology such as ice cubes that surround the alcohol, the Jackson is justified. If getting the dough isn’t a problem, getting into the bar might be. Guests who dine at Aviary or Next may be invited to enjoy an after-dinner cocktail in the basement bar, but there is also a secret number to text for reservations if you know who to ask.

  • NYC: Get Grimaldi's Without Waiting in Line

    News flash for pizza fans - you can check out the pizza that has folks lining up day in and day out without the wait. Or without even leaving Manhattan. Sure, hanging out on the sidewalk at Grimaldi's may be "part of the experience" for out-of-towners, but New Yorkers can get their pies at the Limelight Marketplace, where a stand-alone branch opened a while back with little fanfare. It's open, and the checkered tables are usually pretty empty and there is never a line situation.

  • San Francisco: MKT

    The Four Seasons' recently remodeled restaurant features a hidden, exclusive event space called the Private Den that was inspired by the private 19th-century Bohemian Club. The area is accessible only by secret knock, and it's not the secret knock that everyone knows.

  • Boston: Notorious B.I.G. Burger at The Gallows

    The burger is anything but notorious (it's not even listed on the menu), but this hipster-chic spot scores a big hit with those in the know. Sitting in poutine is a double-patty burger slathered with American cheese and topped with a fried egg - a high-calorie tribute to general manager Sethe Yaffe's favorite rapper.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Philadelphia: Off-Menu Tripe at Bibou

    Tripe hasn’t been on the official menu for many years at Pierre Calmels’s Bella Vista dining room, but if you call at least a week in advance to request it, front-of-the-house master (and the chef’s wife) Charlotte will convince the chef to make it for you. If you are a fan of the curly offal, mention it when you make your reservation - since you pretty much need to book far in advance anyway - and you’ll be good to go.

  • Austin: Dinner Lab

    The lab isn’t your average supper social. The members-only dining experience features top-notch, under-the-radar chefs who don’t get as much play or press as executive chefs, and it always takes place in an unusual location, from the floor of a paper mill to a motorcycle dealership. Dinner Lab sends you a secret email with the secret locale the day before the dinner, adding to the fun. We thoroughly enjoyed the recent dessert dinner from Carillon pastry chef Plinio Sandalio. But the best part of this club? Events happen often, almost once per week, which means you have access to great food all the time.

  • Credit: Mari Vanna

    LA: Hold the Key to Karaoke

    New Russian hot spot Mari Vanna has taken exclusivity to a new level. Owner Tatiana Brunetti and management staff have handed out keys on Russian nesting-doll keychains to select VIPs, regulars and other notable guests, which enable them to unlock the door on Monday nights after 10 PM for karaoke parties, infused-vodka cocktails and more. But if you don't get one, it's ok: ring the doorbell and someone might let you in.

  • Credit: Petrossian

    LA: Off-Menu Burger at Petrossian

    You can get caviar on just about anything at Petrossian in West Hollywood, and now you can even have it on a burger. Only those in the know request the beef burger topped with crème fraîche, a fried egg, butter lettuce and a sheet of Petrossian’s pressed caviar. At $75 a pop, it’s not an ordinary price tag either.

  • Washington, DC area: Al Dente's Roberto 4

    It’s not widely known that Italian chef Roberto Donna is recreating a bit of the magic of his much-missed Laboratorio del Galileo’s multicourse extravaganzas at his Wesley Heights venue. Book one of the four seats at the counter facing the kitchen on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays, and he’ll regale you with 12 or more creations until you cry “basta.”

  • Credit: Tamara Palmer

    San Francisco: Chabaa Thai Cuisine

    Nearly two years after former SF Weekly restaurant critic Jonathan Kauffman discovered and then had translated the "secret" Thai menu at the Sunset location of this restaurant, Chabaa has officially decoded the offerings for everyone. It's even charmingly labeled "Secret Thai Menu" in English and contains 39 items and counting, including sautéed wild boar, steamed seafood curry custard, fiery North and Northeastern sausages (pictured), and a country-style pork neck.

  • NYC: Maison O's Secret Karaoke Room

    Maison O is a super-hip sushi spot that just opened in the former Kenmare space, and the cool kids who used to hang out at that space had one question when they heard about the relaunch: what were they going to do with the basement? It used to house the clubby lounge that kept the previous tenant alive long after the restaurant went on life support. That hot spot rankled neighbors though, so the folks behind Maison decided to keep things a little more low-key with a small, stand-alone bar and the venue's very own karaoke room. The space is dubbed Stardust Lounge, and is sure to be packed once nightlife types find out about it. Oh wait - it's New York Fashion Week - that means they already have.

  • Boston: Bogie's Place in jm Curley

    Chef Sam Mansour's creativity is no secret (this is, after all, the man who can turn convenience store junk food into culinary masterpieces). But outside the foodie world, his hideaway steakhouse is still pretty hush-hush. The reservations-only room offers a handful of diners a private place to eat from an upscale menu with meaty mains, a luxurious Victorian presentation of American sturgeon caviar ($120 and served with chilled vodka), and appetizers like this Hudson Valley foie gras torchon, with cocoa nibs and black garlic purée.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Philadelphia: Once-a-Week Chicken Pho at Cafe Diem

    On Thursdays, this tiny Vietnamese cafe a few doors down from Bibou offers an alternative to the beef-based bún bò huế and beef pho for which the spot has become famous. Chicken pho is just as soulfully rich as its cow-based counterpart, but more delicate - think of grandma’s chicken soup, and multiply the layers of flavor complexity by seven. Midtown Lunch Philadelphia discovered a couple of years ago that the secret is a freshly killed bird - which, well, you don’t have to think about if you don’t want to. Just slurp the soup.

  • Chicago: Jimmy

    Located past the sandwich counter of David Burke's Bacon Bar (yes, an entire fast-casual hole-in-the-wall devoted to bacon) is an unmarked door guarded by a tuxedo-wearing gentleman. It is an interesting sight that all makes sense after passing though the door and metal curtains into the speakeasy-style cocktail lounge. The wood-paneled bar serves cocktails inspired by 1970s cinema. Sip on the Bondsman (apple brandy, vodka, lime, cranberry juice, agave and seltzer) or a Dirty Little Secret (vodka, dry vermouth, olive brine, celery bitters and lemon, and infused with a drop of A1 sauce) while dining on goat cheese fondue or pinot noir Jello.

  • Austin: Inside Bar at Takoba

    The strength and sweetness of Takoba’s margaritas are no secret. But did you know there’s an indoor bar with an entirely different vibe and special bar menu? Think some of the best hits from the extended menu, more drinks and very knowledgeable bartenders at one of the hippest places in East Austin.

  • Washington, DC area: Maketto at Hanoi House

    While Erik Bruner-Yang’s (Toki Underground) ambitious Atlas District Maketto, an Asian street-food, fine-dining and fashion-market complex, is still a work in progress, he’s cooking up a storm at Hanoi House on 14th Street NW. Reservations are essential, and the lucky few who nab them get to taste his upcoming dishes - the price tag is $30, no menu and no substitutions. There’s also a fun dim sum cart. Go here to try to snag a seat, or try to walk in and sit at the bar.

  • Dallas: Lucia

    Notoriously tough-to-crack hot spot Lucia serves up some of Dallas' most creative takes on Italian cuisine. While the restaurant is usually booked weeks in advance, you can find last-minute tables if you keep a close eye on their Facebook page.

  • Columbus, OH: Tavern Menu at DeepWood

    One of the Capital City's most creative - and pricey - eateries allows diners to sample its fare from a special menu at a fraction of Deepwood's usual deep-pocket cost in the bar area only (between 3-7 PM.)