What does it take to be an icon? For restaurants in New York City, you need a long history. Restaurants cannot be open for only a couple of years and be regarded as an icon. Famous restaurants are not icons. Restaurants need generations of fans who regard the restaurant as an integral part of their lives. Restaurants need to be like the Statue of Liberty—people know about it, and if it’s gone it just doesn’t feel right.
In New York, there are plenty of iconic restaurants that have survived and thrived in an industry where failures are common. Read up on them, and if you’re lucky, you may one day even get in to get a taste of the legendary dishes inside.
Rao’s. For most people, the truly exclusive restaurants can be very difficult to visit, since they’re so popular that the waiting time is months before reservations can be secured. In some cases, guests may even have to spend thousands of dollars for just the reservation, and that’s not even counting the cost of the dinner itself.
But when it comes to securing a reservation at Rao’s, the hurdles seem almost impossible. This is a Southern Italian style dining room in East Harlem, and it has stood there since 1896. Do the math—that’s 120 years of history right there.
The problem is that this place only has 10 tables, and just about each one is “owned” by people who have an understanding with the owner Frankie Pellegrino (call him “No”). These table owners are all somebodies: they’re either neighborhood old-timers who are friends with No or celebrities. These are the politicians, actors, CEOs, and news personalities. You either have to secure an invitation from these people, or you can bid on a reservation with one of the charities supported by the Pellegrino family. One of these reservations even went for a whopping $20,000!
Delmonico’s. If you think Rao’s is old, then Delmonico’s is positively ancient. It opened on William Street way back in 1831. That’s just 48 years after the end of the Revolutionary War! This place is justly famous because it introduced so many things in the American culinary scene. Supposedly, it was the first US restaurant that switched from table d’hôte (a fixed-price meal with few choices, if any) to the à la carte menu.
But that’s not all it introduced. This is where the Delmonico steak, New York’s most famous steak, came from. This is also the birthplace of such famous items as the eggs Benedict, baked Alaska, and lobster Newburg.
Russian Tea Room. This Manhattan restaurant between Metropolitan Tower and Carnegie hall first opened in 1927. The name is understandable when you learn that it was started by ex-members of the Russian Imperial Ballet, who wanted a place where Russian expats could gather. As it turned out, it also became a favorite gathering place for those in the entertainment industry.
While it did close down for a while, it was reborn in 2006. Former patrons can be relieved to find out that nothing much has changed. The notoriously kitschy crystal-bear aquarium is still there, and so are the gilded-bird friezes. The menu has been modernized, however, under the direction of Chef Marc Taxiera who uses the former USSR republics to inspire the menu items.
Fans say that the borscht in the Russian Tea Room is the best in New York, and patrons can always call to request beef Stroganoff and chicken Kiev. But if guests are the adventurous type, they can always try the more exotic options. As an example, for an entrée, guests can try the seared venison with cocoa dust, served with truffle-scented tvorog (farmers cheese) dumplings.
Just be prepared to pay up. Even though main courses come in tiny portions, they can go for as much as $40 each.
The Rainbow Room. This restaurant practically oozes with New York glamour, as it peers down on the masses from its perch 65 stories up the Rockefeller Center. This has been the place of many memorable bashes. It offers a modern vibe mixed with old-country charm, with dinner and dancing in the evenings and Sunday Brunch from 11 AM to 3:30 PM. Just make sure you are dressed properly and men are absolutely required to wear a proper jacket.
Totonno’s. Here in this Coney Island seashore pizza place, it’s not about the décor or the amenities. Even with the dinnerware, there’s no pretentiousness as you get Dixie cups and Styrofoam plates. But the quality of the pizza is what keeps the beach-goers returning time and again. The purist Margherita pie is a marvel, but guests can ask for the garlicky white pie that’s not on the menu. It’s superb in taste, as it’s blanketed by shiny white house-made mozzarella and pecorino romano, and dotted with crispy char spots.
Keens Steakhouse. Enter this historical restaurant and you’ll notice the pipes hanging from the walls and ceiling. Those pipes came from the regulars through the years, and these include such legendary figures as Teddy Roosevelt, J.P Morgan, and Babe Ruth. These pipes serve as reminder of how this restaurant has lasted for more than 120 years, and it will probably live on even in today’s nonsmoking world. It’s hard not to feel the history when you’re surrounded by so much wood, a couple of fireplaces, and the beveled-glass doors. The menu can still seem old-fashioned, since you can get mutton chop that measures 3 inches thick, and then key lime pie for dessert. Get an order of sirloin and porterhouse, and they’re good for 2 or 3 people. As for the quality of the steak, don’t worry. It can match just about any other steak you find in New York City. It really is that good.
These are just a sample of the iconic restaurants in New York City, as you probably need an entire book to list them all. If you ever find yourself spending time in NYC, you must try at least one of these places out. Then you’ll begin to understand why New Yorkers insist that the Big Apple is the greatest city in the world.