Ilili. Impossible to be Lebanese and not have cripplingly high expectations of Lebanese restaurants in NYC—partly because there aren’t enough to speak of. (I’m biased though: Yours truly is of Beirut extraction.) But chef Philippe Massoud is doing spectacularly authentic, big-flavored Lebanese food, and it’s really unmissable. The kibbe nayeh (a steak-tartare-like hill of raw meat mixed with burghul and eaten with pita bread, olive oil, and white onion); the red mullet with pita chips, tahini, and and lemon; the juicy kebabs; and the chicken livers with sumac and pomegranate molasses are reasons enough to be alive. The dining room, in its vastness, can feel more midtown than Mediterranean, but it takes up a gratifyingly large piece of real estate.
Maialino. At Maialino, the supernaturally intuitive restaurateur Danny Meyer’s first attempt at an Italian spot, the rustic, earthy paradigm New York diners deeply adore gets aired out with higher ceilings and intimate nooks that open breezily onto each other. Meyer installed the skilled chef Nick Anderer, ex of Gramercy Tavern, to create an always-appealing, mostly-Roman menu of dishes like bucatini all’Amatriciana and a half roasted chicken with pickled chili. With all that, he creates an Italian destination that somehow commands attention in a hyper-crowded field. Depending on your feelings about the Ian Schrager-designed Gramercy Hotel that the restaurant sits in—arty and wild and cool, or overblown—dining at Maialino means you’ll get to enjoy wandering through the art-jammed lobby first, or take pains to avoid the scenesters who always seem to be milling around.
52 Irving Pl. (17th & 18th Sts.)
125 E. 17th St. at Irving Pl.
Casa Mono/Bar Jamon. One of the best things about Gramercy’s small Spanish restaurant Casa Mono is that if you’re stuck waiting for your table, you can hit the tapas joint Bar Jamon around the corner for a pre-dinner Iberico ham gorge. And if you can’t quite cram into the tightly jammed Jamon, you can…try to get a last-minute table at Mono without a reservation? (Good luck with that.) However oversubscribed and high-maintenance both places can be, Mario Batali and company had the foresight to open the sibling restaurants right near each other—to double your pleasure or pain, depending on how you see it. Casa Mono: Fiercely flavorful Spanish-Mediterranean food (confited goat with saffron honey; soft-shell crab with Meyer lemon aioli; morcilla sausage with chanterelles) in a miniscule dining room. Jamon: An impeccable mix of Spanish cheeses, wines—and hams, naturally—in a Madrid-style, standing-only tapas bar.