Soho / Nolita
A fantasy shop for Spanish-food fetishists, Despaña has some tables in back where you can gorge privately on the Basque tapas laid out marvelously on the counter. Some of my favorites here are the Flautas Castañas,small sandwiches of salchicon sausage, goat cheese, and pickled piquillo peppers on a mini-baguette, sweetened with a dab of chestnut cream. Mind-blowing deliciousness. At $5.50, they’re a bit pricey as snacks go, but one can hold you over in a happy stupor for a couple of hours. One weekend, after having just listened to a Spanish-Colombian couple rhapsodize about Despaña’s morcilla at a party the night before, I couldn’t resist going in for the Pintxo Asturiana—a tapas-size ($3.50) wedge of crusty bread topped with luxuriously tender morcilla (blood sausage) and pickled piquillo peppers. It’s not for everyone, morcilla. But once you’re a convert there’s no going back. Afterwards, walk a few blocks east on Broome to Papabubble, for swirly lollipops made by hand behind the counter, and candies in flavors like spicy mango.
Café Gitane. Café Gitane sums up what’s enchanting about Nolita—and what’s so damned annoying about it. A little café on a side street with deliciously potent coffee; a laid-back, vaguely French-Moroccan vibe; glossy international magazines to browse through; sunlight pouring through the streetside windows. You could spend hours here. Except you can’t get a table, ever. (Unless you show up around 9am on a weekday morning.) Order a cafe creme and the baked eggs with basil or an open-face sandwich of chili-spiked avocado on whole-grain toast, and be reminded why you’re alive, why you’re in this crazy town, and why it’s all worth it. The couscous is better than it needs to be too, especially when you spike it with the harissa that comes on the side. But for that, you’ll have to show up at midday or evening rush hour—and, yes, wait. (If you’re on the west side, check out the branch of Gitane at the Jane Hotel in the West Village.)
Raoul's. Don’t show up late to dinner at Raoul’s. There’s no place to wait—the bar area is cramped and zoolike—and your dinner date will want to kill you. If you get the showing-up-on-time part right, you can’t really go wrong at this sweetly worn-in old French bistro. The crisply seared, juice-oozing steak deserves its fame; the frisee-lardons salad with a poached duck egg is the perfect starter; the oysters are a must. And the house tarot-card reader is still upstairs, just in case you want to risk messing with an otherwise perfect night.