If classic white-glove haute cuisine is a kind of cult religion—and its devoted adherents will tell you that it is—then the aughts were marked by apostasies of the most extreme and horrifying kind. This was the decade that the grand old edifice of puffy soufflés, flutes of Champagne, and white-linen tabletops, revered by generations of New York food snobs, was turned upside down and stood, more or less permanently, on its head. Gourmet magazine did not make it out of the aughts alive. The lowly lobster roll replaced caviar as the dish of choice in seafood palaces around town, and pork belly became the new filet mignon. Venerable dining institutions (Lutèce, Le Côte Basque, La Caravelle) folded their tents one by one, and the shell-shocked Frenchmen who survived grimly opened breakfast bars and sausage joints, and instructed their lieutenants to concoct upscale cheeseburgers larded with fatback or foie gras.
But this was also the decade in which New York finally found its own voice as a restaurant town. In food, as in ballet or comic books or any creative art you can think of, the city has always been a bazaar, a place where ego-driven divas come from around the globe to show their wares, make their outsize reputations, then flame out in a blaze of glory. This ambition is a key to the diversity of the local restaurant scene, and one of the reasons we’re prone to all sorts of fashions and fads. It’s also why New York, unlike other great food cities, like San Francisco, or Tokyo, or Lyon, has never had its own particular fine-dining DNA. Before Henri Soulé opened his famous French restaurant Le Pavillon after the World’s Fair of 1939, the fancy cooks in town were German. Sirio Maccioni infused French haute cuisine with Italian conviviality during the seventies and eighties at Le Cirque, and during the nineties, global superstars like Nobu Matsuhisa and Jean-Georges Vongerichten brought their elaborate Asian-fusion tricks to town.
But the aughts haven’t been kind to carpetbagging superstar chefs with lots of tricky recipes up their sleeves. Long before the Great Recession cut expense accounts in half, food snobs were using chaste buzzwords like local, market-driven, and homegrown. Danny Meyer’s Union Square empire incorporated the Greenmarket gospel being preached by Alice Waters (among others) and gave it a polished Manhattan sheen. But Meyer’s restaurants are front-of-the-house operations, and during the aughts, the crackpots and kitchen slaves in the back of the house stormed the barricades and brought a new brand of informed, high-end comfort cooking to the masses. At Babbo, Mario Batali took the Led Zeppelin ballads his prep cooks chopped onions to all day and pumped them into his dining room. Then in 2001, Tom Colicchio opened Craft, in the Flatiron district, which took the elements cooks revere most (ingredients, sourcing, technique) and raised them to the level of haute cuisine.
Colicchio is a national TV personality now, and the restaurants he’s opened in the last few years have more in common with Vegas than New York. But if you had to pick the Le Pavillon of the aughts, it would be Craft, and its influential little spin-off Craftbar. “It’s as if they’ve rearranged the way traffic works,” someone said when I ate there for the first time, and it was true. The restaurant had the utilitarian, but polished, look of a soundstage or the showroom of an obsessively chaste cabinetmaker in Vermont. The culinary theme wasn’t faux French, or crypto-brasserie, or even fake Californian (à la Per Se); it was the purity of the ingredients themselves. There were 65 of them listed on Colicchio’s menu, and his original radical idea was to have no actual recipes at all. Some restaurants, like Blue Hill and Savoy, were peddling a similar bucolic vision of haute cuisine, but no one had articulated the cult of unpretentiousness in quite such an immaculately pretentious, big-city way.
So what does the prototypical New York restaurant for the aughts look like? Maybe the walls are covered with maple wood, or railroad ties, but not much else. The bar is designed for eating, not drinking, and chances are you can see the kitchen from your chair. The menus are spare, single-page documents, which emphasize top-of-the-line ingredients and the farms they come from. There’s plenty of elevated comfort food on the menu (pork products, offal, bowls of ramen), because that’s what former kitchen slaves (like David Chang, who once toiled at Craft) like to eat. The technique is still top-notch, and the influences, like at Chang’s justly hyped establishments or Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50 or Michael Psilakis’s great midtown Greek restaurant Anthos, come from around the world. But for the first time in this great dining city, the alchemy—the heat—emanating from the kitchen has a flavor all its own. It’s New York cooking, and you won’t find it anywhere else.