A few years ago, during the first weeks of my strange, accidental career as a restaurant critic, I made a lunch reservation at one of the older, more reputable French restaurants on Sutton Place. I made this reservation, as restaurant critics are supposed to do, under an assumed name. I showed up at the appropriate hour and announced my assumed name to the maître d’, who also happened to be the restaurant’s owner. The owner, who was dressed in a full tuxedo, looked me up and down and gave an exaggerated little bow. “Follow me, monsieur,” he said with elaborate courtesy, before leading me back through the room to a table by the kitchen door, in the restaurant’s equivalent of deepest, darkest Siberia. I opened the menu and pretended to look at it, furrowing my brow in a learned manner, as the maître d’ hovered nearby. “What’s good today?” I finally asked as he continued to hover. “You tell me, monsieur,” the maître d’ said, bowing again, with the faintest smile. “You’re the critic.”
In retrospect, I suppose I could have worn a disguise like some of my more dramatic colleagues (the fact that I was dressed like an overfed, unkempt journalist could have been the tip-off), although I doubt it would have mattered very much. The restaurant owner, who is still doing a good business serving dinner to U.N. diplomats and claques of raucous Sutton Place matrons, has seen critics come and seen them go. Over the years, he has developed an acute, well-calibrated sense of who his regular customers are and what makes them happy. Over the years, his restaurant may even have graced several “Best Of” issues of this very magazine, and over the years, I imagine, this hasn’t affected the way he runs his business one bit. His remark was a way of acknowledging this—and also a sly, playful way of putting me in my place—and I like to remember it whenever I find myself holding forth in a bombastic fashion about the quality of the headcheese at Babbo, say, or the best pizza crust in Brooklyn, as we critics sometimes do.
The fact is, everyone in New York City is a critic—but only a few of us are lucky enough to get paid for the privilege of spouting our views. This is the world’s capital of consumption, after all, a town of rabid buyers, desperate sellers, and disputatious connoisseurs. For a magazine called New York, publishing an issue like this one—an issue devoted to the latest sushi bars, handbags, dance clubs, and all the other ephemera of the new consumer season—is a civic duty, as natural as covering volcanoes in Hawaii or the latest lobster crop if you’re a newspaper in Maine. Most of us who live in this city have our own obsessive “Best Of” lists rattling around in our heads. In fact, I’d argue it’s one of the defining characteristics of being a New Yorker. Possibly you’re an expert on Art Deco sconces, surfboards, or premillennial fedoras. I have a neighborhood friend, a native New Yorker, who enjoys berating me about hot pastrami. “Pastrami Queen!” he’ll cry whenever we meet on the street. “We’ll do a tour! I’ll take you there! You’ll see!”
For what it’s worth, I still like the Carnegie Deli for hot pastrami, even if a sandwich does cost about $60, and if my friend doesn’t agree (and I’m sure he doesn’t), that’s fine. Still, a little expertise (backed by a lot of research) has its place.
If you had all the money in the world, what would you buy? And if you didn’t, what then? What, among all this variety and excitement and cheesy opulence, is actually the Best?
Imagine, for a minute, that you’re living in a store, a store filled with infinite items to sort through and ponder and possibly to buy. There are vegetable stands brimming with Bartlett pears and the finest Golden Delicious apples in this store, and entire baseball teams, and restaurants serving exotic foods from Mexico and Barcelona and Tibet. There are massage parlors for your pet and caviar stands and tanning salons. There are video arcades and Internet dating services and limousine services to whisk you to and fro. There are elaborately appointed houseboats for sale in this store, and endless varieties of brittle, thousand-dollar handbags made of orange lizard skin, and, quite possibly, beautiful-sounding mariachi bands that will come to your office or your home and, for a fee, serenade the evening away. How do we make sense of a store like this, a place, if you think about it, not unlike New York City itself? Where to begin? If you had all the money in the world, what would you buy? And if you didn’t, what then? What, among all this variety and excitement and cheesy opulence, is actually the Best?
Cultivated Greeks, like Epicurus, kept similar lists of refinement in their heads, but it wasn’t until the Michelin Guides, at the turn of the last century, that anyone made a concerted effort to codify everything worth doing (or at least worth eating) in a particular country or place.
Our “Best of New York” issue, by contrast, is a fairly recent phenomenon. The first one appeared in December 1985. The editors handed out awards for, among other things, the city’s best frozen margarita (at a still-extant establishment called Santa Fe) and best restaurant view (poignantly, Windows on the World). Since then, if anything, the appetite for the best of everything—the best toaster, the best new sports car, the best new Hollywood actress—seems to have mutated and grown.
So how do we decide what’s best? Canny entrepreneurs have built entire media empires around consumer opinion, and you can log on to hundreds of Websites (including this magazine’s) to air your views. But in this issue, we attempt to bring a little order to all this democratic chaos. It’s a subjective collection of our critics’ enthusiasms: the sum product of a year spent diligently snooping around town, running up tabs in restaurants, attending torturous Pilates classes, croaking gamely in karaoke bars. We’ve personally sampled hundreds (okay, twenty or so) cups of coffee for a chart on the best coffee in the city, and countless pizzas in our never-ending search for the perfect pie. To give you some relief from all this quality, we’ve also included a category of items that are “overrated.” New York wouldn’t be New York without arguments, and arguments go both ways.
In the end, we hope what we’re providing here is a kind of commercial road map to everything that’s best about the city—an easy-to-read guide to be consumed on the run as you travel around town, and also kept around for a while as a reference. If, by some odd chance, you don’t give a hoot about the Absolute Best Things in New York, we hope you’ll take some vague comfort in knowing that, if you change your mind, they’re all collected here, anthropologically, in one place. But we suggest you try some of our recommendations. We are confident you’ll be pleased, and if you’re not, just let us know. It’s okay. We’re used to controversy. After all, as the old restaurateur says, we’re the critics.