Remember what mom used to say about eating between meals? Well, forget it. One of the pleasures of adulthood is eating what you want when you want -- Doritos for breakfast, Lucky Charms for dinner. And if you're like us, nothing is more deliciously illicit than a leisurely snack in those abandoned hours between lunch and dinner, when most restaurants are not even serving. There's something vaguely forbidden about having the run of a place after the stampeding, cell-packing one-o'clockers have cleared out -- not to mention getting the best tables and the waiters' undivided attention. Whether it's a late lunch, a bar menu, or a twenty-first-century tea, this is the best way to experience some of the city's greatest chefs and most-popular restaurants at a welcome discount. And there's no need for reservations.
Take Danny Meyer's Gramercy Tavern. Plan your visit between 2:30 and 4:30 on a weekday, and not only will you be ushered immediately to your comfy woven-leather seats in the wooden-beamed tavern room, you'll also be presented with pastry chef Claudia Fleming's new "Between Meals" menu -- a sort of Rabelaisian tea for the anti-crumpet crowd.
"We didn't want to call it tea," says Fleming. "Danny came to me and said, 'How about "Between Meals"?' And I said, 'A. J. Liebling,' and he said, 'Exactly.' " Fleming's sweet and savory snacks (and everything is miniature and priced accordingly) are meant for Lieblingesque noshers, not dainty nibblers. Instead of cucumbers on crustless white bread, there are crispy pressed "finger sandwiches" ($3.50 each) that combine pungent panini flavors like fresh sardine and roasted tomato with prosciutto, fontina, and truffle. A raft of buttery, golden herb-flecked baby scones fresh from the oven are wrapped in a linen napkin, tucked into a wire basket, and meant to be smeared with rich salmon rillettes and clabbered cream ($8.50). There are sweet scones, too, studded with sour cherries, and warm popovers with Greenmarket-fresh fruit preserves, but these are overshadowed by the addictive, return-to-the-childhood-you-never-had hot cinnamon-sugared donut holes, in petite sizes that camouflage their irresistible full-fat content ($7.50 a serving). An international roster of exquisite farmstead cheeses (cow-, goat-, and sheep's-milk) come by the three ($6.50), the five ($9.50), and the seven ($12), and they're in perfect ripe condition, a rarity even in these days of the ubiquitous cheese cart.
Of course, you could stop there, but we'd advise against it. Fleming has shrunk her more familiar oeuvre into tasting portions of "custards," "fruit," and "chocolate," at $3 a pop. So you'll have room to sample her lavish coconut tapioca -- soft pearl bubbles floating in cilantro syrup under passion-fruit ice and coconut sorbet -- her dense maple flan, or her buttermilk panna cotta with an oval of Concord-grape sorbet. This last is autumn in a teaspoon, and it costs just the price of a daily subway commute.
If you love the atmospheric Balthazar as we do and crave its hearty bistro food but aren't out for an evening of turbocharged celebrity-spotting, there are few more comfortable, clandestinely romantic places than a spacious booth here at four o'clock. Like any self-respecting brasserie, Balthazar serves continuously, and its late-afternoon menu (available weekdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., followed by an hour when service is limited to raw bar and desserts) is an abbreviated version of lunch. It's also a sort of freaky alternate universe where the hostess greets you warmly at the door and leads you directly to a coveted semi-circular booth against the far wall -- terra incognita for most of us. Even at this off hour, the room is still half full, but the relative calm gives your waiter a chance to spend more time perfecting his dramatic recitation of the specials, testing out a raised eyebrow here and meaningfully pursed lips there. The absence of the madding crowd permits a clearer view of all of owner Keith McNally's carefully curated Gallic accents, from the wall calendar and monster clock to the bar eggs and French-maid uniforms. The slim carte offers a limited selection of soups, salads, and sandwiches, from $6.75 to $17 for the steak-frites -- well within the Underground Gourmet budget, unless you splurge for the house plateau de fruits de mer, $99 for two. (Don't even think about it.)
The house-baked breads -- pain de seigle and country white boule -- are excellent, and so is most of the hearty French-American fare. One day, the special soup is a terra-cotta-colored purée of cranberry beans, smoky with bacon flavor and served in an oversized café au lait bowl ($7). The beefy burger, buried under a plate-crowding heap of world-class fries, is impressive -- even the unlikely "à cheval" version, crowned with a fried egg on an English muffin ($11.75). A pyramid of delectably earthy, rich chicken-liver-and-foie-gras mousse ($8.50), slathered onto grilled country bread and draped with red-onion compote, makes a satisfying light lunch. The house salad, a crunchy medley of asparagus, haricots verts, fennel, and ricotta, is perfumed with truffle vinaigrette ($9.75). A spicy red-pepper spread enlivens a ciabatta roll stuffed with tasty lamb, but its accompanying layer of grilled vegetables -- the usual medley of eggplant, squash, and zucchini -- is limp and lifeless. The grilled-chicken-paillard salad ($14) is an obvious sop to the timid of palate, despite its half-hearted garnish of roasted tomatoes and cap of Parmigiano-Reggiano. But the deep, dark chocolate pot de crème resounds with pure cocoa flavor. Flawless profiteroles (has anyone ever answered in the negative when the server holds the boat of gooey chocolate sauce aloft and asks, "Shall I pour?") and a perfectly flaky tart adorned with ripe violet and green figs with a puddle of crème anglaise are winners, too. If you're abandoned by your waiter, it's just because he's sitting down to the staff meal himself. Let him eat; you're not in any hurry.
Only a month old, Lupa is already, like its big brother Babbo, a victim of its own success, with the young, restless, seemingly starved fans of co-owner Mario Batali clamoring for a taste of his classic saltimbocca and buttery bavette. But you wouldn't know it if you popped in during the dead zone between 3 and 5:30 (weekdays), when the kitchen is closed but the salumeria, that glass-walled meat-carving station manned by a bandanna'd, goateed technician, is open for business. You'll feel like a privileged insider as you perch at the bar or claim a table and order an assortment of affetati, first-rate Italian cured meats like cacciatorini, mortadella, soppressata, or prosciutto di parma (priced per quarter-pound), and aged and fresh cheeses, all Italian except Coach Farm goat cheese (three for $5, five for $7). Meat, cheese, house-baked salt focaccia, olives in a pool of oil, and a caraffina (smallish carafe) of wine -- a good value at $7 to $15 for roughly two glasses -- make the ultimate, elemental snack. And who knows: If you become a regular presence, you might even increase your chances of getting a table during prime time.
Intrepid shoppers know that it's possible to land a bargain anywhere, even in one of Madison Avenue's most chichi boutiques. And so it is at Nicole's, the sleek new subterranean restaurant at Nicole Farhi's sleek new superstore. But not at lunch, when the stylishly set tables and graceful iron-framed chairs ($395 in the home-furnishings department, in case you were wondering) are occupied by an exceptionally well-dressed crowd, all conspicuously trailing pashmina shawls. Dinner is much quieter. But the trick is to order off the bar menu, available from noon to closing, a (literally) bargain-basement alternative to lunch and dinner entrées that run upwards of $20. Not that the bar menu is dirt cheap, but it's definitely good value: Chef Annie Wayte changes her creative, carefully wrought lineup daily to match what's in season, a Chez Panissean market sensitivity that's reflected in dishes like poached Seckel pears with mascarpone, butternut-squash-and-sage risotto, and a salad of warm goat cheese and chanterelles. The generous plate of succulent duck confit cooked crisp and golden brown comes with a mound of lively lentils speckled with pomegranate seeds ($14.50). Silky smoked salmon is garnished with clabbered cream, shaved fennel, caperberries, microgreens, and a stack of warm, ethereal buckwheat blinis ($12). It's hard to justify an $8 dessert, but Nicole's are too rich for one person to eat anyway. So think of them as $4 desserts. The "lemon surprise" pudding is no surprise at all: It's as good as everything else. And the warm sweet-potato pie with Chantilly cream is sublime. During lunch and dinner, the bar menu is confined to the bar -- actually an elevated, illuminated-from-below communal table that seats twenty -- but in the between-meal lull from three till six, you can sit anywhere in the restaurant. Yet another reason to arrive fashionably late.