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American Cuisine Dining Picks

Global Reach: Diners at Chickenbone Cafe (Photo by Patrik Rytikangas)

Chickenbone Café
177 South 4th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Zak Pelaccio buys local and cooks global, a practice that sets him apart from the hipsterville competition. Organic salad greens come from the North Fork, kielbasa from Greenpoint. The sometime special of smoked fish is courtesy of a Hasidic neighbor. But Chickenbone has a lot more to offer than a p.c. philosophy: It’s got a hopping bar scene, a classic cocktail list, a sleek cabin-in-the-woods design, and low prices ($3 to $9.50). Not to mention ambitious daily specials like broiled eel over rice ($14) and roasted partridge ($16). Sandwiches are a particular strength, and come stuffed with everything from pork confit to bittersweet chocolate.

165 Allen Street

This funky downtown quasi-diner divides its menu into “small dishes” ($7) and “big dishes” ($14.50 or $17.50)—a welcome gimmick, since the latter come with any two sides, making it easy (and thrifty) to skip the former. The kitchen dips into the comfort-food canon for revved-up versions of meat loaf, fried catfish, and pork chops, but the menu turns out to be as eclectic as the crowd—part Lower East Side hipsters, part middle-aged curiosity seekers from points north, all harmoniously tucking into crisp codfish tacos and house-smoked trout with shaved fennel. Unexpected grace notes abound, like a pickle-plate amuse bouche, candied pignolis on the chocolate pudding, and exceptional spiced sangria and vanilla-bean lemonade.

Kitchen 22
36 East 22nd Street

Kitchen 82
461 Columbus Avenue, at 82nd Street

Some people—not us—call it Dining for Dummies. But Charlie Palmer is smart enough to realize that a foolproof, hassle-free evening out is just what a lot of people want right now: No lengthy list of specials to ponder. Just point to what you want on the tiny menu of five appetizers, five entrées, and five desserts, then grunt and rub your belly. The two wine suggestions—one white, one red—lined up next to each entrée make ordering simple enough for a small child, should he or she be carrying the proper I.D., and the staff takes care of everything else except cutting up your steak into tiny chokeproof pieces and calculating the tip. Sure, on most nights, three out of five entrées on the $25 prix fixe menu are going to be chicken, salmon, and hanger steak, but they’re done with enough élan—are those purple Peruvian potatoes with my fillet?—to make you glad you didn’t attempt it at home for more than you’ll pay here.

All Hands on Deck: The garden at Mermaid Inn. (Photo by Kenneth Chen)

Mermaid Inn
96 Second Avenue

This “clam shack built by a beatnik,” in co-owner Jimmy Bradley’s words, has a lot more going for it than littlenecks, however delectable ($7 a half-dozen). A New Englandy front room, a cozier rear, and an adorable garden fill nightly with East Villagers stuck in the city but hungering for the shore. Chef Mike Price dishes it up in the quasi-retro form of blue-crab-and-baby-spinach dip ($12), fried oysters ($10), and spaghetti with shrimp, scallops, and calamari ($15). Every bottle of wine is priced a miraculous $15 over cost, and dessert (chef’s choice) is on the house.

P. J. Clarke's
915 Third Avenue, at 55th Street

After a meticulous yearlong restoration, the old gin mill is back in business. Some things, we suspect, aren’t what they used to be: When asked about the chili one afternoon, the perky young waitress responded, “I wouldn’t really know. I’m a vegan.” Well, no one ever came here for the food, but that’s no longer the kitchen’s fault. Shared ownership with Docks accounts for the chipper shucker at the new raw bar and the unfailingly fresh fish and chips ($15.80). Oysters, with their Old New York connotation, don’t seem out of place in a joint like this, but sprightly salads, like the one with spinach, beets, and feta ($6.80), do. And sides like sautéed broccoli rabe ($4.15) suffused with garlic cloves just might lure regulars away from the house half-and-half (creamed spinach and mashed potatoes,$4.75). There’s a fancy new dining room upstairs, but the classic New York experience is still found downstairs with a Boddingtons and a $9.30 bacon cheeseburger.

122 Union Street, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn

Screw Mickey D’s. we ought to sue the pants off Alan Harding before we burst another seam. At his kitschy new burger joint, he’s created a kind of fantasy-junk-food camp for middle-aged Augustus Gloops. Just look at the evidence: the Schnäckie, Harding’s take on the slider. Cute name. Only 1.5 ounces of freshly ground beef on a house-baked minibun. Seems harmless enough, right? Wrong. You’ll want twelve, minimum. Need more proof? How about spicy fries, big fat onion rings, eight kinds of hot dogs and kielbasa, and a homemade Orange Julius for chrissakes, and nothing over eight bucks? And Schnäck’s Asian-inspired idea of diet food? Crazy-sounding specials like knockwurst and bacon in a Japanese coconut-curry sauce with rice. C’mon. If that’s not a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen, we don’t know what is.

The Soul Spot
302 Atlantic Avenue, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn

Bare-bones and fluorescent-lit, this place looks like a hundred other storefront steam-table soul-food joints. But something extraordinary must be going on back in the kitchen. Supersavory chicken and dumplings ($7.50) tread a delicious murky brown gravy. Moist meat loaf ($7.95) is slicked with an eerie but tasty candy-apple-red glaze. Nicely seasoned collards actually show signs of life—a refreshing departure from the norm—while sweet, juicy yams pack a cinnamon-sugar punch. And habit-forming coconut cake is worth remaining fully clothed at the beach this summer. No wonder that even late at night, there’s a steady stream of customers filing in to ponder their two generous sides.

210 West 10th Street

With the soul of a diner cook and the marketing acumen of a gourmet M.B.A., Jay Strauss has carved out a nice niche for himself—an open-air, whitewashed niche that seats eighteen people elbow-to-elbow. Big salads, appealing sandwiches, and several gratifying variations on the burger and frank theme (turkey, vegan, chili-smothered, Hebrew National) satisfy appetites both virtuous and decadent, with enough ingenuity (and a $14 price ceiling) to turn neighbors into regulars. “Westville Market” blackboard specials like tender grilled asparagus and minted feta-and-tomato salad make it easy to eat your vegetables. Which you’ll want to do before succumbing to the berry galette, layer cake, or chocolate-chip meringues displayed fetchingly (and strategically) on the counter.

49 East 19th Street

From Craft to Craftbar to ’Wichcraft: If Tom Colicchio continues his downward price spiral, he’ll soon be operating a souvlaki cart. We won’t complain if it’s anywhere near as enticing as this stylishly minimalist sandwich shop, with its gleaming lablike kitchen and tantalizing melted-cheese aroma. Breakfast is available all day, or at least breakfast sandwiches are— frittata on ciabatta ($5), for instance, or fried egg and bacon with Gorgonzola ($6). And even though we love the refreshing, fastidiously assembled Sicilian tuna with shaved fennel and lemon ($8), and the tangy grilled Gruyère with caramelized onions on rye ($5.50), not to mention panini-pressed pork loin, coppa, and fontina on crusty country bread ($9), we try to leave room for deftly seasoned soups and side salads. Buttery blueberry scones, irresistible lemon bars and ganache-filled cream’wiches ($1.50 to $2.50), and comfortable mezzanine seating set this sandwich shrine apart from the proliferating panini pack.