* Not to be confused with our first hairsplitting, new five-star ranking system, in which we ranked New York’s 101 best not-so-cheap restaurants in January.
Some months back, our colleague Adam Platt bestowed New York Magazine’s first restaurant stars and has been enlightening diners and infuriating chefs ever since. For the most part, the worthy recipients of his inaugural ratings were the big-ticket, deep-pocket establishments you might expect—the Masas and the Per Ses, the Escas and the ’Cescas. But who’s to say that New York’s best cheap eats—the burgers and dogs, the noodles and ribs, that most of us, including those celestial chefs themselves, eat every day—don’t deserve the same starry treatment? Certainly not two obsessive eaters as ourselves, who, truth be told, spend most waking (and sleeping) hours joyfully reminiscing about past cheap meals and avidly planning future ones. And so it was decided that this year, instead of dedicating our annual issue to surveying the “Best New Cheap Eats of 2006” (the very best of which you’ll still find here, on page 39), we’d introduce our own set of stars—winsome red-rimmed white ones, rather than Platt’s solid reds. And to kick things off, we’d give them to our 101 favorite restaurants, ranked, one by one, in order.
Although 101 sounds like a lot, it really isn’t, a fact that becomes painfully clear when you realize that for each beloved Latin lunch counter or vegetarian Indian buffet you include, you’re forced to leave another out. Eventually, we hope to star every appropriately priced restaurant in town and then, having eaten everything there is to eat and passed thoughtfully considered judgments, keel over in some honorable fashion, mission accomplished.
Our criteria, of course, differ from Platt’s in some respects. When you rate a falafel shack, for instance, it’s hard to take into account the finer points of ambience or the sangfroid of the maître d’hôtel when there isn’t any. But that’s not to say a goat taco or an Uzbeki kebab doesn’t merit the same scrutiny and appreciation as a Wagyu beefsteak, or that a margherita pizza can’t be judged on its own merits. All delicious things are worthy of the star treatment (See “What the Stars Mean," page 8).
And what, exactly, do we mean by cheap? A little clarification is in order. For the purposes of our monthly “Underground Gourmet” column and this “Cheap Eats” issue, we mostly limit ourselves to restaurants where entrée prices seldom exceed $20. On rare occasions, we make allowances for the compulsory splurge—or bottom-feed at the lower end of a pricier menu. But even the most literal-minded penny-pincher must agree that in this town, cheap is a relative term. Madison Avenue cheap is very different from Red Hook cheap (unless you’re Tony Dragonas, No. 86 on our list, whose estimable pushcart stands kitty-corner to Hermès, at Madison and 62nd). In our world, and in the greater context of the New York food scene, cheap is sometimes five-dumplings-for-a-dollar dirt cheap, sometimes fancy-chef-tackles-burgers-and-dogs cheap, and sometimes, as at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery, not cheap, per se, but still a heck of a good deal. In our book, they’re all stars.