Food & Drink
The terrace at Gigino, in Battery Park.
12 Great Spots To Really Eat Out
BY ROBIN RAISFELD
1 and 2 Ever since the recent influx of ambitious chefs signed leases and started turning empty lots into lucrative extra seating, Brooklyn has become something of an outdoor-dining destination. On Smith Street, one of Kings County's burgeoning restaurant rows, we gravitate to the brick-walled, gravel-strewn backyard garden at SMITH ST KITCHEN (174 Smith Street; 718-858-5359), an outer-borough Le Bernardin on a budget. At THE GROCERY (288 Smith Street; 718-596-3335), a fruit-bearing fig tree and a towering Ailanthus (of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn fame) provide shade while co-chefs Sharon Pachter and Charles Kiely provide elegant American fare like duck-confit spring rolls and Pocono Mountain trout with crispy spaetzle.
3 This summer, the owners of the cramped MISS WILLIAMSBURG DINER (206 Kent Avenue; 718-963-0802) have given themselves, and us, lots of alfresco breathing room by converting the former truck-weighing station next door into a secret garden. "We fenced it in because outside" -- industrial Williamsburg -- "is so ugly," says co-owner Pilar Rigon, who singlehandedly planted a nursery's worth of flowers and potted fruit trees. A stone walkway wends through the "lounge" and the dining area, Italian films (often sans subtitles) are projected twice a week, and the Cuban band Mó Guajiro has a standing Thursday-night engagement. The menu, like the owners, is Italian, featuring light summer fare like lasagnette with vegetables ratatuglia, and strawberry grouper and celery in guazzetto. And if the East River breeze doesn't cool you off, a Miss Williamsburg (a margarita of sorts, packed with fresh kumquats) ought to do the trick.
4 There's no garden at BRICK OVEN GALLERY (33 Havemeyer Street; 718-963-0200), another Williamsburg Italian. But the pizzeria's slapdash sidewalk café is just as tranquil, thanks to its unexpected location on a noiseless street with four schools (all vacated by the time the Gallery's doors open at 4 p.m.) and almost no nocturnal traffic. You could be in small-town America, if small-town America had this kitchen's knack for thin-crust pies and spectacular chicken panini with goat cheese and oven-roasted tomatoes.
5 Park Slope's GINGKO LEAF CAFE (788A Union Street; 718-399-9876) makes you feel like you're in a Japanese tea garden. Which, in fact, you are: Consider the planted and harvested bamboo, the stone waterfall trickling into a miniature pond, the five varieties of tea served in artful Asian kettles and dimpled cups. Order a bento box, a perfectly balanced meal whose elegant whole is greater than the sum of its seasonally inspired parts, which might include broiled eel, edamame-studded sticky rice, julienned burdock root, white yam, and egg custard speckled with fat salmon roe.
6 Sunday-afternoon tapas under the pergola at CONVIVIUM OSTERIA (68 Fifth Avenue; 718-857-1833), that rustic Mediterranean detour off Flatbush Avenue, offers another flavor of paradisiacal Park Slope in a garden planted with hydrangea, honeysuckle, and wisteria.
7 At the 79TH STREET BOAT BASIN (79th Street and the Hudson River; 212-496-5542), in Riverside Park, the view's the thing -- especially the view of the sun as it gorgeously sinks behind the Palisades every clear night. This is the Upper West Side's unofficial summer HQ, full of grill smoke and dogs on leashes and babies in carriages. It's loud, and the food is basic barbecue. But it's a great neighborhood resource and deserves a lease in perpetuity.
8 GIGINO AT WAGNER PARK (20 Battery Place; 212-528-2228) likewise occupies an ideal location, at the tip of Battery Park City, and for that reason -- plus decent pastas, salads, and Italian standards -- we cherish it as a summer standby.
9 Off the waterfront, there's much more competition. Even so, opportunistic restaurateurs know that in a pinch we'll settle for makeshift "terraces" and gloomy "gardens," plastic furniture and awful feng shui. Fortunately, you won't encounter such landlocked shortcomings at THE PARK (118 Tenth Avenue, near 17th Street; 212-352-3313), that hyperdesigned scene-with-a-kitchen carved out of three West Chelsea taxi garages. A pair of cement deer -- snatched, presumably, from some manicured Westchester lawn -- lend an aura of nature (or at least Scarsdale) to this urban theme park, with its leafy Japanese maples and wisteria, spotlit greenery, and recycled wood-beam banquette. Amber light bulbs are strung over marble-topped café tables spaced far enough apart to provide a tranquillity you'd never expect so close to the overheated bar scenes. (Yes, scenes: two bars, two lounges, and the requisite closely guarded VIP aerie and roof deck.) To sit outside, you'll have to order food, which isn't such a hardship; we loved the green salad, gussied up with ricotta salata, and the crispy wood-oven-roasted duck confit.
10 A lush oval lawn marks the entrance to CAFE GUASTAVINO (409 East 59th Street; 212-980-2455), the pretty wood-planked terrace addition to the restaurant complex Terrence Conran built beneath the 59th Street Bridge -- and to our grass-deprived eyes, it's as dazzling as Guastavino's magnificent tile-vaulted ceiling. The café menu is an abridged version of Guastavino's, a global hodgepodge of light bites, from oysters and caviar to edamame and duck-confit quesadillas.
11 On the other, funkier end of Manhattan's dining spectrum, there's rigatoni with meatballs and sausage at MAX (51 Avenue B; 212-539-0111), the tiny East Village hot spot that recently expanded its outdoor garden, adding a canopied bar and much more seating in a whimsical re-creation of a Southern Italian courtyard, down to the window-shutters-to-nowhere and the pantyhose and undershirts flapping on a clothesline overhead.
12 If a pizza craving strikes on a beautiful night and you're loath to be confined to a hard wood booth at Lombardi's or John's, you'll always find a free seat on the spacious canopied patio at LA NONNA (133 West 13th Street; 212-741-3663). From that vantage point, you've got an unobstructed view of the wood-burning oven (pizza is available only after 9 p.m.) and, just maybe, an Oz cast member or two (producer Tom Fontana's an investor).
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