947 Columbus Avenue, Near 106th Street (212-531-1643)
Why: Mom-and-pop partners Marc Solomon and Blue Grant have infused a bleak stretch of upper Columbus with downtown flavor and a mellow neighborly vibe. A recent expansion brought the seating capacity to a whopping 24, and with only five entrées, the organic French-Caribbean menu is just as petite.
You can’t get this downtown: Jerk duck-leg confit.
Scene: Columbia undergrads, downtown hipsters, neighbors.
How much: $10 and under.
200 West 70th Street (212-873-7411)
Why: Nineteen years ago, partners Lynn Wagenknecht and Keith McNally (who’s long since decamped) looked north from their perch at Odeon and saw a vast wasteland in the shadow of Fairway. They offered an intimate Left Bank aesthetic, and locals and Lincoln Center patrons alike flocked there for steak-frites, cassoulet, and other bistro classics (not to mention one great burger). The soft light, smart staff, zinc bar, and reliable, sometimes surprising kitchen make it a perennial.
Scene: Unrepentant Francophiles, social smokers, and neighborhood aesthetes.How much: Dinner entrées, $18.95 to $29.50.
446 Columbus Avenue, near 81st street (212-873-5025)
Why: As a protégé of Chicama’s Douglas Rodriguez, chef Alex Garcia was in on the Nuevo Latino craze at the very beginning. He established a high-design beachhead in a precinct full of humble Chino-Latino lunch counters, thus enabling thirsty denizens to wash down their rice and beans with minty mojitos.
Scene: Buena Vista Social Clubbers with a yen for lobster seviche with passion-fruit mojo, Peruvian shrimp chowder, and Cuban-style steak-frites.
How much: Entrées, $16 to $28.
665 Amsterdam Avenue, near 92nd street (212-665-5348)
Why: You’d think the neighborhood had never heard of pasta the way it crowds this trattoria night after night. Chef-owner Gennaro Picone wisely expanded into the space next door, but you’ll still have to wait for a table. The lavish antipasto and fork-tender braised lamb shank are worth it.
Scene: First dates, carbo-loaders, the anti-Carmine’s contingent.
How much: Pasta and entrées, $7.50 to $13.95.
One Central Park West (212-299-3900)
Why: Do you really need to ask? Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a master of the unexpected flavor combination, the textural counterpoint, and the dramatic presentation. Dishes like braised pork belly with brioche and Gewürztraminer-flavored cabbage, and seaweed-steamed dorade in a tamarind-ginger-and-cumin infusion, evoke his Alsatian roots and Asian travels. And he’s something of a fashion plate, too.
Scene: The city’s riche – nouveau and otherwise – engaged in quiet, reverential contemplation of caper-raisin emulsion and freshly foraged herb salads.
Deals on meals: The almost-as-elegant barroom, Nougatine, has its own menus, including a $38 prix fixe dinner and a $20.02 lunch, served year-round.
How much: $115 tasting menu; $85 prix fixe dinner.
1274 Amsterdam avenue, at 123rd Street (212-531-2221)
Why: Probably the best Southern Italian-cooking bargain in the city, Max’s cozy uptown branch offers memory-haunting lasagna and Neapolitan-style meat loaf, Tuscan meat-sauced pasta, and beautifully prepared fish specials. A well-priced wine list and intense lemon sorbet are just icing on the cake.
Scene: Families arrive before 6:30; afterward, singles and dates take over.
How much: $15 and under.
Nick & Toni’s Café
100 West 67th Street (212-496-4000)
Why: Because this Manhattan spinoff of the East Hampton classic is literally a hot spot, with flavorful Mediterranean food sizzling and roasting in the wood-burning oven. Ingredients are top-notch, wines well selected, and the oven-roasted chops and whole fish consistently satisfying.Weekend special: Pizza night on Sunday gives John’s a run for its thin-crust money.
Scene: ABC execs at lunch; post-IMAX dates at dinner; Reebok members doing après-workout damage at the bar.
How much: Dinner entrées, $17 to $28.
35 West 64th Street (212-724-8585)
Why: Chef-owner Terrance Brennan must rue the day he put wild-mushroom-and-duck risotto on the menu, since the faithful won’t ever let him take it off. But let’s not forget the luxurious sea-urchin panna cotta, Saturday’s braised organic-lamb shank, and the passion-fruit soufflé. And did we mention the cheese?
Scene: As quiet and sophisticated as it gets in the pre-theater Lincoln Center hubbub.
How much: Entrées, $28 to $42.
Ruby Foo’s Uptown
2182 Broadway, near 77th Street (212-724-6700)
Why: Because owner Steve Hanson is one of the few people who try to please everyone and actually manage to succeed most of the time. Despite how misguided it seems to offer sushi, dim sum, divine spare ribs, Southeast Asian green-curry chicken, and the world’s tallest chocolate cake, it all seems to work.
Scene: Kids love it. So do groups. Not your low-key demographic.
How much: Main plates, $10.50 to $24.95.
270 Columbus Avenue, near 72nd Street (212-579-0100)
Why: Scott Campbell single-handedly made brunch – the meal everyone loves to hate – lovable. And he’s no slouch at dinnertime either. Go for Campbell’s home-smoked fish and meats, scrambled eggs with scallions and Montrachet, apple-cinnamon pancake soufflé, Caesar salad, and roasted chicken. Save room for sublime homemade ice creams.
Scene: Stroller moms by day, foodies by night, hot-chocolate freaks whenever.
How much: Brunch dishes, $9 to $12; dinner entrées, $17 to $24.
And let’s not forget: Barney Greengrass for the epitome of the New York lox-and-eggs experience, Formica and all. Gabriel’s for classy Italian fare, warm service, and the perfect pre-Lincoln Center location. Gabriela’s for tangy, crispy-skinned rotisserie chicken and a trio of tasty moles. Nëo for sushi exoticism where you’d least expect it. And Saigon Grill for unstintingly authentic Vietnamese at Chinatown prices.