When Governor Andrew Cuomo green-lit a return to indoor dining, I was of two minds. Like one of those long-haul cosmonauts on the International Space Station, I was ready for a shave, a sport coat, and something—anything—deboned tableside. But the amateur virologist in me was not about to dive into the deep end of the germ pool without some guidelines. So I devised my own risk-reward matrix for indoor dining, otherwise known as the Blue-Hair Special.
The decision tree for determining what indoor-dining spots are safe came to me when my wife, Honor, asked, “Can we please, please go out to dinner this Saturday? But not in one of those huts.” Tired of being the Fauci of the house, I acquiesced.
“Yes, I’ve made a reservation at Nicola’s … at 6:30.” My wife was so elated to be going anywhere that she didn’t balk at the barbarically early seating time or at patronizing a restaurant that hadn’t been cool since the Koch administration. As we entered the restaurant, the scene was comforting: all the other patrons were well into their 70s and clearly double-vaxxed. The aperçus we overheard from the tables we passed were about Florida, grandchildren, and the best doctors at Hospital for Special Surgery.
Nibbling on my Caesar salad, I felt safe. I felt happy. Leave the Bushwick farm-to-table gastropubs to the hipster germ bags. For, in my book, six p.m. is the new eight p.m., and I will be riding out the pandemic with a more mature crowd in dusty red-sauce joints, faded Chinese restaurants, and bar and grills where John O’Hara might have knocked a few back. If any restaurant wants to be on my short list, it has to meet three out of the six criteria below:
- The menu offers either chopped steak, chicken parmigiana, or moo shu anything.
- The words “fine dining” appear on the awning or are painted on the window glass.
- The walls feature autographed headshots of local newscasters from the 80s.
- You have no idea where the food is sourced from.
- Liz Smith once ate there.
- The majority of the clientele are eligible for Social Security benefits.
In the interest of saving you time and mental aerobics, here’s a starter kit. Meanwhile, I’ll be hitting Refresh on La Grenouille’s Web site for news of their reopening.
845 Lexington Avenue
When the art dealer Robert “King of Ming” Ellsworth died, in 2014, he left two separate $50,000 tips to two of his favorite waitresses at this old-school neighborhood bar and grill. If you’re in the mood for liver and onions, London broil, or ham steak, this is your place.
73 West 11th Street
Time-travel back to an era when entrées came with a side of pasta at this West Village institution that still serves up the classics, including clams casino and veal piccata. The restaurant dates back to 1919; the patrons date back not quite so far.
Shun Lee West
43 West 65th Street
When it first opened, in 1981, this was the Chinese restaurant in the city, and it quickly became the place for dim sum—and then some—before a Lincoln Center performance. Large papier-mâché dragons encircle black booths in the main dining room. Some of the best dishes include Peking duck, Grand Marnier prawns, and chan-do chicken. The great American lyricist Adolph Green had takeout from here on the night he died, so I’d be happy to have my last meal here, too.
146 East 84th Street
Nicola Spagnolo opened his namesake wood-paneled Upper East Side Italian restaurant in 1974, after quitting his job at nearby Elaine’s. It has a long wooden bar and tables in the back. The menu is classic Italian-American, with a decent sole meunière, and O.G. waiters in white shirts and black bow ties. Over its four decades it has mellowed from a hot spot to a family place.
29 East 61st Street
This posh approximation of a Parisian bistro was a popular spot for the B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Birkin) crowd for two decades. It sadly closed at its original Madison Avenue location but then reopened around the corner with many of the classics still on the menu—cheese soufflé, a green-bean salad smothered in truffle oil, and a duck breast in a cherry reduction are some of the standards.
358 East 57th Street
Recently reopened, Neary’s is Sutton Place’s answer to the bar in Cheers, albeit a well-heeled version where you might see former mayor Mike Bloomberg sitting in one of the cherry-red leather booths. Jimmy Neary, now in his 90s, has been in his namesake Irish saloon every day, with the exception of Christmas, since he and his late partner opened it in 1967. His decision to buy the building in 1986 helped him weather a pandemic shutdown, and now Jimmy is back. So are the lamb chops, calf’s liver, and corned beef.
69 MacDougal Street
You know that line in “Movin’ Out” when Billy Joel sings, “He works at Mister Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street / Across from the medical center”? He might as well be describing Villa Mosconi. It’s still family-owned and a remnant from when this slice of the Village was Italian-American. There are oil paintings on the walls and fresh pasta, made on the premises. It’s also one of the few places in the city where you can still get a biscuit tortoni, a desert made from almond-flavored ice cream covered in amaretto crumbs.
324 East 57th Street
If the 80s were good to you, you can relive them here while sitting in a sunken dining room that Hubert de Givenchy called a “precious jewel box.” The Peking duck, Mr. Chow noodles, and minced chicken in lettuce cups are just like you remember them. Close your eyes and pretend Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat are at the adjacent table rather than Andy from the white-brick building around the corner.
32 Withers Street, Brooklyn
If you’ve been enjoying Forest Whitaker in the period gangster series Godfather of Harlem, you’ll recognize the century-old Bamonte’s as the restaurant where the heads of New York’s Five Families have their sit-downs. (Vincent D’Onofrio as a young Vincent “the Chin” Gigante is worth the Epix subscription.) It still has phone booths and a bone-in pork chop Parmesan. Thankfully, both the Williamsburg restaurant and the patrons have avoided gentrification.
John Brodie is a New York City–based writer and digital-content strategist