That current may still be at half-tide: Almost twice as many people came through in 2019. But places that cater to the city’s permanent dining class are overflowing, and not metaphorically. To hold all the regulars who rely on its lasagna, its exceptional eggplant-and-zucchini parmigiana, grilled pizza and party-size fritto misto, Fresco by Scotto has built an outdoor pavilion that may need its own ZIP code. Tables are jammed in along the sidewalk and under an in-street shelter cascading with lemon branches and grapevines, looking better than they would in nature. Music blasts, giving rise to dance parties that are immediately posted on Instagram. Every night looks like a casting call for “The Real Housewives of East 52nd Street.”
Steakhouses are so numerous in Midtown that the area may be the world capital of creamed spinach. Wolfgang’s now carries off the Germanic bluntness it cribbed from Peter Luger more convincingly than Luger itself. For a certain kind of window shopper, the glass meat locker inside Gallaghers gives off a luster that makes the displays at Cartier look rinky-dink. Sparks, grand without being beautiful, has one of the few steakhouse wine lists that don’t try to strong-arm you into getting an expensive, jackbooted red.
Which you prefer is personal and beyond rationality, but in many ways Wollensky’s Grill is ideal. It’s essentially a Third Avenue saloon constructed, in 1980, out of the best parts of a steakhouse. Without the rituals and chest-thumping you might encounter next door at Smith & Wollensky, you get the meat (including prime rib on its own, in a sandwich or, its highest and best use, in a prime rib hash from out of the past). You get the potatoes (the waffle fries are cooked to a burnished, crisp medium-well). You get the shrimp cocktail (or better still, a whole chilled lobster). And you get the martinis, stirred by bartenders who would laugh in your face if you called them mixologists. They are, for many loyalists, the whole point of the place.
As if a curfew were still in effect, many restaurants in Midtown close early these days. It was 7:30 on a Tuesday night when I strolled into Aburiya Kinnosuke, on East 45th Street.
Conversations took place behind sliding wooden doors in half-private rooms over a steady current of vintage hard bop. A table was free, but the kitchen was closing in 15 minutes. What to order? Obviously something from the robata grill that sets this izakaya apart, maybe the koji-marinated chicken, or a mackerel, or yellowtail, still tenuously and gelatinously attached to the collar bone.
Midtown is full of places like Aburiya Kinnosuke, where you can fly from New York to Tokyo in under five minutes. You could slip into a counter seat at Katsu-hama and start pulverizing sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle to thicken the dipping sauce for a pork cutlet that arrives on a wire cage just above the plate, to keep it from steaming the crunch of its deeply craggy shell. Or climb the stairs to Hide-Chan for a bowl of Hakata-style ramen, the pork-bone soup cloudy under a black pool of charred garlic oil.
A separate tour could take in restaurants that together form a kind of living museum of the history of Japanese food in New York. There is Nippon, the stage where, since 1963, soba, fugu and other things have danced into the city’s consciousness. There is Hatsuhana, the sushi-ya that in 1983 became the first Japanese restaurant to get a four-star review in The New York Times.