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Buzz is something easy to feel but sometimes hard to find. On a recent rainsoaked February night I found myself hunting down the hottest table in downtown Manhattan, Bar Blanc -- and, tucked in the middle of a dark side street, it did feel like stalking elusive prey. But once inside the creamy white space, which looks and feels like the sleek but convivial dining room aboard a billionaire's yacht, I was only too happy to pounce on my ginger-roasted Japanese red snapper, nesting in its veggie m�lange and clear shisho sauce. In terms of both mood and food, all switches were on.
Many visitors seldom if ever stray from the city's iconic Midtown district (or if they do, it's not principally to eat). That's not to knock its myriad attractions, some famous restaurants among them, but there's more to the Big Apple's dining scene. The culinary dividends of venturing south of Times Square and even -- gasp! -- to outer boroughs can be high indeed, if you know where to look.
See slideshow: New York's Hidden-Gem Restaurants
But the over-intellectualization of food culture, as evidenced by everything from French publisher Michelin's foray into New York restaurant reviews to the rather arcane dining coverage of some New York magazines has ended up complicating the hungry traveler's quest for a good meal. "The defining trend of dining in 2008 is fun first, food second," says chef and author Rocco Dispirito, and that assessment applies to New York as much as anywhere.
So don't let the snap judgments of the foodie police get in the way of your gourmet adventure. Defy the self-proclaimed gods of gastronomy and eat where the Greeks do in Astoria, or where the svelte urban gazelles graze on yellowfin tuna sashimi and French onion soup dumplings on the Lower East Side. Could there be any better way to experience the diversity of New York's restaurants than through the prism of travel?
In a city which has 18,500 restaurants (according to NYC & Company), there's no excuse for not expanding your dining horizons. But the real secret to a memorable experience is to follow the buzz, but not the herd. In other words, shun the over-the-top, Las Vegas-sized restaurants on the fringe of the Meatpacking District (where the weekend vibe is more "bridge & tunnel") in favor of smaller but more interesting digs farther up Tenth Avenue like Cookshop, Red Cat and Trestle on Tenth.
At Cookshop, the likes of Cameron Diaz [Images] and Gwyneth Paltrow [Images] have feasted on New American savories like a salad of dandelion, fried egg, anchovy dressing, grana padano and lemon and wild mushroom pot pie with bourbon cream, garlic herb crust and grilled radicchio. You can show your culinary courage by ordering up a snack of grilled rabbit kidneys.
The mood is less adventurous but still hearty at Trestle on Tenth, where chef-owner Ralf Kuettel brings his Swiss-influenced American cuisine to an appreciative, insider Chelsea crowd. There's nothing like crispy duck necks with garlic and anchovy aioli or calves' liver with r�sti (Swiss hash browns), sage and caramelized onions to give even the frostiest February night the middle finger. The butter lettuce with crispy bacon and buttermilk dressing appetizer is gorgeous, as is the thick and frothy Swiss hot chocolate served with a side of large, homemade marshmallows.
The element of theatricality common to so many Manhattan restaurants is like a natural extension of the city's Broadway soul. Walking into the shamelessly red Russian Tea Room is like entering a Doctor Zhivago food fantasia. There are rarely hordes of tourists on its stretch of West 57th Street, and as for the hidden gem element, those in the know show up for the power brunch with a Czarist twist. Pair the delish apple pumpkin granola crumble with a caviar omelette, or go in for the kill with beef Stroganoff and cherry blintz chasers. Flamboyant, yes, but then, you came to New York to indulge, not simplify.
See Slideshow: New York's Hidden-Gem Restaurants
In that same spirit of fun, you could also pair up a Broadway show with a thematically appropriate restaurant. Think Italian, for example. There's a plethora of dynamic dining spots just a short cab ride from the Great White Way. "Jersey Boys is all about four American-Italian boys from Jersey who made it big in the '60s, so I wanted my dining experience to reflect that," says Delaina Dixon, writer and daily blogger at the celebrity magazine OK!. "The night I went to see it, my friend and I went to Del Posto in Chelsea. We wanted to have a good Italian meal." How was it? "We're talking Mario Batali here -- amazing and totally delicious."
Creativity and tasty times are also on order at The Stanton Social, a wild restaurant in the Lower East Side where the m.o. is stated right on the menu: "Rather than offering individual starters and main courses, The Stanton Social serves dishes that are designed for sharing among friends and are brought to the table steadily and continuously throughout the meal." Equal parts trendy eatery and feeding trough for the assistant hedge fund manager set, those dishes include the likes of "Five Fragrance" baby back ribs with Asian slaw ($15), French onion soup dumplings ($11) and a single-portion grilled cheese slider made with cheddar, house cured jalapeno bacon, fried green tomato and lemon aioli ($7). Desserts -- if you can survive the decibel attack until that point -- include Godiva chocolate shots (with fresh marshmallows) and homemade sugar doughnuts with warm chocolate, caramel and wild berry dipping sauces. See? Wild.
Break for the Boroughs
To many people, New York is Manhattan, and, in the interest of not starting an argument, let's just say they're right. But it's not the only apple on the tree, and it pays to branch out to Brooklyn and Queens. If Manhattan's better restaurants raise the bar for quality dining, there simply isn't enough room to satiate the appetites of all those hungry, demanding New Yorkers. Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood may be only one stop on the L-train from Manhattan, but eschew its bleak streets and self-styled hipsters for the prettier neighborhood of Park Slope (home to far too many good restaurants to mention here, but including the likes of fun French brasserie Belleville) or edgier Red Hook, home of The Good Fork.
And homage must be paid to Queens. If you go Greek at Manhattan restaurants like Kellari's Taverna and Avra Estatorio, you'll eat well but be surrounded by advertising executives and such. Astoria is where the Greeks and Greek Cypriots are, and the younger buzz-generating New Yorkers who've been priced out of Manhattan. Plus, it's an easy ride on an elevated stretch of the N, R or W trains to get there. Standouts include Christos Steakhouse Avenue Caf�. Says Matt Swanston, an actor who works in Manhattan but lives in Astoria. "Broadway, 30th Ave, and Ditmars Boulevard are full of great cafes and restaurants that boast that European cafe vibe and mix it with modern flair," he says. "New hot spots pop up quite often. I call it the 'cafe war.'"
"Things are more youthful and upbeat on 30th Ave," Swanston adds, citing buzzy mainstays Avenue, Grand Cafe, Flo, Brick, 718, Athens Cafe, Zodiac, Cafe-Bar, Locale, Cavo, Bar 316, Cup Diner, and Vibe as good choices.
Back in Manhattan, if you can't get a table at Bar Blanc, venture east to Graffiti Food & Wine Bar in the East Village or 5 Ninth in the Meatpacking District -- a sexy yet subdued contemporary American hotspot on three levels in a pre-Civil War brick building. Or head to east Soho's La Esquina, one of Dispirito's current faves: "A great example of the perfect restaurant, fun AND great food and service," he says. Or head to� well, check out the rest of our picks for the latest buzz.
See our slideshow of New York's Hidden-Gem Restaurants
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