Little Gems: The Best Intimate Restaurants in NYC

Tiny restaurants that create a big memory

Among the 45,000 or so bars and restaurants peppered around New York City, it seems as if finding the perfect tiny spot for a date, closing a business deal or celebrating a special occasion is harder than it should be. You don’t want another run-of-the-mill trattoria, nor shoulder-to-shoulder dining at a soulless brunch joint. Most after-work bars involve jostling through noisy clusters of tired souls, and neighborhood restaurants are too often sterile and over-lit. It takes hard work to design a true gem of a tiny establishment.

“When we opened L’Appart, the space was here, and the partners knew they wanted to do a concept of some kind,” says Nico Abello, executive chef for the 28-seat “bespoke” fine dining experience. Nestled inside the French-themed food hall Le District (itself located in the vast, shimmering shopping complex at Brookfield Place), everyone knew L’Appart had to stand out. “It was a long process: There were lots of meetings with everyone involved.”

After more than six months of intense planning, the team—including Abello—settled on fine dining influenced by the popular “secret” chef’s tables that have dominated the New York food scene for the past few years: fixed-price, multi-course menus that change every two weeks (with seasonal produce “harvested” from Le District’s market stalls and regional farmers markets). The open kitchen is in full view of diners, who are encouraged to meet and interact with the staff. 

But it isn’t just the delicately prepared and plated tasting menu (recent examples include langoustine prepared with fennel and red rice, or stewed rabbit with fresh apple chutney) that garnered Abello and his staff a Michelin star: The atmosphere is deliberately homey, with eclectic, upholstered furnishings, knickknack display shelves and flowers in mason jars. “It’s like a home dining room and kitchen,” says Abello. “The thing is, we don’t want to stress people. It’s very important people leave the room at peace after having spent time with us.”

Peking duck at Decoy

Sometimes the perfect gem of a restaurant is one where you take a few joyful risks, both in terms of cuisine and your fellow diners. At Decoy—already a NYC institution at just a few years old—conviviality is on the menu, despite subdued lighting, rustic decor and a subterranean vibe. Tucked beneath sister restaurant RedFarm, the 22-seater is rightfully famous for its succulent, crispy Peking Duck, served alongside inventive appetizers like sweet potato noodles topped with uni (sea urchin) or shrimp-stuffed shishito peppers presented on teardrop-shaped plates. Sit at the small bar or alongside strangers at the communal table for your feast.

“Dining at Decoy is not only a delicious experience, but a fun one,” says operating partner Ed Schoenfeld. “Our guests often start talking with their neighbors, because they don’t recognize the little dumplings with “faces” on them that just got delivered.” Craving a little social lubricant? Beverage manager Shawn Chen’s inventive cocktail menu highlights Asian influences. The Kyushiki Old Fashioned features nori-infused Hibiki Harmony Japanese whisky and muddled ginger.

Shochu, a Japanese distilled drink, at Bar Goto

While there are now dozens of tiny “speakeasy” bars offering craft cocktails amid wood-paneled, taxidermy-adorned comfort, sometimes you seek just a bit more atmosphere than bartenders stirring drinks beneath Edison bulbs. On two equally appealing ends of the atmosphere spectrum are the Japanese-influenced Bar Goto, and Brooklyn’s lush French-themed Le Boudoir, each equally appropriate for date nights and entertaining out-of-town visitors.

Bar Goto’s guests sit at an elegant, contemporary wood bar (or at small tables lining one wall), while owner Kento Goto and his team present upscale, immaculately presented small bites and cocktails influenced by both Japan and Goto’s long tenure in the New York craft cocktail scene. Drinks and food are updated regularly. Favorites include street food-inspired okonomi-yaki (cabbage pancakes) filled with pork belly, shrimp and other goodies. Recent additions include kombu celery (celery sticks, salted kombu, red shisho) and unusual chips and dips, complementing drinks like the Sakura Martini (sake, gin, maraschino liqueur, cherry blossom).

To access Le Boudoir, you enter via a secret bookshelf panel inside the street-level French bistro Chez Moi. Your host winds you down through stairs and hallways until you reach the Versailles-inspired bar. Here, mirrors, velvet and gold-leaf decoration, along with weekly live music, whisk you to a forgotten, romantic era.

“It’s a very comfortable, enveloping jewel box of a space, where you can hide from the outside world,” says Bar Director Franky Marshall. “The most common reaction is, ‘Wow, this space is amazing!’” Sip from silver coupes and crystal goblets while snacking on frog’s legs and foie gras. A wide range of cocktail styles ensure everyone at the table will find something they like—be it sweet, savory and light or heavy on the alcohol. The Du Barry is a refreshing Manhattan riff, featuring bourbon, vermouth, apricot and lemon. 

Oysters guacamole a Graffiti Earth

Unusual glassware is only part of the sustainable puzzle at TriBeCa’s Graffiti Earth, where Chef Jehengar Mehta presents Earth-friendly international cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere reminiscent of a rustic French château. “One of our goals was to ensure we took sustainability to the greatest extent we could,” says Mehta. “All of our cutlery and plates are ‘hand-me-downs,’ extending the life of the product. Our napkins are smaller (requiring less water to clean) and stitched from reclaimed cloth. We exhibit art for sale, where 90 percent of the proceeds go to charity.” The food—a modern pastiche of global influences—is responsibly sourced and prepared. Where resource-intensive beef is used, for example, Mehta says he tries to use less of it in a dish, enhancing it with mushrooms and other water-friendly savory flavors. Though the menu changes seasonally, recent offerings have included braised pork buns, a watermelon feta salad with mint sorbet and house-made banana ice cream with a baked chocolate sauce.

Up in Harlem, there’s been an extensive culinary renaissance going on for a couple of years now. While most of the new spots are quite large, Clay is more intimate, with a 10-seat bar and another 20 or so spots at inviting black-and-white bistro seating (there’s more space downstairs for private events). “Having a smaller space, and a split-level space at that, makes Clay feel cozy and allows us to get to know our guests,“ says bar director Andrea Needell-Matteliano. The focus here is on farm-to-table dining, highlighting local and regional producers and seasonal dishes (Clay even lists current farm sources on its website). Needell-Matteliano says diners are responding well to the fresh ingredients, casual friendly service and inventive fare like confit duck leg with celeriac, smoked faro, collard greens and a blueberry gastrique. Drinks change seasonally, but focus on refreshing, fruit-forward concoctions like the Lazy Bird (tequila, honeydew, lime, jalapeño and lemon verbena).

If adventurous, bucket-list dining and drinking are in your sights, you can’t do much better than hitting up recent Chicago import The Office, a small, dark-wood speakeasy tucked off to the side of the new Aviary restaurant (still set to open as of press time) on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental New York hotel. Book online at the in-demand spot and dive deep into the creative minds of molecular gastronomy pioneers Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas, and beverage director Micah Melton. 

Original cocktails are presented in traditional glassware, while the food arrives eye-poppingly stacked and tiered, or served up in French crockery. The crudité dish arrives with sliced and julienned raw fruits and veggies artfully arranged vertically from a “bucket” of crushed ice. Chilled oysters comes in an elaborate silver server shaped like a snail. The widely Instagrammed ice cream sundae for two sits amid an embarrassment of garnish riches, including gummy bears, red hots, macerated fruit and sprinkles (all house-made). Drinks and food are pricey (cocktails clock in at around $23, and there are a whole host of vintage spirits dating back almost a century that run significantly higher per pour), but you’re here for the whole package. Buckle down and enjoy; it’s going to be a very pleasant ride.

Robert Haynes-Peterson
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