Here’s how I can tell which are really, truly my favorite restaurants among those I spent the year revisiting and reviewing: I recommend them to my friends. Every time someone asks me where to take their parents when they’re in town, or where to book an anniversary dinner, or where to go for a perfect meal, alone at the bar after a rough day, I don’t go back and read my reviews. I pick the places that I loved, for one reason or another, and hope that my friends will love them, too.
These are the same places I usually find an excuse to wander back to for dinner myself, even after the review’s been filed to my editor. And while I realize that a few of the restaurants on my list technically opened at the very end of 2014, they were babies then. They spent 2015 getting better, growing into themselves, and becoming vital to the restaurant scene. Here we go:
Superiority Burger offers some of the greatest soft serve in town, which has gotten me through some of the year’s darkest days and roughest news cycles. As a former vegetarian who stumbled through college with a freezer full of Boca Burgers, I fell hard for Brooks Headley’s squishy, crisp-edged, veggie burgers. But since he quit the pastry kitchen at Del Posto and opened his vegetarian fast food joint in the East Village, Headley has gone on to make all sorts of fantastic new things, including a parallel universe Philly cheese steak with tender folds of yuba (soy milk skin) instead of beef. 430 E 9th Street; +1 (212) 256-1192 or superiorityburger.com
Of all the new French-leaning restaurants in New York, Rebelle has got to be the most comfortable and delightful, with the vibes of a modern Parisian bistro. The delicious food always does more than simply reconfigure French classics. There's thoughtfulness and technique at work in the kitchen, and Daniel Eddy (an American who previously cooked in Paris) isn't a showoff about it. You don’t have to order all four courses, but it would be a shame to skip the cheese course of raw Comté and oxidized white wine from the Jura. 218 Bowery; +1 (917) 639-3880 or rebellenyc.com
Truth: If you’re a big-spending regular, you’ll have a better time at Shuko than if you’ve saved up for a one-time taste of its fantastic kaiseki menu. This is the kind of place, like all sushi counters, that fusses hard over regulars. But even at its most basic, Shuko is full of excellent, often playfully experimental sushi and small dishes. Together, Jimmy Lau and Nick Kim, who both worked at Masa, are defining what the modern sushi bar can look like. It looks good. 47 East 12th Street; +1 (212) 228-6088 or shukonyc.com
All year long, I sent people to Santina, one of Major Food Group’s expensive, flashy, and heavily themed restaurants that managed to really win me over. But with specific instructions: Go for a long, boozy lunch. At that hour, the glassy dining room under the High Line is filled with sunshine as slightly cheesy Italian folk music plays not-too-loudly. You can get into it. I called it a Mad Men-era, American-fueled fantasy of the Amalfi Coast in my review, and that still feels about right: light and bright and nostalgic, just like the food. Maybe this shouldn't feel like such a treat, but it does. 820 Washington Street; +1 (212) 254-3000 or santinanyc.com
Mission Chinese Food
No one is having more fun with their menu than Angela Dimayuga and Danny Bowien at Mission Chinese Food's reboot. There are now puffy pepperoni pizzas and anchovies right out of the tin with hot sourdough flatbreads, plus whole ducks under clay that you crack open with a mallet, not to mention the list of intensely spicy, greasy, gorgeous dishes in the Mission Chinese house style (like the Sichuan peppercorn-loaded "big tray fish" served over noodles). I often fantasize about that food when I'm at quieter, blander, stuffier restaurants. 171 East Broadway; missionchinesefood.com
Since I praised Semilla last December for its brainy, brilliant cooking, the stylish young restaurant has only grown more articulate and confident. Jose Ramirez-Ruiz and Pamela Yung's warmly lit counter is one of the best places in town to submit to a tasting menu, bread and all. You're never bored at Semilla, but you're never the guinea pig for someone's expensive experimentations, either; this team understands warmth and hospitality—and most of all, deliciousness. It's clear from the first vegetable-forward dish you taste, in which tiny doses of meat and fish have probably been used to deepen flavors, right down to the constantly changing desserts. 160 Havemeyer Street, Brooklyn; +1 (718) 782-3474 or semillabk.com
Gabriel Kreuther is a magnet for New York's rich, stylish, uptowners (like the great Iris Apfel, whom I saw in the dining room, clinking glasses with her glamorous friends), and it does not fail them. The main, more formal dining room offers a level of old-fashioned luxury I forgot was possible, or enjoyable; even the walk-in lounge area manages a level of food and service that is very sharp. Kreuther’s modern French cooking, deeply influenced by his native region of Alsace, will be familiar to those who ate at the Modern under his tenure. Here, under his own terms, things have gotten significantly more deluxe. 41 West 42nd Street; +1 (212) 257-5826 or gknyc.com
It's just a little wine bar, but Wildair is one of the restaurant industry's favorites this year, with good reason. Jorge Riera's wine list is full of natural wines from Europe, many of which you can order by the glass. Co-chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske turn out fun, polished food that doesn't fit too neatly into any category (so we'll call it New American). In an unstructured, warm atmosphere, you can get a perfectly crisp ruffle of pork milanese or share a dozen oysters and small plates. Whatever you do, make sure you get the beef tartare under a snow of smoked cheddar and buckwheat, as well as the chocolate tart. 142 Orchard Street; +1 (646) 964-5624 or wildair.nyc
Momofuku Ko isn't messing around this time. After several upgrades and a bump in front of house staff, the restaurant now offers seriously great service that feels intuitive and unobtrusive. The chef, Sean Gray, who joined the original, scrappier Ko as sous chef back in 2009, has spent the past year developing Ko's sophisticated, Japanese-influenced style with complex tasting menus that are a total pleasure. In short, Ko is a kind of model of contemporary fine dining in New York, what it looks like when you revolutionize respectfully. 8 Extra Place; +1 (212) 203-8095 or momofuku.com
Off-duty, this is where I want to be. In Rita Sodi and Jody Williams’s cozy dining room in the West Village, with a freezing cold Manhattan in my hand and all sorts of little plates of vegetables and fish in front of me, surrounded by friends. The duo is especially good at surprising you with just a couple of ingredients, prepared like Italian country cooking (which seems effortless, but absolutely isn't). You can usually count of these ingredients being cooked masterfully and presented simply, whether it's a salad of chilled leeks or a dish of grilled sardines and wilted escarole. 51 Grove Street; viacarota.com
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