Mirrors bear culinary quote ("Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."--Benjamin Franklin) in a room filled with copper roasting pans, stockpots and braisers, giant jars of mustard, bottles of olive oil and plenty of happy chatter. At DBGB Kitchen and Bar (299 Bowery 212.933.5300), patrons converge to quaff more than 100 draft and bottled craft beers, bespoke shandies (I.e., orange-vanilla soda with lager), cocktails and cult "orange" wines, as they sample pulled-pork-topped Piggie burgers with jalapeno mayo on a cheddar bun, large plateaux de fruits de mer from the raw bar and 12 varieties of sausage made by the in-house charcuterier, each served with an artisanal sauce or garnish.
In recent years, New York City has gone mad for gastropubs--casual, convivial, restaurants (or their adjacent lounge areas) in which equal emphasis is placed on fine food and good libations. Small plates, antipasti and haute finger foods are beautifully prepared and presented, made with high-quality ingredients and designed to pair well with soigne cocktails, beer or champagne. In many cases, diners enjoy the refined cooking of top chefs without the steep prices of four-star, white-tablecloth dining rooms.
April Bloomfield, who brought the gastropub concept from Britain to New York when she opened The Spotted Pig (314 W. 11th St., 212.620.0393) in 2003 and The Breslin (16 W. 29th St., 212.679.1939) in 2009, traces the trend to her home country back in the 1990s. "Chefs started purchasing old worn-down pubs, working in the kitchen and serving great beer and wine. People found it refreshing to get good food in the comfort of a pub." At the rustic, wood-floored Spotted Pig, cocktail offerings include Diamonbacks, tequila served with Cholula (hot sauce) and lime-spiced watermelon. Beer lovers use the Spotted Pig Bitter beer from Brooklyn Brewery to wash down Devils on Horseback (tea- and Armagnac-soaked prunes stuffed with poached pear, and wrapped in bacon), sugar snap pea and sea bean salad with black mint, and sheep's milk ricotta gnudi (gnocchi, or "nude ravioli") with brown butter and sage. At The Breslin, Chef Bloomfield offers "a menu medieval in spirit, with lots of roasted birds," and at the chef's table, "a rib of beef for family-style dinners for eight or more," or suckling pig.
The British spirit also rules at Jones Wood Foundry (401 E. 76th St., 212.249.2700). Snuggled into black banquettes set against brick walls adorned with Union Jack flags, diners hoist pints of Fuller's London Pride and nibble toasts topped with house-pickles pear and blue cheese and drizzled with port wine reduction. The very British menu--including Scotch eggs, haddock and chips, and lamb and rosemary pie--is filled with pub food, yet the ingredients and preparations point to a kitchen with a higher calling. "It's very high-quality food done in a simple pub style," says Chef Jason Hicks, a self-styled English pub historian.
The vibe at the sleek, teak-lined lounge at Le Bernardin (155 W. 51st St., 212.554.1515) is reserved, but slightly hipper than in the hushed inner sanctum of the adjoining temple of fish. Guests toast with 51st Street Manhattans, an updated version of the classic cocktail made with ginger-rooibois-infused rye, while supping on kanpachi tartare and Iberico ham on toasted bread with tomato jam. Chef/owner Eric Ripert added the lounge as part of an overall updating of the restaurant in 2011 to create "something vibrant, dynamic, young and sexy," he says. Elegant, undulating white aluminum window treatments pop against a beige color scheme, catering to guests "who don't want to be packed like sardines or blasted with music."
Similarly, as the Bar Room at the Modern (Museum of Modern Art, 9 W. 53rd St., 212.333.1220), which serves some of the most sophisticated cocktails in the city, Chef Gabriel Kreuther says that the 46-foot bar and modernist lounge area in the front is a counterpart to his fine-dining restaurant in the back, overlooking MoMA's Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. "We offer two different experiences," explains Chef Kreuther. "The Bar Room is small, a little more casual, faster in service, designed to bring energy into the place and to accommodate people who come in alone. It's kind of au courant to eat at the bar alone. It's easier to talk to people, to have a nice conversation with the barman or with other guests."
Where the formal dining room serves French-inflected haute cuisine, the Bar Room's menu is highly personal, reflecting Chef Kreuther's Alsatian upbringing. There are housemade sausages, a tarte flambee (Alsatian-style thin-crust pizza topped with creme fraiche, onion and smoked bacon) and refined small plates, such as Upside-Down Tuna Tartare in a crisp tuile hat. The fact that half the room's nearly 100 seats are set aside for walk-ins makes for easy impromptu after-work gatherings, perhaps over a MoDERN MaRTINI (cilantro-infused gin and lime juice) or a Beneventano (Aperol, Zucca amaro, Strega liqueur and soda).
In the East Village, at Southeast Asian-inspired The Toucan and the Lion (342 E. 6th St, 212.375.8989), diners sample Scotch eggs made with five-spice duck sausage served with kaffir lime aioli, while downing the house Lion in Summer, a refreshing, Sriracha-spiked tequila, lime and ginger beer concoction. A house favorite, goat potpie made with massaman curry and seasonal root vegetables, is served in a cast-iron bowl, with rolled roti (Indian wheat-flour bread) subbing for the traditional flaky crust; duck confit mofongo is a play on the Puerto Rican favorite, swapping mashed taro root for plantains and Chinese sausage for pork cracklings Tabitha Tan, co-owner of The Toucan and the Lion, defines the gastropub style of eating as "rich and fultilling, but not necessarily the biggest portions."
In keeping with diners' current taste for tidbits to share over cocktails and fine wine, even traditional restaurants have beefed up their selection of appetizers. Guests are content to make a meal out of just the antipasti at regional Italian favorite Il Punto (507 Ninth Ave., 212 244.0088) in the Garment District, while tapas, from albondigas (meatballs) to wok de sepia (cuttlefish) satisfy at Spanish eatery Lizarran (11 W. 51st St., 646.998.4351) near Rockefeller Center.
Creamy or crumbly, fragrant or funky, cheese is the raison d'etre at the Flatiron District's Artisanal Fromagerie, Bistro and Wine Bar (2 Park Ave., 212.725.8585), home of perhaps the most expansive cheese list in the city (including a creamy, seasonal Vacherin Mont-d'Or Swiss cow's milk and an Oregon Rogue River blue with notes of grape and pear). Designed by renowned architect Adam Tihany, the eatery has a glass-enclosed cheese cave (pronounced kahv) in which specimens from all over the world are stored and aged, while the front of the house is decked out in red leather banquettes, high ceilings and an antique French mural, all of which lend the feeling of a gaslit Parisian brasserie. Guests select from 100 wines by the glass, craft beers and cocktails including a Stilton martini (Belvedere vodka, Stilton-stuffed olives) and sparkling Lady Marys (Lillet Blanc, basil, citrus). They linger over cheese and wine pairing flights, a selection from the raw bar or charcuterie. At the same time, they can opt to dine on Chef/proprietor Terrance Brennan's classic French bistro fare--four-cheese onion soup, three types of fondue (Artisanal blend, Gouda and Stout, and a fondue du jour), bouillabaisse, Dover sole meuniere, steak frites and a burger topped with Gruyere and applewood-smoked bacon.
Whether you're looking for oysters and Dom Perignon or a burger and a draft, New York City chefs have you covered. Cheers and bon appetit.