To what expensive NYC restaurant should I take my sister and her fiance?
August 2, 2014 4:04 PM   Subscribe

My sister is getting married in New York City in January. Since she and her soon-to-be-husband live in a bitsy studio in Midtown, my husband and I don't want to buy them any "stuff" as a wedding gift. Instead of dishes/towels/silverware, I'd like for us to treat them to dinner at an amazingly fancy place that none of us would ever dream of spending that much money on normally. The kind of epic dinner that you can talk about for the next 20 years.

We are prepared to spend $1000-$1500 for the four of us, including tax and tip. If that amount of money will not buy the experience we want, we are financially ok to go higher, but are hoping we can find something suitably amazing for what we consider reasonable. I am leaning toward a prix fixe with many courses and wine pairings, to minimize the thought process involved and to allow for the chef to take us out of our comfort zones.

I have been to NYC once, and my husband never, so we need help. Based on general knowledge and some previous questions, we know to consider Per Se, Le Bernardin, Daniel, and Eleven Madison Park. Even if we kept it to those four (which I don't necessarily want to do, in case there is something great that we haven't heard about here in flyover country), how do we decide among them? What else do we not know about? How soon can we (or maybe, how soon do we need to) make reservations?

We are all four of us in our late 20s to early 30s and have no food restrictions. My husband can be somewhat wussy about spicy food, but that should not rule out any suggestions you may have. He can suck it up :)
posted by slenderloris to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I've had good dinners at Gramercy Tavern and Picholine.
posted by brujita at 4:20 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make your reservation pronto.
posted by brujita at 4:20 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Okay well I'm broke, but I guess I'm a kind of "foodie". If I were you, I'd check out Eleven Madison Park or Per Se. I've had food prepared by both of these chefs and it was exquisite.
posted by trip and a half at 4:22 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Check out Donuts 4 Dinner which actually contains reviews of most of the famous high end NYC restaurants with pictures and get a feel for what kind of food you want to have. Per Se looks great, as did Eleven Madison Park.
posted by hepta at 4:32 PM on August 2, 2014

You budget will be tighter than you think at the very highest end. Per Se you probably couldn't drink at if you wanted to come in under 1500 for 4.

So the gastro-hipster places are mostly counters right now - Blanca, Atera, Brooklyn Fare. As much as I like those places I would think they would be suboptimal for a party of four. I personally prefer Blanca to BF, but can see why someone would disagree. I thought Atera was horrible. Like actually bad cooking.

Then there is EMP (which I personally loathe, but whatevs) that is still gastro-hipster, big name, but offers a "fine dining" feeling. If you aren't experienced diners at this price point, my own issues aside - I think this would be a really good choice. If you care I'd tell you my issues. But really you shouldn't care.

Le Bernadin and Jean-Georges are my personal faves of the four-star warhorses. J-G is a better room and a more varied menu - though I think they've recently raised prices. Le B feels very corporate and of course is fish centric.

Per Se is the worlds finest hotel dining room. That's both a compliment and an insult. The food will be perfectly prepared, the service will be tremendous, and you will pay more for a meal than anywhere this side of L'Ambroisie. I personally wouldn't go. But if you want something that feels grand where you guaranteed something flawless its not a bad choice.

I would not send someone to Daniel unless you guys have a hook there. They are famous for triaging you - and the experience a tourist gets is very different from what someone known to the house gets. I've been triaged poorly there and vowed never to go back. Fuck them.

Another option to consider is Blue Hill Stone Barns. Less interesting food, but a more interesting concept in a really beautiful place - although I wouldn't go in the winter or too early in the Spring. I actually had my wedding there.

Del Posto is the one Italian place. Oddly, I've never been. Depends who you talk to - its either amazing or a travesty it got three stars.

So that's really the list of super high end non-sushi in NYC. There aren't any "hidden gems" really at that price point.
posted by JPD at 4:38 PM on August 2, 2014 [11 favorites]

Eleven Madison Park is certainly considered one of the most exciting restaurants in New York, but I'm hesitant to recommend it for a one-off. It's just a little technical and focused on creativity at the expense of pure deliciousness. Per Se is an excellent choice for the kind of meal you're looking for, but while there are cheaper menu offerings, you don't save that much by getting anything except the flagship Chef's menu at $310 (tip included but not tax). Wine pairings are $150 and up.

Jean Georges, though, could be a really good choice. One nice aspect is that the room is made for sunlight, so the cheaper lunch option at $158 is just as magical. Plus, if you are eating a huge meal, often you won't feel like going out afterwards. We took my my wife's sister and boyfriend there once and I can still remember it. Creative without pushing boundaries for the sake of it, and the service is velvet smooth. (Full disclosure, I've only eaten at Jean Georges, but I do follow the others on the Internet.)
posted by wnissen at 4:49 PM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

EMP is basically designed around tourists. Its more of an experience than just a great meal. So while I agree its not focused on "pure deliciousness" it does do something for inexperienced diners.

Per Se. Yeah the base menu is $310 = but there are usually meaningful supplements on the more interesting dishes.

Unfortunately the "out of your comfort=zone" guys are mostly the counter guys.

I'm not sure if the timing works (they've lost their lease and are closing) and its not luxe the way it sounds like you want, but WD-50 will also bring the weirdness.

Its too bad Paul Liebrandt isn't really cooking anywhere right now. If the planned michelin three-star style place that was mooted as part of the deal with the Elm folks had happened that would have been perfect.
posted by JPD at 4:57 PM on August 2, 2014

Per se
posted by rainydayfilms at 5:01 PM on August 2, 2014

Many of these high-end places won't take a reservation before 1 month or 30 days or 28 days before the day you want the reservation -- then they're all booked within a tiny window of a few minutes. So I would call the restaurants you're interested in way before then and ask them what their reservation policy is, so that you can maximize your chances of getting in when you want to.
posted by DMelanogaster at 5:01 PM on August 2, 2014

Let me elaborate on Per Se - I've been to dozens of high end fancy restaurants and Per Se is a level of deliciousness and service that is head and shoulders above anything else. It's truly the kind of dining experience that could be once in a lifetime. I plan to go at least once more, but honestly I could be satisfied with once. They will be absolutely thrilled. You will be maxing your budget out, but again, once in a lifetime.
posted by rainydayfilms at 5:04 PM on August 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

then they're all booked within a tiny window of a few minutes.

This really depends. EMP and the counter places - maybe not a few minutes for the first few days after the the day is available. Call to find out when they open the books.

The rest of them really aren't so hard to book. Especially non-weekend.

But don't use Open Table - call.
posted by JPD at 5:08 PM on August 2, 2014

Per Se if a flawless experience and high caliber of food are your priorities; EMP for more of a performance. The former is a well-oiled, very well-done machine; the latter is a bit overindulgent as far as the gimmicks go. Both are worth doing.

Another counter option is Momofoku Ko, which you don't here much about anymore but for me personally hit the delicious/creative balance perfectly.
posted by snickerdoodle at 6:18 PM on August 2, 2014

Seconding JPD on Blue Hill at Stone Barns. It is really exceptional--most memorable meal I have ever had. (I went in the winter and did not feel like I got a bum deal.)
posted by ferret branca at 6:26 PM on August 2, 2014

Hello! I'm into food. Such restaurants are typically the focus of my vacations, and I've been to a handful in New York City. (I "collect" Michelin stars.)

I've been to three of the four restaurants you mentioned: Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, and Daniel.

Of those three, I would urge you to go with Per Se. I loved Daniel and Eleven Madison Park, but like others have said, Per Se is an experience in the stratosphere. Few other meals I have had deserve to even be mentioned in the same breath.

I would also recommend Momofuku Ko. The atmosphere is less fancy—a twelve-person bar with no dress code—but the food is incredible, made right in front of you, and utilizes the famous "molecular gastronomy" that can be especially dazzling if you don't normally dine at these uber-expensive places. But if fancy is important to making the experience extra-memorable, go with Per Se.

For these absurdly expensive meals, try as best you can to book the meal before the trip. It's just that hard to get reservations.

And on another point of possible interest, Per Se does fantastic non-alcohol drink pairings. All fancy restaurants should, but not all do. I encourage you to try the non-alcoholic route. The creativity behind these drinks adds another dimension to the meal. And while still not cheap, the non-alcoholic pairings are exponentially cheaper than wine pairings.

Please feel free to MeMail me if you want any further details. Congrats to your sister and her fiancé, and I hope the four of you have the meal of a lifetime!
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 6:36 PM on August 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

When is this dinner? Are they getting married in NYC in January and you're adding this on as a gift while you're in town for the wedding? Or later on during TBD time period?

If it's right after the wedding (before honeymoon?), it is far too early to book. You would typically book in a month ahead (with some exceptions).

Or are you flying into NYC just for this meal? I suggest you don't book this meal for your arrival night due to possible flight delays coming from the Midwest.

If in close proximity to the wedding / honeymoon, make sure you avoid the days around amateur night (e.g., Valentine's Day). You shouldn't have too much trouble making reservations in the winter (low tourism, poor weather, fewer birthdays/anniversariess), as long as you plan in advance.

Del Posto opens its books exactly one month in advance to the numerical date. Not too difficult to book these days. I often see random availability there, last minute, especially early and late.

Le Bernardin opens its books on the first business day of the month for the entire month following. i.e. on August 1st, you could actually book all of September on that day. It holds tables back from OpenTable to only the 30 day mark; you should call on the 1st to get a primetime weekend table at Le Bernardin for the month following. Many people think it's 30 days ahead and then get mad that only 5pm and 10pm are left. Closed Sundays.

Per Se opens its books 30 days ahead. Still not always an easy reservation. Everyone I know has had better luck calling on the morning of 30 days ahead than on OpenTable. (BTW, Per Se's web site is currently down. I believe they are on a 2 week vacation right now - reopening August 16th. Not sure if this means the reservations office is closed.)

Eleven Madison Park opens its books 28 days ahead (including the current day, it's easiest to call 4 weeks before you wish to dine) at exactly 9am. You'll probably encounter a busy signal; I've actually had staff instruct me to use OpenTable instead. For a while, it was a very hot reservation, getting booked up within minutes, especially after they received 3 Michelin stars for the first time. And unlike other restaurants, they actually removed tables during a renovation. Probably the hardest to book amongst the NYT 4 stars.

Jean Georges, I believe, opens its books 30 days in advance.

Daniel also opens its books 30 days in advance. It's OpenTable page has a lot of restrictions; so this is another situation there you're better off calling direct if you wish to dine there.

It is always better to call the reservations desk at an off hour, several weeks ahead, and ask precisely the policy (number of days in advance, what time the lines open, what days of the week the reservations desk is open) if you're anxious about not getting a table.

However, because you are a party of 4 and not a party of 2, you might be in luck. It's my hunch that many more people want to go to these sorts of places as part of an anniversary or birthday celebration.

For example, right now I see no availability at Per Se for a party of 2 within the next 30 days, but a ton of tables for 4. Same for EMP. Tons of availability for 4-tops, only 2 slots for 2-tops. Some of this could be the summer slump, but I've seen this also during busier periods. I've had trouble getting a table for 2 but seen openings for 4 people.

But here is the bigger issue:

We are prepared to spend $1000-$1500 for the four of us, including tax and tip.... I am leaning toward a prix fixe with many courses and wine pairings, to minimize the thought process involved and to allow for the chef to take us out of our comfort zones.

$1500 total, minus 20% tip and 8.875% tax, divided by 4 people leaves approximately $291pp for a tasting menu and wine pairings.

I assume you meant tasting menu (vs prix fixe) because of the multiple courses reference -- you want more than 3-4 courses so you want a tasting menu and not a prix fixe menu.

And since you are including wine pairings in that price, it's not going to be a big enough budget enough to cover you at the big guys.

Del Posto's tasting + wine pairings = $334pp before tax and tip: "Captain's Menu, $179 Eight Courses. Wine Pairings are available for an additional $155 per guest." More like $1721 out the door.

Le Bernardin's tasting + wine pairings = $336pp before tax and tip: "Chef's Tasting Menu - $198 per person, $336 with wine pairing per person." More like $1732 out the door.

Per Se tasting = well, the math is more difficult here as the wine pairing price is variable because they don't have a set pairing (i.e. you can choose to pair only a few courses): "For dinner, Per Se offers two prix fixe tasting menus for $295; a 9 course Tasting of Seasonal Vegetables or the 9 course Chef’s Tasting Menu, which changes daily." The suggested starting price for wine pairings is $175. Note: price at Per Se also includes the gratuity, but not the tax, and also they charge extra for luxury items such as caviar, black Australian truffles, foie gras, wagyu, etc.

Without wine, it's still $1284 out the door, assuming no add-ons, and you don't add additional gratuity (which some people do at Per Se).

Eleven Madison Park's tasting + wine pairings = $370 before tax and tip: Tasting menu is $225 per person, wine pairings were $145 last time I checked, so more like $1907 out the door.

Jean Georges' tasting + wine pairings = $356 before tax and tip: "Jean‑Georges’ Menu: Chef Vongerichten’s Assortment of Signature Dishes $208, Summer Menu: Composed with Seasonally Available Produce $208, Tasting Menu Wine Pairing $148." So about $1835 out the door.

Daniel's tasting + wine pairings = $350 before tax and tip: "Seven Course Tasting $220; Optional Wines Pairings Available for $130 or $220." $1804 out the door.

Love Blue Hill at Stone Barns, but they will probably be at their best when produce is at its best in New York: spring, summer, and early fall. Also, when the weather is nice, they will try to get some tables to have a course outside under the stars. They book two months ahead of time via phone, but only 60 days via OpenTable. BH@SB recently increased prices and went tasting-menu-only. Their tasting menu is $198 and the wine pairing is $138. With gratuity and 7.375% sales tax in Tarrytown, it's $1711 out the door, plus transportation costs. One person can be the DD and drives a rental car or you all take the train from Manhattan. Maybe you all stay at a B&B overnight after the meal. It's also going to involve a lot of travel for you: flying in (probably the night before), then most likely meeting up at Grand Central, taking Metro North, then a taxi from the train station to the restaurant.

Momofuku Ko is also awesome, with a $125 tasting menu and $95 wine pairing. However, it is a tiny restaurant. There are only 12 seats, and only 2 seatings a night, IIRC. A party of four can literally only sit one place -- the bend of the "L"-shaped counter. And they only take reservations ten days in advance (including the current day) at 10am, and only on their web site. So it's a bit hard to plan an entire trip around if that includes arranging last minute flights. It can be done, but it's challenging.

You should also consider Bouley ($280 with wine pairing), Annisa ($115 chef's tasting, can't find recent wine pairing cost online but I recall it being reasonable - just note they book 3 months ahead), and The Modern ($206 with wine pairing).
posted by kathryn at 6:50 PM on August 2, 2014 [14 favorites]

2nding Gramercy Tavern. Their tasting menu with wine pairing is great.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 6:55 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

how do we decide among them?

I've been to most of the restaurants mentioned in this thread, and I can't give you an easy answer to this question. It's like saying, okay, let's go to see one jazz show, should we see Dave Holland, Sonny Rollins, or Bill Frisell? Restaurants at this caliber are art, they're events, and it's genuinely difficult to compare.

I can tell you that I, personally, have been underwhelmed at several of the three-star restaurants as compared to their one-star brethren. The exception was Per Se. Every time I've been to Per Se, the entire experience has been three-star–worthy. I've never seen Per Se have an off day. I have, at several of the others. Another point in Per Se's favor is that the French Laundry is generally regarded as the "best" restaurant in the United States, and visiting Per Se—the French Laundry's sister restaurant; their kitchens share a closed-circuit feed—gets you pretty darn close to that experience. I've been to both, and they're not as different as some would say.

There are some really valid reasons to favor Per Se, so I'd probably steer you in that direction based on what you've written. Having said that, over years of having this hobby I've developed a personal bias for one-star restaurants, which I guess I mention in order to underline my earlier point: it's hard to choose because the objective criteria separating these restaurants aren't nearly as important as the subjective stuff. Whichever you choose, you're nearly guaranteed to have an exquisite evening.
posted by cribcage at 7:40 PM on August 2, 2014

I am a huuuge food enthusiast, and I have been to Le Bernadin and... meh. It was very well done and the quality of the ingredients is excellent and all. But for the money? I didn't feel like it was particularly creative. It wouldn't say I COMPLETELY regret going but knowing what I know now, I think I'd rather go for Per Se or Eleven Madison Park if I am looking for a special occasion type of place.

Also, not a huge fan of the ambiance there. To me it's very outdated in its stuffy, high-brow feel of the 90s. And I don't mean that I am uncomfortable with snobby servers or white table cloths or the fact that my freaking purse was given its own special stool to sit on. We couldn't even get our server to crack a smile or talk to us about the dishes beyond giving a technical description. In this day of foodie "experience" restaurants I just think that's really behind-the-times. At every other high-end restaurant I've visited the servers are expected to not only know the technicalities of the dish but to be able to express their opinion and excitement over it.
posted by joan_holloway at 7:58 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have eaten at most of the restaurants in this thread, and I agree with pretty much everyone's assessment of them: fantastic, memorable meals. Another restaurant to consider, especially in the "outside your comfort zone" criteria, is WD-50. It's Wylie Dufresne's restaurant, and it's known for it's experimental "molecular gastronomy." Don't let that throw you, though: every meal I've had there has been memorable, interesting, and delicious.

If you are having trouble choosing between places, look at their menus closer to the date (since you won't be able to make a reservation until closer anyway) and choose the one that most appeals to you. In my opinion, you can't really go wrong with any of these choices.
posted by sleepinglion at 9:20 PM on August 2, 2014

Unfortunately WD-50 will be closing in November.
posted by cribcage at 10:13 PM on August 2, 2014

Big food nerd here -- had a really impressive dinner at Annisa, mentioned above. I wouldn't count it out if you're going on deliciousness and not just name. Don't get me wrong, I'd love to go to Per Se myself but foodwise, Annisa was exquisite.
posted by at 10:18 PM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

The most extraordinary meal I've ever had in my life was at Eleven Madison Park. I did not know food could taste that good.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 10:18 PM on August 2, 2014

Fleur de Sel would've been my recommendation, but it closed a few years ago, alas.

A few other possibilities, just to give you some more options: the Batali and Bastianich restaurants aren't as expensive as Per Se and the like. I've found the Batali restaurants hit and miss (incl. Babbo), and I'm not fond of the loud-ish music. Felidia is the best of the lot, IMO, and you can have an extremely nice meal there.

Craft is also interesting -- kind of the opposite, philosophically, as WD50. (Same vein as Blue Hill.) Perfectly prepared food, and wonderful ingredients, but not ranking in the best dining experiences I've had.

Culinary Institute of America -- a bit of a trip upstate -- used to be a really good experience, but I've been told by a few people that it's significantly declined of late.

Not in the same class, but very good: Wong, and Kin Shop.

I've always been somewhat disappointed by Bobby Flay, but his newest one just opened: Gato in the West Village.
posted by cgs06 at 6:32 AM on August 3, 2014

Wong has closed, and will be turned into a Vietnamese street food restaurant according to the sign on the door (live in the hood & just walked past).

For something you'll remember 20 years later, I'd choose Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in nice weather and walk the grounds beforehand), Eleven Madison Park, or Per Se. Especially if you request (and get--it isn't guaranteed) a kitchen tour/visit.

While I remember having excellent meals at Le Bernardin (exquisite ingredients barely cooked with amazing sauces but very subtle cooking), Del Posto (esp the lavish setting & live piano music & petit fours), and Jean Georges (more creative cooking with some Asian influences), the actual experiences themselves did not seem quite as memorable. While something may seem gimmicky on paper (like EMP), you'll probably talk about it and remember it better, years later.
posted by kathryn at 7:22 AM on August 3, 2014

Even though I personally would rather eat at J-G or Le B, I would second kathryn - for exactly the same reason.

(tho all of you who think Per Se is the greatest thing ever need to go to Europe or Japan)

I think Wong is going to be called Vuong. I always thought Cafe Asean was his most satisfying resto, so I'm looking forward to the new iteration.
posted by JPD at 7:26 AM on August 3, 2014

J-G is a better room and a more varied menu - though I think they've recently raised prices

Ten dollar increase across the menu, but of all the places mentioned here J-G has been the most consistent in my experience.
posted by The Whelk at 7:45 AM on August 3, 2014

Thanks everyone! Based on all of your advice and on the great blog recommended by hepta upthread, I think we have decided to expand the budget and go with Per Se. If it turns out we can't afford for all four of us to go, we'll treat them to a more reasonably priced meal and also get them a gift certificate to Per Se so they can go without us another time. EMP is a close second if we can't get a spot at Per Se by calling the morning of 30-days-in-advance as per kathryn's advice. If we were going to be there at a more pleasant time of year, Blue Hill at Stone Barns would be the second choice.

Annisa and Momofuku Ko look like amazing choices, and definitely more our normal speed of splurge; just not quite the level of splashiness I want for this event. My husband and I will keep them in mind for ourselves on future visits.
posted by slenderloris at 4:53 PM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

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