Maybe you just realized you have a dinner coming up that you were supposed to plan several weeks ago. Or maybe you lied and told someone that you’re highly skilled at getting into really good restaurants last-minute, and now you have to prove it. You can either leave the state and change your name - or you can use this guide. It has a bunch of spots with excellent food, none of which are as busy as they should be. Pick one, and it’ll seem like you put much more thought into this dinner than you actually did.
Flora Bar is in the bottom of a museum (The Met Breuer) on 75th Street, so you might assume it’s the sort of place where you’d only eat with a boring friend or an out-of-towner who wants to stay within walking distance of Central Park. But that’s very much not the case. This place serves some of the best food you’ll find on the Upper East Side, like an excellent endive salad with pecans and blue cheese and some lobster-stuffed morels you’ll still be thinking about several hours after you eat them. The big minimalist dining room with high ceilings and huge windows is also very attractive, and reservations are not hard to get.
When 886 first opened, it was pretty impossible to get a table here. But New Yorkers have short attention spans, and nowadays you can get a reservation pretty easily - which means you could be eating some very good Taiwanese food here any night of the week (except Monday, when it’s closed). The space is small, so it isn’t great for groups, but just bring one other person who wants to eat some lettuce cups and a fried chicken sandwich in the East Village.
Frankies 457 will be busy when you go. That’s almost a guarantee. But the thing is, they don’t take reservations, so you have as good a chance of getting a table here as anyone else. Which means that if you decide last-minute that you want to eat some excellent cavatelli with housemade sausage, you should stop by. The food isn’t too expensive, and this is the rare sort of restaurant where you could bring either your grandparents or a date. Plus, there’s now a second dining room that does take reservations a few doors down (attached to Franks Wine Bar).
Llama Inn is slightly paradoxical. It’s always busy, but it’s never impossible to get into. As long as you book a few days in advance or don’t mind waiting 30 minutes or so, you can always eat here (even on a weekend), and the modern Peruvian menu has some of the best food you’ll find in Williamsburg. Factor in the dining room with its high ceilings, big windows, and potted plants, and you have a spot worthy of your next birthday dinner.
Freek’s Mill is a neighborhood spot in Gowanus that feels upscale without being stuffy, and the kitchen makes excellent use of a wood-fired oven. When’s the last time you craved kohlrabi? Order it here, and you’ll be craving it in the near future. The menu also has a bunch of non-vegetable things like duck, lamb, and octopus. If this place were in the West Village, your boss would probably make you get her a table here, but instead of doing that, you can just get one for yourself.
Despite the fact that the L train is about as reliable as a candle in some light rain, Marlow & Sons makes for a compelling reason to move to Williamsburg. In the daytime, this is a cafe where you can sit and eat a bowl of granola, and at night it turns into a dimly-lit restaurant with great, unfussy versions of brick chicken and pâté. It’s some of the best food you’ll find in Brooklyn, and you won’t have to buy a stake in the place to get a table.
Adda was one of our favorite new restaurants of 2018, and Rahi is the older West Village spot from the same people. While we like Adda overall a little bit more, this place is better if you’re looking for something upscale. Date night, for example, or a last-minute dinner with some out-of-towners who want to know what the West Village feels like. Book a table, and stop by for some excellent Indian food like five-spice cauliflower or duck breast with curry.
Virginia’s is a charming space in Alphabet City with two rooms, a bar, and some brown leather banquettes, and you could easily bring a date here and tell this person that you had to make a reservation several weeks ago. The menu consists of things like duck, ravioli, and whipped ricotta - but if all you want is a burger, there’s an excellent one of those, too.
We like Wildair so much that we sometimes forget the same people own another restaurant a few doors down. It’s called Contra, and it’s perfect for when you want to celebrate something without going to a place with white tablecloths and eight different sommeliers trying to sell you $500 bottles of wine. The space is long and narrow, with brick walls and plain wooden tables, and dinner here consists of an $89, seven-course tasting menu (with a vegetarian option available). There’s also a three-course option available at the bar, should you want to drop in and keep it casual.
Taladwat doesn’t take reservations, and you might find a little wait here when you arrive - but the space is full of communal picnic tables, and things tend to move pretty fast. So if you get out of work in Midtown one night and decide you want to eat some exceptional Thai food with a friend, walk over to this Hell’s Kitchen spot. For $18, you can get two dishes with a side of rice, so any anxiety you typically experience about ordering food will be cut in half.
Il Buco Alimentari is the more casual sister restaurant to Il Buco. It’s only a few doors down, but it’s easier to get into, and you can eat a top-notch plate of pasta here. It still gets busy (even on weekdays), but the good news is, there generally always seem to be reservations available. Bring a date when you want to make it seem like you’re not a planning procrastinator, and order the cacio e pepe.
Amaranto serves some exceptional Mexican food, and it should get more attention for doing so. Fortunately for you, this little neighborhood spot in Bushwick doesn’t get too crazy, and it’s easy to stop in when you don’t have a reservation anywhere. Get the pork chop or chicken enchiladas, and start with a couple of tacos.
When was the last time you were at Al Di La? If your answer was “never” or “a few years ago, I think,” you should change that - and you won’t need that much advance planning to do so. This Park Slope restaurant is still one of our all-time favorites, in large part because of the amazing tagliatelle al ragu, and it’s walk-in only. Bring your family, a friend you haven’t seen in a while, or a date who appreciates pasta and chandeliers. If there’s a wait, hang out at Blueprint until your table is ready.
If you find yourself looking for a last-minute spot near the south side of Prospect Park, head to Krupa Grocery. It’s an excellent neighborhood restaurant with a nice bar and outdoor seating, and there usually isn’t too long of a wait. If you stop by for brunch, get the breakfast gnocchi and the ricotta pancakes, and if you come for dinner, get the dinner gnocchi or the lamb burger.
Thai Villa is just above Union Square, and it’s pretty inconspicuous from the outside. But once you get inside, you’ll find a two-story dining room with big booths and giant golden light fixtures. There’s also a huge menu of reasonably-priced Thai food that happens to be delicious. Get the chicken wrapped in pandan leaves, and at least one order of tapioca dumplings.
The entire neighborhood of Koreatown is only about the size of a high school football stadium in Texas - but it’s full of great restaurants. Consequently, some of them get overlooked. Osamil, for example, is a great-looking spot with a marble bar up front and a brick-walled dining room in the back, and it serves everything from a burger to a bowl of bibimbap with uni and tobiko. Whatever else you order, be sure to get a kimchi pancake, and try a cocktail or two.
You’ve probably heard us discuss the pancakes at Chez Ma Tante. They’re some of our favorite things to eat for brunch, and we won’t apologize for talking about them so much. But you shouldn’t forget that this neighborhood spot in Greenpoint also serves some dinner food that’s worth going out of your way for. Have a caesar salad and some roast chicken here, and you might even temporarily forget that pancakes exist.
Maybe there are just a lot of people in NYC who don’t enjoy sharing things. That’s the only explanation we can think of for why it’s so easy to book a table at Huertas. The tapas here - from the octopus to the patatas bravas - is some of our favorite in the city, and you should always get an off-menu hot dog, as well as some of the house vermouth.
Selamat Pagi is a Balinese restaurant in Greenpoint where nearly everything costs less than $20, and the dining room looks like the loft apartment of someone who really enjoys summer - so you’d think there’d constantly be a line to get in and/or some sort of ticket system like you find in a deli. But reservations are as plentiful as sea monkeys in a bowl of sea monkeys.
When you can make a same-day reservation on a Saturday somewhere, it usually isn’t the best sign. But we’ve done this at Clay, and Clay is a legitimately great restaurant. It’s an upscale spot in Harlem that isn’t too formal, with a menu of things like pork belly, confit duck leg, and a short rib bucatini worth a long subway ride. Bring a date, and stop by Wednesday through Saturday, so you can eat in the downstairs dining room.