Sometimes, it’s good to look like you’re trying too hard. Like when you’re at work. Or when someone’s telling you about a dream they had recently, and you’re pretending to care. But there are also times when you want to seem a little more nonchalant. When you’re going out with someone and you aren’t sure if it’s a date, for example. Or when you’re meeting up with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and you want to prove that you’re still as cool as you were in 2013. Here’s where to do that. All of these places are fairly casual - but they serve food that pretty much anyone should find impressive.
The last time you spent time with this person, you were really into playing World Of Warcraft and listening to Fall Out Boy. It would be an understatement to say that things have changed since then, and you want to go somewhere that’ll make that clear. Suggest dinner at Kiki’s, a Greek spot on the Lower East Side that appears low-key - it has $24 liters of wine and good, affordable food - but gets packed every night with people who seem like they probably both work in fashion and live in a doorman building overlooking the river.
Maybe you know a lot about wine and want to show off your knowledge - or maybe this person knows more than you do, and you want to impress them by choosing a place with a great selection. Either way, check out Franks Wine Bar in Carroll Gardens. The 400-bottle wine list here is organized with helpful descriptions, and the small plates - like the octopus terrine, and pretty much anything doused in the phenomenal olive oil - are great to share. Also, you can order from the whole Frankies 457 menu (it’s right next door), and that housemade cavatelli with hot sausage will impress anyone.
Calaca is a tiny, cash-only Mexican spot in Bed-Stuy that’s easy to miss - but it serves food you’ll want to keep coming back for. The flour and corn tortillas here are made to order, and the best things on the menu are the crunchy tostadas topped with big portions of various ceviches. Plus, the flights of mezcal and tequila come with detailed descriptions, and both hibiscus and jalapeno salt on the side.
When you suggest Le French Diner for dinner, the person you’re talking to will probably say, “What’s that?” At this point, you can either laugh a little bit or take the high road and explain the fact that Le French Diner is a tiny restaurant on the Lower East Side that more people should know about. It’s in a narrow space on Orchard Street, and despite the fact that it looks more like a semi-divey wine bar than a restaurant, you can get some great steak, escargots, and octopus here.
Windmill is from the same people behind Le French Diner, and like its sister spot, it’s pretty small and unassuming-looking. But its food - like Le French Diner’s - is good enough to make you do whatever the mouth version of a double take is. The menu here is a little shorter (it’s really more of a cocktail bar), but they have things like seared foie gras, crudo, and various grilled skewers. Just keep in mind that it’s cash-only.
A friend wants to meet at a perfectly fine neighborhood spot where you’ve both been several hundred times. Take this opportunity to suggest Okozushi instead. It’s a little place in Williamsburg that serves a few excellent sushi sets, all of which are under $30. They use the same fish for every piece of the omakase, but change up the garnishes to keep things interesting. Also, it’s BYOB - so pick up a bottle of sake on the way to show that you’re trying just the right amount.
Kopitiam looks and feels like a coffee shop, but has the menu of a full-on restaurant. You order at the counter, choosing from Malaysian dishes like sugary French toast, pan mee soup, and sweet sticky rice desserts. There are plenty of little tables where you can sit and eat, so it’s a great spot for a casual meal when you want to show someone that you know the Lower East Side better than they do, without having to explicitly say so.
Abuqir isn’t the most impressive-looking place. It’s really just a little shop in Astoria with a seafood counter in the back, a couple tables up front, and a few nice dolphin posters on the walls. But you don’t come here for the atmosphere - you come for some of the best seafood you’ll ever eat off a plastic plate. To order, walk up to the counter, pick out exactly what you want, and then specify how you’d like everything cooked (baked, grilled, fried, etc.). Get shrimp cooked a few different ways, and split a whole fish with someone who didn’t previously know about this place.
Davelle looks like a tiny railroad apartment that was converted into a Japanese restaurant overnight. It’s a charming space with brick walls and chipped white paint, and when you walk inside you’ll see a few big metal contraptions sitting on the bar. These are filled with different types of oden, a Japanese street food cooked in broth that makes up most of the menu (although you do have some other options, like a rich pork curry and a pasta with enough uni to make you feel like a sea otter). If you can get one of the few tables up front, this is a great spot to impress someone who’d rather be in Japan.
PQR might just be a slice shop, but it’s an exceptional slice shop - and there aren’t too many other places like it in the city. This place serves rectangular, Roman-style pizza, and they usually have around 20 different kinds, with toppings ranging from prosciutto to pumpkin to tuna. While it’s nice to have so many options to choose from, the very best thing about this pizza is the crust. Much like the Grinch or a well-cooked marshmallow, it’s crunchy on the outside and softer on the inside - and you’ll want to eat it plain. There’s also a little back dining room, so stop by for a quick lunch.