New York: Three great restaurants near top Manhattan attractions

By: Maxine Sheppard

May 5, 2014

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that in any given city, the most in-demand tourist attractions are not necessarily surrounded by the best restaurants. But it seems after a hard day’s sightseeing, our readers like to eat – and they don’t want to go very far. In fact, one of the questions we’re most frequently asked is “Where is a great place to dine within five minutes of [insert attraction here]?” It’s a good question, especially for a city like New York, where the restaurant scene is probably the most exciting – and overwhelming – in the world. But narrow it down to places within a few minutes walking distance of the most popular sites, and it doesn’t get any easier.

Fortunately for you, we’ve tried and tested dozens over the years – the good, the bad and the downright dismal – so if you’re planning on visiting MoMA, the Empire State Building or the High Line on your next trip to the Big Apple, we’ve got you covered. First up, a brand new gem in the heart of Midtown”¦

MoMA – Mozzarella & Vino

mozzarella balls at Mozzarella & Vino.jpg

Delicious balls of mozzarella © Mozzarella & Vino

If your experience of mozzarella is limited to pizza or a caprese salad, then this relaxed Midtown trattoria will come as something of a revelation. Located in the chic former home of sister restaurant Il Gattopardo and right across the street from the Museum of Modern Art on West 54th street, Mozzarella & Vino opened late last year with a focus on the protected-status buffalo mozzarella of Italy’s Campania region, which the restaurant sources from a single cheese maker.

Unlike the typical pasta-based Italian menus British visitors may be used to, Mozzarella & Vino’s approach is geared more towards multi-course shared plates, with a selection of (mainly) small dishes emphasising authentic flavours and simplicity. With such an array of options it can be hard to know what or how much to order, so do ask for guidance: we did, and were impressed by our waiter’s knowledge not just of the menu as a whole but of the provenance of its ingredients – the sign of someone genuinely engaged with their work. Eventually we chose an appetiser of light-as-candy-floss fried zucchini alongside a charcuterie board piled with dry-aged aged meats, cheeses, and spicy fruit spreads – thinly-sliced speck; intensely fragrant prosciutto San Daniele; crumbly hunks of Tuscan pecorino, tangy Taleggio.

cheese and meat close up 2.jpg

Breads, cheeses and dry-aged meats © Mozzarella & Vino

Next, a tasting plate of the restaurant’s namesake speciality – classic buffalo mozzarella, sweet and woody buffalo provola, and an incredibly rich and velvety burrata; a decadent, buttery cheese made from a hollow pocket of mozzarella with an oozing creamy core. After all this, we sadly made barely a dent in the plate of succulent homemade meatballs that followed – rich and delicious though they were – but did allow ourselves to experiment with the second part of the Mozzarella & Vino name. The combination of friendly sommelier, uncommon vintages and enoteca style bar made the task of pairing by-the-glass wines a breeze.

Best for: cheesehounds, true Italophiles or those in search of an unhurried, high-quality post-MoMA supper.

Mozzarella & Vino, 33 West 54th Street, New York

Empire State Building – ilili

ilili interior.jpg

The stunning interior of ilili © ilili Restaurant

Dining options in the immediate vicinity of the Empire State Building have long been a hit-or-miss affair, with the surrounding streets largely full of crowded fast food outlets and retail stores. Without some prior research, you could find your quest for a pre- or post-observatory meal a frustration, especially if you’re looking for something at the sophisticated end of the spectrum. But now we’ve discovered ilili, we’re finally free from all that aimless wandering – so take our advice and walk six minutes south along Fifth Avenue for a spot at this lavish, upmarket Lebanese restaurant at the edge of the Flatiron District.

Occupying a vast, atmospherically-lit collection of interior spaces, ilili makes a dramatic first impression. In the main high-ceilinged dining room, candles and cutaway panels cast a sultry glow across the mix of bright red chairs and geometric wooden walls, and the bi-level space is filled with the chatter and hubbub of almost 300 diners.

But can the food live up to the showstopping décor? You bet, and it does so before we even get beyond the mezze. It’s a simple enough start. Though the restaurant specialises in inventive Lebanese cuisine with a contemporary Mediterranean twist, perfection arrives early in the shape of age-old Middle Eastern tradition: sublime dishes of hummus and baba ghannoush, both of which display an impeccable balance of flavours. Served with toasted pine nuts, the former is just the right mix of garlicky and lemony, and smoky mouthfuls of the latter taste beautifully charred. It would be easy, in fact, to just order more plates of tabbouleh and moujadara and the amazing sumac-spiced Phoenician fries with a few more bowls of hummus and call it a day. But only do this if you want to miss out on the mouthwatering meat and fish main courses, like the tender lamb chops, juicy beef and lamb kafta, or sweet and salty diver scallops with spring pea puree. Or break the bank on the celebrated loup de mer with orange, fennel and toasted almonds. Not cheap, by any means, but this is high-impact dining for a high-flying crowd at one of the most consistently recommended restaurants in the city.

Best for : special occasions, groups of friends, and those who want to impress their date.

ilili, 236 Fifth Avenue, New York (between 27th and 28th)

The High Line – Cookshop

Griddle cakes at Cookshop © Joel Kramer.jpg

Griddle cakes at Cookshop © Joelk75

Though some will tell you that standout eating options are few and far between in this far western stretch of Manhattan, we’ve always found the area around the High Line less problematic than others when in need of an immediate post-walk pick-me-up. There’s Chelsea Market, for starters. But grabbing a perfunctory bite is not the same as dining in a tried and trusted venue you can count on every time, so it’s always good to have one of those up your sleeve in advance.

Enter Cookshop, sustainable American comfort food at its urban best. Located on Tenth Avenue across the street from the High Line’s West 20th Street entrance, this neighbourhood restaurant’s farm-to-table menu covers every eating eventuality: breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, with a laser-like focus on seasonal ingredients sourced from local farms and suppliers. And it’s all dished up in a pleasantly bright and attractive space which buzzes nicely with the hum of other diners, though never overwhelmingly so.

Brunch is the raved-about event here, and it’s not unheard of for people to dillydally so long they’ve ended up staying for dinner too. Entirely understandable when you look at the menu – it’s agonisingly difficult to choose, but marginally easier with a blood orange Pyrat rum mojito in tow. Keep it simple (and kid yourself it’s a tiny bit healthy) with the grapefruit brulee? Or opt for the ultimate blowout with the spiced apple beignets stuffed with fresh ricotta cheese, or the baked brioche French toast with almond custard and orange bourbon marmalade? Or perhaps you don’t have a sweet tooth, in which case there’s always the smoked arctic char rillettes with cornmeal blini, the grass-fed beef brisket hash or the casserole baked eggs with pancetta. Decisions, we loathe them. But at least here at Cookshop, it’s impossible to make a bad one.

Best for: long, lingering brunches, cosy nighttime tête-à-têtes, people watching from the patio in summer.

Cookshop, 156 Tenth Avenue at 20th Street, New York

Header photo: © Mozzarella & Vino interior.

Do you have any favourite restaurants that are slap-bang next door to any of New York’s best-known attractions? We’d love to hear your recommendations in the comments below. Thanks!

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Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

Categories: Our Places