The other night I was pinned down and decided to try to have a decent dining experience on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my neighborhood for most of my life. Fresh off the information from a top ten list from critic Robert Sietsema of The Village Voice, I gave Cotta, an Italian trattoria/wine bar, a try. I should have walked out the door as soon as the noise level registered inaudible, but stuck it out for what amounted to some very mediocre food. I ordered a bottle of valpolicella. The server did not present the bottle and tried to pass another bottle off. When I asked about it, she informed that they were out (of it) and so she brought one that was available.
The correct bottle couldn’t have saved the meal from brussel sprouts overwrought with cloying sauce, and the star vongole being watery and lacking punch (Sietsema’s rec). The Italian disco-tech vibe became more unbearable at every bite, and only ordering dessert would have put the icing on the cake of a disastrous evening that one simply cannot recover from.
I am not trying to bash Cotta, or its kin, of which the Upper West Side landscape is plagued by, but getting a decent meal in my hood is next too impossible.
The big question is why, and here are ten arguable reasons:
1. Upper West Siders have little to no palate.
A major reason why some of these restaurants stay in business is because people support them. Unlike downtown, where bridge and tunnel clientele support restos because of the scene and atmosphere, the residents up north are interested in value, and the two shall never intertwine. Fill in some old time diners (drab), and the kosher restaurants (flavorless), and what’s left is a wasteland. Upper West Siders demand value and large portions, part of the family mentality, since a large section of diners just want to be out to brunch with their SUV size strollers and gangs of children. Most cook at home, picnic in the two parks, or just order take-out from the legions of subpar Asian flecked restaurants that happen to have chicken with broccoli on the menu. UWSiders are used to this mediocre food, and their palates follow suit.
2. Landlords Rule.
There has been a mallification of the Upper West Side going on for twenty years. Mom and pop places have been kicked to the curb. Our mayor has raised real estate taxes to astronomical heights, and so the only businesses that can afford the rents are big ones. Duane Reade, Rite Aid, Starbucks, 7-11, and banks. It might as well as be Cleveland over here. Despite the efforts of Gail Brewer to keep the megastores out, the damage has been done. Long gone are the Rosita’s, and you fill in your fav place that has been replaced by corporate America. This isn’t exclusive to the UWS, but every week I take a walk and notice the turnover. Just look at your ten block radius and note the changes yourself
3. Bland Rules.
There is little to no authenticity to most of the restos on the UWS, but people fill the seats due to proximity, if the price is right, and the appearance of being ethnic. Take Pio Pio for a perfect example. The roast chicken is cheap, the sides are inedible, and the wine list is undrinkable, yet the place is packed. Peruvian grandmothers are rolling in their graves. Ever roast a proper chicken at home?
Take Screme, a kosher gelato kiosk. Has any one ever been to Italy? What Screme is passing off as gelato is a travesty. Yet the kids yuck it up. And what about the staples? A decent burger? Don’t give me Big Nick’s. Pizzeria? Dean’s? Seriously? Not even the Malecon can deliver on the roast chicken (it is tough and underseasoned). The red sauce joints are everywhere, and I have a simple rule of thumb. If I can make it better, I will not purchase an inferior product. These pastas are lifeless, poorly executed bowls of $14.95. down the drain.
4. Bars Suck.
Unless you are straight out of college, Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues are strips of wasteland for packs of young people fresh out of college trying to extend their adolescence and behavior. From Brother Jimmy’s down to Bourbon Street, you couldn’t get a decently mixed drink one time out of a thousand. And I am not even talking about a simple cocktail. That simply cannot be found. Prohibition? Please. Simply Oliver? Have you ever tasted a proper cocktail downtown
5. Wine Bars Suck Too.
The lists on the wine bars on the UWS are wrought with poor selections, overpriced jammy bottles that have nothing to do with the food offered on the menu. The servers are generally undereducated about the product, and the food is generally underwhelming and overpriced. One may have a favorite, like Wine and Roses, Bin 71, Vai, or the Tangled Vine (to name a few), but that is only because of proximity. Not one can stand in the same room with a wine bar like Ten Bells or even Terroir for that matter. All I am saying is that we have to settle for mediocrity and like it. There is no great cheese program like at Caselulla or Murray’s, no great Champagne list and deals like at Corkbuzz, and no ethnically correct representation of a regionally themed wine bar. Please don’t tell me Buceo 95 is Spanish or that Barcebo is Italian. That’s like saying the Red Rooster sells soul food.
6. NO Coffee to be Found Anywhere.
Starbucks is to blame for the poor quality in coffee, and UWS residents simply do not care to fork over the five bucks for over roasted, poorly sourced coffee beans. What’s worse is that more sub-par chains like Coffee, Tea and Leaves, The Bean, and World Coffee have edged their way in too. Joe’s Coffee is and Birch are not bad, but once again it is no Café Grumpy, Stumptown, or even a Blue Bottle. Proximity acceptance skews the actual value of what we are consuming.
7. Proximity Acceptance. – You would rather be dining somewhere else.
Sometimes I am having a nice meal, and I can’t help but compare it to a similar place downtown. Once that wheel starts turning, I would rather be someplace else. Be it the clientele, ambience, or quality of the wine/food and the service, comparisons kill it for me. For example, take Café du Soleil, a Provencal themed restaurant that I have tried a few times. The wine selection is poor to terrible, simply no imagination. The food is Provencal in name only (Go to Provence, and tell me that the food is the same). Wouldn’t you rather be at Calliope in the EV? Or Rouge Tomate? Or even Balthazar? Get my drift. Proximity acceptance.
8. Brunch is King.
Take two eggs and make them my way. Slap some bacon or sausages on the side. Oh and some French toast or pancakes with fruit. Queue up a massive line, and offer me a watered down mimosa fashioned out of cheap Prosecco, or a bloody Mary that is pre-mixed. Deal with massive crowds of crying children and a tetris of strollers. Oh thanks and fork over eighty bucks please. From Sarabeth’s, Isabella’s, Good Enough to Eat, to those awful, dreadful diners with processed food and junk for ingredients. Check. Give me that. What a great experience. People who put themselves through that and like it deserve what they get. Just plan, get up, and make it yourself. It will definitely taste better, and save lots of loot.
9. The Proof is not in the Yogurt.
If I see another yogurt or dessert place take over an empty storefront, I am going to scream. Tasty Delite is flavorless, and the dessert options are a joke. Café Lalo is a necessary evil for the landscape, but the overpriced sweets cannot be the top choice. What I would give for just one good Parisian bakery. Just one. With real bread and real pastries. You’re gonna say Silver Moon, and once again proximity acceptance. Pick any bakery from Paris that you want. Compare. Case Closed.
10. Top Chefs are Afraid.
Upper West Siders are notorious complainers, and want every meal tailored after very specific needs. Just listen to a brunch order next time. “I want a two egg white omelette with spinach and goat cheese, no home fries, with one piece of multigrain toast, turkey sausage and a side of fat-free butter. No wait make it three egg whites. Oh yeah and the bread cannot have gluten in it. Is the o.j. freshly squeezed? Oh, and I have a nut allergy. Are there any nuts in my eggs?” Get the picture, and that’s just for a brunch order. A talented chef wants to bring a certain a creativity which is killed by the countless requests for modification. Not to mention paying the rent. UWSiders are notoriously cheap. Only if a chef dumbs down the food like in KEFI, can a resto survive. Yes, I said Kefi, cafeteria Greek food that’s been slightly elevated to accommodate the palate of the UWS.
Recently, I tried to eat Westside again. After closing a Tribeca mainstay, Chef Aaron Sanchez has moved digs to Columbia on 112th St. I was very excited, but should have known better. No cooking going on here, just placating to the unsophisticated college palate. What a disappointment.
I live on the UWS for many reasons: right apartment deal, family, friends, dojo, parks etc., but the major sacrifice is food and drink.
There you have it. I am sure there are other reasons I have missed or didn’t make the cut. That doesn’t mean there aren’t bright spots, but those are few and far between. Also, I don’t consider fine establishments near Lincoln Center such as Telepan or The Boulud restaurants as part of the UWS. Here is a list of places that I recommend and a brief commentary.
Barney Greengrass – old school lox and bagel joint, don’t miss nova egg scramble.
Cafe Storico – good Italian spot for simple fare in a great setting near CPW
Cesca – run by a native who cares, good wine list and great cheeses
Saioguette – newcomer to take out with decent spring rolls and nice ribs and pho
Legend – finally good Szechuan fare
La Mirabelle – old school French with killer martinis
Sal & Carmine’s – best slice on UWS, now limited delivery
Jacques Torres – good chocolate
Pain d’Epice – proper pastires, don’t miss napoleon
Gastronomie 491 – properly run cheese dept., if not a tad expensive
Silver Moon Bakery – go for the different breads
Joe’s Coffee/Birch – good cup of joe
Nice Matin – decent French fare, nice wine list
Gazala Place – Druize fare, quite authentic
Taqueria y Fonda – take-out Veracuz cuisine, bang for the buck
Gennaro – a simple Italian meal is possible here, specials usually good