As a New Yorker, born and raised in the Upper West Side, it is natural to take of notice of subtle shifts of culinary development. A raise in the quality of food and service has generally not been well received by West Siders, simply because fickle wallets and a tradition of take-out have usually taken precedence. With a well chronicled fiscal crisis and economic slowdown, I find it curious that several new establishments are seeking to change the dining culture uptown for the long haul.
The formula for a successful restaurant in the Upper West Side has always been tied to its affordability and take-out reliability. Keep it cheap, and make sure you can order it from home. Just look at Pio Pio Salon, a Peruvian chicken shop that is above average at best, but does sterling business because it plays by the rules. Keep it cheap and portable. Saigon Grill sits atop the mountain in this philosophy, followed by Flor de Mayo, Malecon, and the thirty or so odd fusion Asian places that have sprouted over the last three years. Top chefs and restaurateurs get nose bleeds when they think of opening uptown. Just ask Aix, the now defunct, transformed Bloomingdale Road, who may suffer the same fate.
Tom Valenti, on the other hand, has been the beacon and the exception to the rule. And while he has held down the fort, trailing is Danny Meyer, not with three star cuisine, but with a new and improved Shake Shack. Little Mermaid rears its finny tail. Throw in an uptown Fatty Crab and the recently opened West Branch to boot. Kefi has moved to an easy to find location (84th and Columbus). Dovetail and Eighty One havemade waves. And wine bars are sprouting every ten blocks – Vai, Bin 71, Wine and Roses, Buceo 95, Barcibo, and Cava (set to open) just to name a few.
Sports bars may soon be in danger all over Columbus Avenue. Foodies are demanding more. Just under the 72nd street line are Bar Boulud, Telepan, and Picholine – all top dining choices. Despite the economy, all indicators point to a push further uptown. Even in the Columbia U. area, Community Food and Drink is trying to change the expectations for the university palate. Finally there is a place for Belgian ales. Just pop in to B. Cafe which serves Belgian product proper, with some nice frites too.
Perhaps no more important presence is made than that of the Shake Shack. In a neighborhood ravaged by Starbuck’s, Duane Reade/Rite Aid, banks and fast food junk, the old family run joints have become a distant pleasure of the past. But if people can change the way they think about fast food ala Shake Shack, Pinch S’Mac and Dean’s, then we can perhaps rid ourselves of McDonald’s, KFC and bad pizza once and for all.
What’s left in the movement is to bring real coffee here. The East Village demands it with great shops such as Ninth St. Espresso and Café Abraco. The same thing can happen uptown. Jacques Torres is chocolate crafting. Grom is gelato delivering. Our choices for hot chocolate have improved as a result. Some barista needs to step up.
We could use a few more taco trucks, and some competitive Middle Eastern pushcarts too. Maybe a Payard or Bouley Bakery…a foodie can dream, can’t he?