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Thoughts on Murray Hill dining: a report


Restaurants & Bars 22

Thoughts on Murray Hill dining: a report

Patrick A. | Jul 27, 2001 10:21 AM

Murray Hill is one of Manhattan's most restaurant-deprived neighborhoods. Its main commercial strip, Third Avenue between 30th St and 42nd St, could exist in any American rebuilt Main Street, with the same crappy Italian joints, fake Mexican restaurants, and yuppie bars. The bad food available here is staggering.

For those who live here, or those forced to dine here, I thought I'd compile a list of restaurants that I know are good, or at least interesting. I'm not at all an expert yet (I only moved here from the West Village three years ago), so I'm hoping others will chime in with their recommendations (see my post about pizza below). Few of these places are worth travelling to visit! -- at least for the food. A couple of joints have atmosphere in buckets. On the chowhound tip, this is no Jackson Heights. But hopefully we'll work up a reference guide for residents and visitors who, for whatever reason, must dine in the neighborhood.

I've stretched the boundaries of Murray Hill a bit, btw -- necessary in order to dine decently -- but I didn't include "Curry Hill", the Indian/Middle Eastern stretch of Lexington Avenue between 26th St and 30th St. It's been extremely well covered on Chowhound already.

Okay, here we go:

Phoenix Garden, E 40 St. between Midtown Tunnel Exit Street and Second Ave: excellent Cantonese transplant from Chinatown. Discussed several times here on Chowhound. They also have a branch in New Jersey. Famous for their fried salt and pepper shrimp, and it is heavenly. Also great: abalone and chicken soup, sliced chicken in black bean sauce, roast duck, casseroles, etc. BYOB. Better than most of the Cantonese places left in Chinatown. The prices are commensurately higher, however.

Sam's Place, E 39 St. between Third and Lex. Strange little step-down cocktail/chophouse Italian-American, very old-school. A strange mixture of tourists, locals and airline pilots and flight attendants staying in the nearby hotels. I only ever have one meal here, and I think it's the only safe order: Caesar salad (made with anchovy oil in the dressing, no anchovies, which some think is more authentic), linguini bolognese, and the house red Montepulciano (the only affordable wine, but actually better than the rest of the list). This meal is cheap and tasty. The bolognese is certainly not the best I've ever had, but there's something classic and addictive about it -- very reduced flavors, lots of liquid (this isn't one of your dry bologneses). I just wolf it down. A great place in midwinter, very cosy, and a great place to go before dropping someone off at Grand Central to catch a train or the bus to JFK or LGA.

Tokyo, Lexington Ave. between 39th and 40th Streets. Jim's discovery obviously (see his book). As he writes, it's essential to sit at the bar and let Tomaki, the friendly bartendress, serve you and choose your meal for you. You must convince her that you like real Japanese food and will eat anything, but this has become much easier since Jim's book has come out. Although they are mistakenly convinced that his review is actually an "advertisement", they now understand that some Westerners want to eat the good stuff. Just tell them that you will eat ANYTHING, you love Japanese food, and that you saw the "advertisement". Tomaki will bring out an endless array of delicious dishes. This isn't quite as expensive as Jim suggested in his book, but perhaps I don't eat as much as he does! Usually $80 per person with drinks and tips... and you drink a lot, since you're sitting at the bar with a bunch of jovial regulars. (Note: I have also dined in the restaurant using the regular menu. It's still good!) This is the main place in Murray Hill that's actually worth a trip (Phoenix Garden is the other.)

Les Halles, Park Ave. So. between 28th and 29th Streets. Discussed to death on this board, so just do a search. Essential for MH residents.

El Parador, E. 34th St between First and Second Aves. (This is really in Kips Bay, for those who care.) New York's oldest Mexican restaurant, which means it isn't really Mexican at all. So just put that real Mexican thing out of your head. (If you want real Mexican, go to East Harlem or the Bronx or Queens.) A dimly lit, cosy but deep space redolent of '50s Mexicana but classier... the vibe of a roadhouse joint from a California noir. Really long bar, booths, tables in back. Large smoking section (of course) for those who need it. The margaritas and tequila section are superb -- I always get Herradura Anejo with Cointreau. The dishes to get: mushroom quesadillas, shrimp quesadillas, the taco tray, pollo Parador (baked chicken, takes 30 minutes), barbacoa (baby-back ribs). Any meat dish. The various camarones entrees (vaguely Spanish) are not so good. You can dine really well here. Doesn't end up being cheap with good margaritas, but portions are huge and you can keep the price down if you want to.

Ali Baba, E. 34th St. between Second and Third Aves. Turkish joint that originally got a rave from Eric Asimov and has evolved from a pizza place to a sit-down restaurant. Not mindbending, but decent. The best dish by far is the lamajun, which must be eaten fresh, with chopped onions, coriander, lemon juice and ground sumac. (Tell them no tomatos). The various tzatzikis, baba ghanoush, tabouli etc. are all fine, just nothing special. Still decent, though not as good as when they opened. They deliver.

Daniel's Bagels, Third Ave. between 37th and 38th Streets. Real boiled chewy bagels. They actually refuse to toast them for you, a good sign. While the bagels are excellent, the fish, sadly, isn't. Some of the oilest nova I've ever had. The whitefish is not superb either. Avoid the sable at all costs. You'd be best off getting your bagels here and your fish at Sarge's.

Sarge's, Third Ave. between 36th and 37th Streets. Boy, is this place real. Unfortunately most of the food isn't. This is a real Jewish deli in decline. That said, they stock some good provisions -- though they're expensive. You won't go wrong with their salmon or their whitefish salad. Brisket and pastrami sandwiches are just fine versions using commercial-quality meat. No Katz's ephiphanies here, and it's all thin-sliced. However, you will get fatty pieces. The potato salad is not bad. Strange notes: full bar, and open 24 hours!

Villa Berulia, E. 34th St between Park and Lex. This is actually an Istrian restaurant (compare Piccola Venezia in Astoria), though like P.V. it gives the impression that it's an Italian place. Vast '70s interior, always crowded. Lots of plaster nooks and arches. Really an incredible interior. Great cosy bar set down a step in one of the nooks, always filled with local characters (this is rare in Murray Hill, where the younger population largely consists of UES-type "singles", stockbrokers and young guys doing their one- or two-year consulting stints in NYC)... here you'll find blue-haired ladies and older gents getting twisted at cocktail hour. The food? The king-size veal chop is the way to go. Similar to the veal porterhouse at P.V. but not as good. Avoid the pastas. You must order carefully here. Frankly, you'll be going here for the atmosphere and the drinking, not the food. Expensive, too. That said, the staff are incredibly nice, and the hostess once brought me fresh figs from her garden in Dalmatia that were mindblowing. The best figs I've ever had. The family has opened another restaurant on 33rd or 32nd St that I haven't tried yet.

Bienvenue, E. 36 St between Fifth and Madison. Little French bistro that's been around since the '70s I believe, run by an incredibly sweet pair of little old ladies. This is where the quieter old people go (or where the old people like to have their quiet time after a loud night at Villa Berulia). Straight-up Parisian bistro fare like rack of lamb or duck. Pates etc. Good, and very affordable, wine list. In general, this place is quite cheap. Small, cosy and quiet. Not mindblowing, but good. Unfortunately someone told them to try to put in "tall" frites and tall desserts sometime in the early-to-mid '90s, and they're still there in all their outdated glory. But really, that hardly affects the dining experience or the flavors.

Rossini's, E. 38 St. between Park and Lex. Tucked away in the ground floor rear of a spectacular art deco co-op called the Town House is this rather large Italian supper club dating from the 40s or so. Mobsters and politicians used to go here, and from the photos on the wall, it looked amazing. Unfortunately it was completely renovated in 1995 or so, and now looks drab and '90s, and somewhat deteriorated already since then. They have live music and dancing here on Fridays and Saturdays, but I only visited on a Sunday. The food was forgettable. However, the place is kind of amazing. You can't believe that it exists midblock on a quiet residential street. The bar in front is, sadly, depressing (TV blaring etc.), so it doesn't even work as a hangout. Still, I'll give it another try for the location and the story behind it.

That's it. There are other places that are supposed to be good but I haven't tried yet -- Artisanal obviously, and this place in the former Chemists Club on 40th St off Park. Pizza I have yet to report back on, but I will do this in a separate thread based on the recommendations from others below.

Could anyone chime in with additional Murray Hill thoughts, comments on the above, other recommendations, etc?


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