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A Look At My Favorite Unpretentious NYC Restaurants

The Ellington

New York City gets a bad rep for having some pretty pretentious restaurants. But the truth is, there is an array of delicious venues offering sophisticated settings with inviting atmospheres. Whether you’re looking for a great date spot, a memorable meal or a place to spend time with friends, the following NYC restaurants offer the aesthetics without the stuffiness.

The Ellington

For a truly unpretentious dining experience that also features delicious food, The Ellington offers a country kitchen–meets–shabby chic ambience and a menu of homemade dishes. The owners felt that the neighborhood had been waiting for a bar and kitchen that could offer a mix of American comfort food and European cuisine. Because owner Glenda Sansone’s family background is a mix of European and American, it was easy to meld the flavors of the two cultures.

Dishes are simple—a scotch egg served with chilled English mustard; a flatbread with homemade fig jam and fresh ricotta; cumberland sausage with mashed potatoes, onion gravy and braised red cabbage—and add to The Ellington’s cozy neighborhood hangout ambiance. It’s the type of place that isn’t trying to top the trends, but rather create a space that people return to based on flavorful feel-good meals, extremely friendly service and affordable menu items (entrees range from $9 to $21). And because they’re a neighborhood restaurant, they source locally when possible. For example, their English sausage, pork pies and scotch eggs are delivered every other day fresh from Myers of Keswick, a British grocery store in Manhattan.

Almayass

“When the hanging leaves dance to the rhythm of a delicate breeze”—that’s the essence of the Lebanese Arabic word Almayass. So it’s fitting that the restaurant offers authentic Lebanese dishes as well as meals influenced by the restaurant family’s Armenian heritage. The upscale yet laid-back setting will makes you feel like you’re in an Armenian home with lively colours and artwork by Armenian artists.

Credit: Almayass

Come hungry, as portions are generous and their menu is extensive, featuring salads, kebabs, hot appetizers, cold appetizers, grilled seafood, marinated meats and much more. We recommend sampling one of their traditional Lebanese dishes, like the fattoush salad made with tomato, fresh mint, purslane, cucumber, radish, sumac, parsley, fresh lemon and olive oil dressing with fried pita bread; kebbe naye, a spiced fresh tartar meat with crushed wheat; or a chicken kebab served with fresh garlic paste. And no meal at Almayass would be complete without sampling one of their many delectable hummus varieties, containing added ingredients like Spanish pine nuts, diced filet mignon and Armenian beef sausage. While they have an extensive wine list with varietals from all over the globe, we recommend opting for a bottle from Lebanon to really get a taste of the culture (they have over 20 Lebanon vintages!).

Sotto 13

Located on a quiet street with a residential feel, Sotto 13 is a warm and sophisticated space serving up Italian-style tapas, wood-fired pizzas, Italian wines, craft cocktails and delectable dishes with surprising flavor combinations. As soon as you walk in, you’ll be warmly greeted by your host, with management and staff taking good care of you throughout your dining experience. It’s the type of place where you become friendly with your servers and feel like family by the time you leave.

Credit: Sotto 13

Some top menu choices include crispy wild mushroom pizza with three cheeses and truffle oil; grilled octopus served on top of fingerling potatoes with a side of pesto sauce; wood-fired oven meatballs with creamy ricotta; and a selection of decadent dessert pizzas. The space is filled with modern artwork, a pristine marble bar, plush banquettes, a skylight that floods in light during the day, candlelit tables at night and a menu filled with satisfying dishes that are also affordable (everything on the menu is under $20). They also serve a budget-friendly brunch on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., where for $29 you can enjoy two tapas and one side dish, or your choice of wood-fired pizza with unlimited brunch cocktails. For some fun, opt for their Do-It-Yourself Prosecco Bar, where you can make your own Prosecco cocktails using fresh juices, liqueurs and add-ons like fresh fruit and candied ginger. On Wednesdays, don’t miss their happy hour from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. for half-price drinks and free tapas.

Junoon

For a bit of spice in your meal, Junoon is a contemporary Michelin Star modern Indian restaurant offering impeccable service, fresh seasonal dishes, great deals, and an impressive selection of over 750 wines, and an introduction to pairing wines with aromatic spices. The menu features traditional Indian dishes that showcase the diverse cooking styles and ingredients throughout the country— flatbreads, the generous use of dairy and central Asian influences from the north; spicy vegetarian dishes heavy on coconut and curry and rice from the south; and fresh seafood from the coastal cities—all with global touches. For example, their fluke tadka, a dish of raw fluke topped with mustard seed and curry leaf, sauteed in green chili oil, features a Japanese influence, while the saag paneer is a poached paneer gnocchi with spiced spinach puree and Omani lemon crisp, is inspired by French cooking.

Credit: Junoon

Junoon is passionate about sustainability so you can expect organic and ethically-sourced ingredients in your meal. While Junoon may be an upmarket establishment, its main objective isn’t to make patrons feel like they’re dining in the hippest restaurant in NYC, but to introduce them to classic Indian hospitality, spices, dishes and innovative ways to present and pair. Don’t leave without exploring the Spice Room, where you can view the exotic herbs and spices they craft into special blends. Tip: Those on a budget should visit during lunch, when for $25 you can enjoy an appetizer, main course and non-alcoholic beverage.

Victor’s Cafe

New York’s oldest Cuban restaurant opened in 1963, and since then, the family-owned and -operated Victor’s Cafe has been a place where patrons go to hangout (one regular has been there everyday for 11 years), locals go to experience the flavours of Cuba, and tourists can experience an NYC tradition frequented by celebrities like Barbara Walters, Liza Minelli and Pitbull. Despite the big names, you don’t need to be on the “A List” to be treated like family, as the Del Corral-Zaldivars are passionate about making everyone feel at home—Victor’s granddaughter Monica manages the restaurant with the help of her mom, Sonia. Over the years, traditional family recipes have been revamped to be healthier and also reflect what Cuban food may have been if the country had evolved with the times, with an emphasis on staple ingredients enhanced by herbs and spices.

Credit: Victor's Cafe

Some must-try traditional dishes on the menu include ropa vieja, a slow-braised and pulled skirt steak in garlic, tomato, onion and pepper sauce; camarones encillados, pink shrimp, creole sauce, boniato mash and boniato crisps; and lechon asado, a Cuban-style roast suckling pig. Pair your meal with a “Victor’s Signature Mojito,” crafted with fresh lime, sugar cane, simple syrup and Atlantico rum for an upmarket twist on the classic Bacardi. For a traditional ending with a Victor’s spin, the “Vitico” takes a customary Cuban after-dinner espresso shot and adds Voli Espresso Vanilla Vodka and blue agave. And because the establishment has three different dining rooms, you can choose to kick back in a Moroccan-inspired lounge, a bright Havana-style lounge with colorful murals and large tropical waving fans; or a private art deco room with a mural of Santiago de Cuba commissioned by Victor.

This article originally appeared on Travel + Escape

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2 Comments

  1. Tasha Co on March 14, 2016 at 6:54 am

    I’m from the Philippines, and most likely I will choose to dine at Victor’s Cafe, since it is serving Cuban cuisine, which is a bit similar to Filipino delicacies.

    • Jessie Festa on March 17, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      @Tasha Co: It’s delicious and I highly recommend it!

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