American Museum of Natural History and Kefi
The Upper West Side is where mediocre restaurants go to thrive. Searching for a better-than-average restaurant in this neighborhood is about as hard as digging for triceratops fossils. Luckily, the Greeks have provided an antidote by way of Kefi. If you aren’t up for dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets at the museum cafeteria (do they still have those?), just walk a few blocks over on Columbus Avenue to Kefi. The bi-level restaurant, with walls covered in blue and white dishes, is cavernous and somehow always full. Definitely make a reservation and definitely get anything with fish on the menu. Simple, fresh, and delicious, this restaurant does brisk business with casual yet classy Greek dishes that are mostly familiar but not tired. Downstairs is more grotto and less Aegean seaside, but equally pleasant.
New Museum and Ukrainian East Village Restaurant
After you’ve had your mind blown by multimedia installation art at the New Museum, bring yourself back down to earth by heading uptown a few blocks to the Ukrainian East Village Restaurant, also known as the Ukrainian place next to Veselka. The restaurant doesn’t take pains with signage. In fact, you’ve probably walked past many times without noticing it. As you venture down the fluorescent-lit hallway, an interior window reveals diners happily munching on pierogi far superior to anything you’ll find down the block. Stick to the basics and you’ll be satisfied. Going any deeper into the menu gets you farther from Kiev and closer to Athens (Greek salad) and Budapest (Letcho, a Hungarian pepper stew) and farther from flavor. The wood-paneled room showcases traditional folk costumes and ceramics, transporting you to Eastern Europe, or at least to a time when the East Village was home to its immigrants. Get the Ukrainian Combination Platter and then roll yourself to the dance hall adjacent to the restaurant for some folk dancing with the grandmas and the hipsters.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Sfoglia
With two million square feet of art from across the world and spanning thousands of years of human civilization, The Met is undoubtedly one of the greatest museums there is. Traversing the cavernous museum can be mesmerizing, overwhelming, and, after a while, hunger-inducing. Without thoughtful planning you may find yourself teetering on the edge of desperation: the museum cafeteria. But a few avenues east lies Sfoglia, a respite from overpriced cafeteria food and the mediocre bistros of the Upper East Side. At Sfoglia, the Italian Renaissance-influenced menu will leave you wondering why those aristocratic ladies in the European gallery looked so glum. Elegant but blessedly casual, a Sfoglia lunch offers a few prime choices from a thoughtful menu that Frank Bruni assures “hits a sweet spot between simplicity and sophistication.”
The Whitney Museum of American Art and Viand
New York is a cosmopolitan city with almost as many different museums as there are nationalities represented. But we also do American pretty well. The Whitney Museum of American Art holds some of the best American art, past and present. The museum will be moving to its sleek new downtown home in 2015, but until then, museum-goers must roam aimlessly past Barney’s and Carolina Herrera in search of a decent meal. Enter: Viand. Offering an American meal in a New York diner setting, Viand looks like an untouched relic of 1976 (the year it opened). You’ll find the typical diner offerings here, from omelets and salads to burgers and egg creams. But it’s what The New York Times called the “legendary fresh turkey sandwich that is moist and delicious” that’ll lure you past the couture and back to Viand.
The Museum of Modern Art and Danji
After some world-class art viewing at the Museum of Modern Art, head west to Danji for an equally modern take on Korean food. Tiny and classy, Danji goes well beyond kimchee and bibimbap, though it does those exceptionally well, too. Like the MoMA, Danji knows that you’ll want some traditional options with your avant garde, so the small plates menu gives you lots of room to wander and sample between modern takes and more recognizable touches. The crowds can be as dense as free Friday nights at the MoMA, so come early. The mixtures of garlic, honey, spicy daikon, and buttery braised pork are bold and loud enough to distract your eardrums from the general din of the packed restaurant. Just chew and enjoy while nodding occasionally to your dining companion’s distant voice.
Neue Galerie and Café Sabarsky
The Neue Galerie’s Fifth Avenue mansion instantly transports you to Secessionist Vienna with its grand staircase, gilded moldings, and subversive art by Klimt, Schiele, and the lot. Most conveniently, the museum houses not one but two Viennese-style cafés with lunch menus that won’t cost as much as the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. At Café Sabarsky, waiters whisk through the wood-paneled dining room with elegant plates of bratwurst and creamed spätzle. If bratwurst and elegant are not two things that belong together in your mind, you already have a sense of the refinement that is sometimes out of joint with the cafe’s simple and hearty Austrian cuisine. Nevertheless, by the end of the meal you will surely heed the calls of at least one of several alluring cakes that are innocently displayed along the side wall. Like the museum, the cafe guarantees a highly civilized and transporting Viennese experience that is about as close to the real thing as you can get.
The Frick Collection and 2nd Avenue Deli
The Frick Collection is one of the best private collection museums out there, made only more remarkable by the fact that it is housed in Henry Clay Frick’s opulent mansion, which enables us mere mortals to traipse through his home. Frick was one of the most notorious robber barons of his day, so it seems appropriate to follow a visit to his home by paying homage to the cuisine of some of those he robbed. The 2nd Avenue Deli has a new outpost, no longer on Second Avenue, but on First Avenue and 75th Street. It offers the same old standards we loved in the East Village, though in a smaller space and minus the grumpy waiters. A triple-decker brisket sandwich with a side of nostalgia, please. Life is good.
The Guggenheim Museum and Earl’s Beer and Cheese
For over 40 years, The Guggenheim Museum has been at the center of innovative and art and design. However its culinary isolation on upper Fifth Avenue has been a source of irritation for patrons for just as long. But no longer. The “cheesebeerocolypse” has arrived! And it is scary good. Earl’s Beer and Cheese is an unlikely restaurant in an unlikely location along a drab block on Park Avenue, just across the invisible Spanish Harlem border. Perhaps not quite as polarizing at Frank Lloyd Wright’s museum design, Earl’s does push the limits of flavor pairings with Momofuko flair (chef Corey Cova is an alum of Ssäm Bar). The tiny place is more bar than restaurant, but cheese definitely shares the spotlight with beer. The grilled cheese options alone sound like the creations of a well-traveled eight-year old: cheddar with pork belly, kimchi, and fried egg on sourdough, or mozzarella with miso mayo on an English muffin. New York Magazine assures us that this eccentric lactose extravaganza “sounds horribly wrong, but tastes incredibly right.”
The Brooklyn Museum and 606 R&D
Brooklyn’s flagship museum holds the city’s second largest art collection, with over 1.5 million works, including an impressive array of Egyptian antiquities and modern American masters. The museum is eclectic and casual, yet stylish. In other words, very Brooklyn. There is no shortage of good restaurants in the surrounding area. So many keep arriving in fact, that it’s hard to choose between them. 606 R&D stands out among the slew. Opened barely one year ago, it has made many end-of-year lists, and for good reason. The cozy restaurant blends Jewish staples (chopped liver) with local seasonal ones (wild Long Island mussels). The result is simple, bright, and delicious (tender rainbow trout with orange and fennel slices). It’s neighborhoody and intimate, quaint but not cloying. In other words, very Brooklyn.
MoMA PS1 and LIC Market
MoMA’s exhibition outpost in Queens brings high-profile experimental contemporary art out to Long Island City. With concerts, artist talks, and unique installations, PS1 is a tight little microcosm of innovation in this largely barren neighborhood. LIC’s gradual gentrification has finally yielded some genuine culinary bright spots, though, including the general store/restaurant LIC Market. In front are the jars of homemade jams, pickles, and salsa; in back is the casual dining room with distressed communal tables and weathered walls. True to its name, the restaurant’s American seasonal menu has an understated, market-to-home table vibe. The “high quality and low pretense” menu, with items like gooey grilled cheese with apples and endive, slow-cooked pork, and braised green lentils, makes LIC Market the kind of neighborhood restaurant that New York Magazine says “banishes lunch and dinnertime doldrums.” Bonus: isn’t it refreshing to see mason jars outside of Brooklyn?