Part Four Best Wine List Veritas 43 ...

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Part Four

Best Wine List
43 E. 20th St. (betw. Park Ave. S. & B'way)
Who Woulda Thunk? This was a fairly easy choice, given that you'll probably find 80 to 90 percent of most other restaurants' wine lists among the selections at Veritas. The list reads like a phone book?indeed, some of the prices look like phone numbers?with more than 1300 different bottles and a staff of four to administer it. Oenophiles can browse the selections online , while lay boozers will find a wealth of options in the $30 range off the restaurant's separate Market List.

Best Cut-Rate Japanese Noodles
229 E. 9th St. (betw. 2nd & 3rd Aves.)
Slipped the Noodle. For soba aficionados, there's only one restaurant worth mentioning when it comes to the incomparably buttery, springy and nutty buckwheat noodle: Honmura An. But for those disinclined to spring for $20 noodles in Soho, Soba-ya offers an admirable alternative, with handmade noodles and a range of hot and cold broths (some featuring that bizarre, flavorless ingredient known as yam paste). On winter evenings, you might also gather round a warm bowl of nabeyaki udon, packed with submerged attractions ranging from scallions and shiitake to fish cake and shrimp tempura and wonderfully fat noodles. Most of the noodle dishes ring in at around 10 bucks?which, combined with the fact that you'll have your face planted in a bowl of noodles, compensates for a general lack of atmosphere.

Best East Village Dinner for $8.66
Mama's Food Shop
200 E. 3rd St. (betw. Aves. A & B)
Steamshovel Mama. What's good to eat? Oh, most anything you happen to select off the counter at the fine Mama's Food Shop, the cafeteria-style home cooking joint that, with its next-door sister establishment Mama's Milk and Stepmama across the street, has redeemed a ratty and nondescript Alphabet City block. Indeed, it's rendered its Ave. B corner a sort of culinary destination.

Well, all right. A culinary destination for us, at least. Here's what we like to do on a Friday evening when we get out of work late, we've got nothing planned and Goal #1 is to stop feeling so end-of-the-week punk: mosey into Mama's and spend a minute scanning the selection of Southern food that exists in huge bowls behind glass in the establishment's clean industrial kitchen.

Sterno bins of roast and fried chicken are a given. There's also, typically, grilled salmon, garlicky string beans, pillowy mashed potatoes, roasted red potatoes, butternut squash and Brussels sprouts?not to mention whatever else the often fetchingly kerchiefed young women who staff the joint will have prepared.

Then we order?specifying that the gal serve us in a takeout tray instead of on a plate, and examining with interest the process by which she loads us up: First, several slices of the roast chicken, followed immediately by the imposition of mashed spuds. Then the green beans...and we're slackjawed with amazement as the chick keeps loading it on. More potatoes to fill in around the edges, then another chicken leg that jams its way against the odds, into the fragrant, wonderfully grease-sweating center of the dish and then?Can she pull it off? Is the girl a prodigy? Well, the fact is that she's using a domed plastic dish-cover, but still: This plate is packed.

Then out to one of the benches that fronts the restaurant, there to audit the chirping of hipsters and observe their plumage as they pass. (The tables inside Mama's are comfortable, but they're usually crowded with strangers, and on these sorts of nights, when we're trying to decompress, we'd rather be alone.) There, also, to open our tray and spend the next 25 minutes or so consuming our wealth of protein, starch and vegetative matter, which of course has mashed itself into one glorious mess.

Finally over to 288 for a solitary beer to help break the food down and we're blissfully in bed a half hour later, with the weekend ahead of us and ballasted for deep sleep by Mama's good stuff.

By the way, did we mention that that huge meal costs exactly $8.66?

Best Pit Stop En Route to New York City from Cape Cod
Bill's Seafood Restaurant
U.S. 1, Westbrook, CT
Prolonging the Inevitable. Returning from a Cape Cod jaunt recently, we were overcome by the wash of Sunday-night blues that had begun near Warwick and had been intensifying with every mile we put behind us on 95 south. In hopes of prolonging our vacation just a little bit more and in search of one last fried-fish meal, we exited at Mystic, onto the old highway that parallels the interstate.

Our standards were high, since we'd just dined on scrod at the Lobster Pot in Provincetown, and had indulged in excellent Clam Shack fare at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theatre, which we'd visited for a double bill. Still, we weren't disappointed when we stumbled upon Bill's Seafood. "Oh, honey!" we warbled to our boyfriend when we spied the tables, graced with umbrellas, that cheerfully litter the deck?"Outside dining right on the highway." The food, which is served on plastic plates, is cheap and simple: steamers, stuffed clams and fried food until you can't stand the glory of it anymore; popcorn shrimp, oysters, scallops, flounder, beer-batter scrod and something called a "Fish Twist Plate."

What sets Bill's apart, however, is its intriguing "Singing Bridge," which is really nothing more than a narrow span across the bit of gray Atlantic water over which the restaurant, located at a marina, sits?and from which mallards squawk insistently throughout your meal, jonesing for hotdog bun scraps off your clam roll. The bridge bears those metal grates that hum and squeal when a car passes over them; order another beer and close your eyes (thus shutting out the sight of the high-hairs in Chic jeans who drink at the tiki-type bar in the corner and flirt with potbellied lugs in hockey shirts and freshly buzzed schlongs), and you just may find yourself appreciating the weird serenade generated by the interaction of steel-belted rubber and this iron feat of engineering.

Best Place to Drink Pabst Blue Ribbon
The Village Idiot
355 W. 14th St. (betw. 8th & 9th Aves.)
The Greedy Maw of Yertle. "Let's go feed the boys," my friend remarked. It was our last night in the city for a while; we were headed for a trip down South, and looking for a place to ease our transition. Thus this "redneck" dive, with a jukebox full of country songs every whitey should know the words to.

As we stumbled into the bar, the doorguy greeted our friend?he's a regular?and we noticed the bartenders were both women. One had the top button to her Levi's unbuttoned; the other had her shirt tied in a knot to expose her belly. Luckily we'd already had a few drinks in us, or the smell of puke would've been overwhelming.

Pabst Blue Ribbon's been our favorite cheap beer for as long as we can remember. The fact that it's now fashionable among arts-faculty pseuds bothers us not a whit. And the Village Idiot is the place to drink it: a mere $1.75 a can, which means you can drink the stuff all night without putting a dent in your wallet?show up on the right night, and you might even get a couple free belts of something hard from the sweet, scantily dressed shot girl who walks around laying the drink on you. You don't even necessarily have to get off your ass to get drunk, and ain't that America?

Finally the time arrived to feed the boys. We bought four goldfish ($1) from the bartender, then headed over to the tank to give them to the turtles. It's funny and it's real, but it's not real funny. Unless you're drunk?and then it's really fucking funny. Oh, the Idiot. It's great to visit, if only once or twice a year, but it's the kind of place where you want to end up, not start off.

Best Upper West Side Bar
The Abbey Pub
237 W. 105th St. (betw. B'way & Amsterdam Ave.)
Local One-Oh-Five. Oh, nonsense?this apparently ineradicable idea that the Dublin House is the Upper West Side's best bar. And in fact, it's not only the Dublin House that the frat brothers and morons discuss so affirmatively when it comes to evaluating Upper West Side bars: it's also other area Irish dumps, like Malachy's. That West 70s colony of grimy, generic beerhalls aswim in cheap beer, the stench of ancient Chesterfields and blowzy dames singing along with the Eddie Money on the box.

Not that the Abbey Pub, which is located in that liminal, still-grimy neighborhood north of 96th St. and south of a radically gentrifying Morningside Heights, is an establishment of refinement. But it is warm, clean and comfortable: a dark wood hutch down a flight of stairs, in which neighborhood regulars drink a good selection of beers and consume adequate bar food in an ambience that never gets overwhelmed by throbbing music or poisoned by the manful posturing of corporate guys in rugby togs. Shaggy intellectuals lugging books, middle-aged neighborhood women looking for a respectful berth, quiet old Dominican men, the occasional respectful Columbia undergraduate?they all take their gentle place in this wonderful and unassuming bar.

Best, Maybe Only, Restaurant to Go To in Newport, RI
Scales & Shells
527 Thames St. (Goodwin St.), Newport, RI


Not Fishy. You'd think in an affluent sea town like Newport there'd be an array of good fish restaurants. But while there are a number of serviceable clam-belly fryers and cod broilers, only Scales & Shells produces that sense of swoop and clarity that fine shoreline fish cooking ideally demands. Scales has superb cherrystones and oysters, a marinated and wood-grilled toro tuna to swim across the bay for and a host of tangy and quite intrepid dishes, all in a boisterous environment. Downstairs is wait-in-line, though two years ago Ackerman the owner finally installed air conditioning so summer tourists can drink at the bar comfortably. Upscales, upstairs, takes reservations and is correspondingly more sedate. Interesting wines up and down.

Best Flatiron Sports Bar
244 3rd Ave. (20th St.)
Three-Point Shot and a Beer. We can't even express how happy we were, last winter, to replace sleazy No Idea with Barfly as our preferred place to enjoy big-screen spectatorship in the E. 20s. Not that Barfly is a particularly classy place, but its bartenders treat regulars well (sure, some of 'em look like they've been regulars since the first Nixon administration?hence the bar's name) and the place boasts the sort of grownup, beer-and-a-shot atmosphere that keeps the neighborhood's odious herds of cosmo-swilling young Wall Streeters away. We grew to love Barfly's classic-rock jukebox?with its one broken speaker (offers a whole new take on all those Hendrix and Led Zep standbys)?as well as its reliably cafeteria-fresh curly fries. We're proud to say we were at Barfly the afternoon last spring when Allan Houston's buzzer-shot bounced in and the Knicks vanquished Miami, again?a moment we'll remember for a long time to come. We'll be there again next year, in hopes of witnessing our team claim for New York the first NBA championship of the third millennium.

Best Segue
Michael Garin, Monkey Bar
60 E. 54th St. (betw. Madison & Park Aves.)
Just a Man in a Monkey Suit. We were extremely fond of the old Monkey Bar. It was dark and padded and fusty and genteely down-at-the-heels in a way we think all great piano bars should be. You felt like you should be wearing your granddad's tails when you drank there. The crusty waiters were all about 100 years old and indeterminately Middle European and they creaked around like funny insects. And how could you not love those murals, all those Roaring 20s monkeys with their bananas and tuxedoes, even as they were beginning to disappear behind a tobacco-brown patina from half a century or more of cigarette and cigar smoke? It was one of Manhattan's dusky jewels, one of those Jazz Age treasures miraculously locked away in the heart of midtown, and we were terrified when it was closed down for renovations. Then it remained closed for what seemed like half a decade and we just got sad whenever we remembered to think about it. We were sure, the way you always are in these cases, that if and when it reopened the new Monkey Bar would be some hideously moderne and vulgar disaster of a Eurotrash flytrap.

But when it did reopen a few years ago we had to admit, very grudgingly, that it really wasn't so awful a rehab job after all. Yeah, the new chrome furnishings and the motif of all-tall-blonde-waitresses-in-short-black-dresses scream of that bizarre mid-90s interior design tendency to recapitulate the "Addicted To Love" video (where was that look hip by the mid-90s? Helsinki? Dublin? Seoul?). We've never eaten in the back room and are, perhaps irrationally, suspicious of reports about how good the food is. Then again they saved the murals, the clientele turns out most nights we've been there to be a comfortable mix of city mice, b&ters and tourists on their best behavior, and the atmosphere is a lot more leisurely and congenial than you'd have any right to expect.

And there's Michael Garin, perhaps Manhattan's ultimate piano bar piano man. It was George Tabb and his lawyer pal Andrew Krents, surprisingly, who first tipped us to Garin last year. Self-proclaimed the Monkey Bar's resident alpha male and dripping with the chicks to prove it (Oh, why didn't Mom make us take piano lessons?), Garin's a small, elegant guy with velvety pipes, flowing chops and a leering wink behind every song. His sets ingeniously blend every era, phase and fashion of classic piano bar tunes like "Satin Doll" and "Fly Me to the Moon," et al., but he mixes in tango chestnuts like "Volver," goofy Beatles medleys and a few inspired oddball choices like "King of the Road." (He'll sell you his 1998 CD, The Song of the Alpha Male, with selected highlights of his act.) Our favorite part in his nightly routine is a drop-dead funny segue. He marches all the way through a straightfaced rendition of Piaf's "Non, je ne regrette rien," an uncanny choice in itself, then leaps abruptly and preposterously into "Blueberry Hill." It's an hilariously jarring segue, like Fats Domino is answering back and trying to cheer Piaf up, and yet so right somehow that we laugh every time we hear it.

Too bad in a way that he's doing it in a bar, where so few people are truly listening. This October he remedies that with a monthlong residency at the Duplex, where performers of his wit and elegance are appreciated.

Best Oyster Po'Boy
La Gould Finch
93 Ave. B (6th St.)
What Can a Po'boy Do? Best oyster po'boy in New York? Stupid category, you're thinking. As if it's an issue in this infernal city of granite where no one ever bothers frying their oysters anyway, much less?under any circumstances?adulterating the beasts' molluscoid dignity by insinuating them between two pieces of mayo-shmeared roll and swaddling them in bushels of chopped lettuce and thin-sliced, watery tomato. Oysters are valuable commodities here in New York, a city the once-great oyster beds of which have long since been either polluted or decimated; and fried oyster po'boys are more naturally culinary staples in waterlogged Southern cities like New Orleans or Mobile in which oysters are almost literally a dime a dozen.

And yet the proprietors at La Gould Finch, the superlative Cajun restaurant that opened this year in the East Village, don't seem to care about any of that, and produce an oyster po'boy that rivals any of the specimens that you'll find along the Gulf Coast. Not because they've tarted or foodied the thing up, either. No. It's a homely entity, this La Gould Finch po'boy, and that's as it should be: a baguette-like roll that's appropriately both crispy and chewy and that's slathered with mayonnaise and ketchup?and also a bit soggy with terrifically flavorful grease from the handful of perfectly fried oysters, which recline smugly on the bread in all of their fat and tender glory, padded with strips of iceberg lettuce and tomato slices. It works, is about the finest praise we can give this sandwich: loosens the muscles in our neck just like the thick, hot New Orleans air does when we visit down there, and makes us want to kick back and...hell, we don't know, go catfishing all day or something. New York's Delta-style late summer and early autumn produce a lot of beer-drinking weather. This po'boy's the perfect beer-drinking food, all year long.

Best Elegant Restaurant Bar
60 E. 65th St. (betw. Madison & Park Aves.)
A Pint of the Usual. Sure, the crappy-looking $10 million main dining room blows. But the designers of the new Daniel certainly did do a hell of a job with the bar. Whether you're trysting, breaking up, closing the deal, pretending you're European or just getting expensively wasted, the bar at Daniel features row upon row of top-shelf liquor towering toward the sky, and manipulated by exceptionally skilled bartenders. Steps up in the lounge area, you can slouch in Etruscan-inspired "klismos" chairs and ottomans while stuffing yourself from one of the city's great bar menus (most of the Daniel tasting menu is available a la carte at the bar).

Best Roast Chicken
Coco Roco
392 5th Ave. (betw. 6th & 7th Sts.), Brooklyn
But Not, Perhaps, on Sunday. And boy, do we mean that literally. It was a Sunday evening on which we visited Coco Roco last?and Christ, but if the place wasn't limping. We'd humped out from brownstone Brooklyn and down Park Slope's mingy 5th Ave. corridor for this? An exercise in culinary negation, it was; of crossing out categories like some elementary logician, as the Peruvian fellow with the ponytail and the sparse beard rimming his aquiline face leaned over us with a big smile, fingering our menu with something that was less indicative of friendly waiterly solicitousness than of the aw, to hell with it ecstasy of a celebrant dancing at the edge of a void. And so the tally at the limping end of the week: no fried squid with jalapeno mayo and yucca (out of squid); no Argentine sirloin steak with scallion chimichurri, french fries and grilled peppers (out of beef); no ceviches at all (out of fish); no roast chick?

"WHA??" we screamed at that point, rocketing from our chair to seize the rascal by the throat. Gained purchase against the restaurant's floor; felt for his carotid as the shocked faces of mild, dining burghers bloomed around us?restaurant violence! Alert Tim Zagat! And that eerie disaster-time silence busted only by the thwack thwack thwack thwack of the young fellow's head impacting hardwood...we had him by the scruff of the neck...well, we'd subdued him, all right. "WHERE'S THE ROAST POLLO, YOU LIMA SLUM BASTARD! POLLO! POLLO! CHICKIE! YOU SAVVY, EH?" Thwap thwap thwap?and the sound of alarms as the silverware slid from the table and into the void... Boosted the cash register and beat it down 6th St... Lost ourselves around the Gowanus as the sirens ripped the Brooklyn dark...

Most nights, though, you'll get the roast chicken you came for, here at this excellent Peruvian restaurant in Park Slope, a neighborhood that, against all odds, has in the last year managed to transmogrify itself?with the addition of al di la, Sweet Mama's, a second Olive Vine location and especially this place?into a viable restaurant neighborhood, thus defying its own image as a square, dreary, fat-ankled, sanctimonious, hideously "family-friendly" and above all concerned eastern colony of the Upper West Side. What can we say about roast chicken other than that the Peruvians do it best?The Upper East Side's El Pollo is another great roast chicken locale?and that the good people at Coco Roco do it better than any other Peruvians on the planet? The whole familiar roast-bird nine yards: the perfect meat, the wonderfully seasoned crispy/chewy skin?and so on and so on. Ordering a bottle of malbec?that thick, peppery Argentine red that's as cozy with roast bird as beer is with bratwurst?is absolutely required, as is starting off with one of the establishment's superlative ceviches. A whole chicken costs eight bucks?$11.95 if accompanied by steamed vegetables, $9.95 if by a baked or sweet potato. You can also order a half-chicken, of course. And the restaurant's roast chicken sandwich?nothing but shredded birdmeat on a long roll with chopped iceberg lettuce and tomatoes?is the model of simple quality.

Best Brooklyn Bartender Who Happens to Look Just Like Jean-Pierre Leaud
Bart at O'Connor's
39 5th Ave. (betw. Dean & Bergen Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-783-9721
Au Bart. Lots of people praise O'Connor's, the Brooklyn dive. But no celebrant's yet analyzed the bar's arguably most noteworthy attraction: young Bartender Bart, who, much like Antoine Doinel?France's doomed answer to Holden Caulfield, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud in the Truffaut films?probably doesn't grasp the full magnitude of his appeal. And sadly, this best-of?much like the 20-minute short Antoine et Colette?will merely scratch its surface.

A good bedside manner still counts with some of us, Bart. In fact, we've started timing our visits to coincide with Bart's work schedule in an effort to avoid one of the establishment's less savory bar hands. Dig, for example, Mr. I-Was-Punk-Rock-When-Punk-Rock-Was-Real, Maaaaan serving up suds and gruesome vibes some nights when the stars aren't aligned right and Bart's making himself scarce. "But what are you now?" we wonder, rolling our eyes as we sip bourbon from a cup.

Anyway, follow our lead and tip Bart heavily, since he represents an endangered species: a likable presence at a bar that tends to get patronized by an unpleasant element. As Bart himself puts it every now and then?he's witty, too, you see?"Everybody's happy!"

Best Pot Roast
One and One
76 E. 1st St. (1st Ave.)
McHip Ain't In It. We'll intensify what was expressed by another member of our awards committee elsewhere in these pages: Gourmet Irish is arguably the most worthless culinary trend to wend its way down the societal turnpike since the arrival in the public consciousness of that fat, greasy fuck Emeril Lagasse. Any unemployed CIA graduates out there feel like tarting up a stuffed bladder for white-tablecloth consumption? Interested in whipping up a fusion stuffed bladder? We'll pay you, brother; we'll give you good money. Then we'll take a peek at it, pass our big nose over its airspace and heave the wretched thing in the trash. Gourmet Irish, our ass.

What's worse than Gourmet Irish, though (as long as you asked) is Hip Irish. Which is, broadly speaking, what you get when a young Irish guy?a respectable thing to be?loses his mind and starts participating in the pan-European youth culture that, for a moment back there in 1996, appeared as if it might take over the world, and that persists every time some male Irish salesboy folding shirts at Canal Jeans mouths ecstatically along with every word of the Echo & the Bunnymen song that comes over the store sound system. The thought of pan-European youth culture?raves, sideburns, those yellow sunglasses everyone was wearing back in 1996 (bad, bad year to be alive, 1996, was), Verve Pipe records, Parisian turntable-scratchers and, generally, a musical culture that takes as its fundamental texts records by Everything But the Girl, the Housemartins, Serge Gainsbourg and those hairdressers the Clash?as we say, the thought of these things makes us want to throw up. Hip Irish makes us despise the inhabitants of the ole sod as much as Benjamin Disraeli did. Animals.

Damned but if we didn't think that One and One was going to be one of the capitals of Hip Irish when it opened this past winter. First there was its East Village location, which made us...wary...since even the East Village's other "serious" Irish joint, St. Dymphna's, no matter that it's wonderfully fun and friendly, can't really shake its worrisomely Hip Irish clientele.

Then there was the decor. Crimson walls; a forbidding, lacquered black floor of the sort we imagined French homosexuals would want to get down on their Prada-ed knees to snort cocaine off of; little tables it's impossible to properly eat food from... No. We had reason to be suspicious.

But we were wrong. Which we realized almost as soon as we walked into the place to eat at the bar, not long after it had opened. The bar was patronized almost exclusively by sullen, unfashionable late-middle-aged men, who did a little bit of talking amongst themselves, but mostly just sat with their gray heads in their hands and drank beer, just as if they were the morning crew at Jackie's Fifth Amendment out in Brooklyn, and not in a Hip Irish bar at all. Okay! But that's the trouble with virulent prejudice, isn't it? You tend to jump to ugly conclusions.

One and One's pot roast, by the way, is superlative. A couple chunks of tender beef, succulent with just the right amount of fat, flaking away into a sauce that's reddish-brown like bourbon and that betrays hints of Worcestershire, dark sugar, porter and God knows what else. Your meat's accompanied by "champ": that is, potatoes roughly mashed through with parsley and enough horseradish to blast a hole through the dome of your skull. A hunk of parsnip; a cone of carrot; and if you're anything like other human beings, you're washing it down with Guinness. It's not hip, it's not even exclusively Irish and in fact it's not on the menu at the moment, One and One's management having apparently decided to shoot themselves in the foot and excise it. But it sure is one hell of a dish, and we hope they get their acts together and serve it again in time for winter, when it will be a true balm for the soul to eat it.

Best Spaghetti & Meatballs
Le Zie Trattoria
172 7th Ave. (betw. 20th & 21st Sts.)
Grand Alimentary Canal. Le Zie is an expertly managed provider of delicious Venetian dishes. Spaghetti & meatballs is presented with the pasta in an artfully coiffed array, rather like a design, and the meatballs are pungent and precise. There is an ambient sauce with rich tomato reality and a platform of red pepper. The combination is hauntingly tasty and memorable. If you'd had it in Venice, you'd tell your friends when you got home.

Best Chelsea Restaurant We Wish Was a Little Less Popular
Rocking Horse Cafe Mexicano
182 8th Ave. (betw. 19th & 20th Sts.)
Get Your Tamale Out of My Ear. If you're expecting the impending eastvillagification of Chelsea to flood the hood with chino-wearing coeds who'll calm the place down, take a walk around on a Friday or Saturday night: It's still looking like a forbidden zone in a Samuel R. Delany novel. Comes the weekend, the oddities swarm the streets in full force and full drag. Body-modified gayliens, boy-scouting hustler kids, rollerblading trisexuals, rawhide cowboys, horrifically pumped steroidites in spandex short-shorts and muscle shirts strolling three-by-three down the whole sidewalk, where the damaged and the derelicts hang around the edges like trash waiting to be picked up, cadging smokes and muttering darkly at the cranky lesbions who glower like drill sergeants at the guys who look like Tank Girl. It's going to take several fleets of condoing coeds to calm this scene down.

Rocking Horse Cafe is still one of our favorite restaurants in the hood, but the love affair has been strained this year. The place is both a beneficiary and a victim of Chelsea's unabated party spirit. A beneficiary because the narrow space seems to be packed solid every time we go now, which certainly wasn't the case a few years ago, so bully for them. A victim because the narrow space seems to be packed solid every time we go now, and they still haven't figured out how to deal with that in a polite or efficient way. The problems began when they installed that huge bar a few years ago. It dominates the room, so that except at a few tables in the front or the back, diners often have drinkers' asses in their faces. Personally we could do without some gym rat's buttcheeks in our guacamole. The bar is simply too big for the space. We know it's good for the bottom line, but it's been a disaster for the atmosphere.

The bar generates a level of hubbub at peak hours that's risen to such a din your waiter inevitably mishears half your order. Chaos doesn't reign, but it hovers menacingly over the whole operation. The tables have always been crammed too close together anyway, but now the uproar and scurrying makes the place feel even more cramped. The no-reservations policy means lots of hungry, increasingly cranky people standing around that bar glaring at the diners at busy times, and depending on what kind of day they've had, the maitre or mistress d' isn't always very sympathetic or skilled at dealing with their well-founded complaints. Like El Teddy's, they won't seat you until your whole party arrives, which we find rude and annoying; it's like they're accusing you of being liars right as you walk in the door. Why launch the evening by acting like we're trying to get over on you with the simple act of asking for a table?

Yes, we keep coming back: for the margaritas, and the way they get creative and do things like stuff a tortilla with crab meat and bacon, and because old standbys like steak fajitas are as good here as anywhere in town. And the price is decent and the location is handy if you're going to the movies or the Joyce. We're glad the place is so successful. But we find ourselves getting nostalgic for the old days when it was a little less so, a little quieter, more relaxed and polite.

Best 50 Yards for Restaurants on the Upper West Side
Columbus Ave. betw. 77th & 78th Sts.
Hello, Columbus. You ready to believe this or not? The argument: The Upper West Side is slowly maturing into a viable restaurant neighborhood?one in which there exist not only restaurants like Savann, which would wow the ladies in culinarily insipid locales like Boston or Dallas, if not in Soho, but in which?and this is something you couldn't have said as recently as several years ago?you'll find restaurants that could even compete with those in other Manhattan neighborhoods.

Okay, so there's not that many. And one of them?the reliable Cafe Luxembourg?you've known for years. But there is Gennaro, on upper Amsterdam Ave., at the southern end of one the Western hemisphere's great heroin bazaars. And the last year's also seen the opening of two estimable establishments on Columbus Ave., where for years Isabella's was (usually) an island of competence amidst of a sea of mediocrity. What pleases us?appeals to our sense of congruence, of efficiency?is that these two new Columbus Ave. eateries have opened within spitting distance of each other.

Each eatery, furthermore, is presented by people who know what they're about. First there's the Dining Room, at 380 Columbus Ave. (78th St., 724-0276), where Michael Harris is doing the cooking. And cooking an excellent, eclectic New American (but what does that really mean anymore?) menu in a high-ceilinged space dim with warm shadows and candlelight and appointed with dark, bare wood, navy-blue expanses and sleek human beings.

Then, a block away at 366 Columbus, at 77th St., there's Spazzia (799-0150), which is run by the same people responsible for Tribeca's excellent and perennially fashionable Spartina. Which means much the same type of perennially fashionable Mediterranean food as is served at Spartina (even if the decor and ambience aren't quite up to Tribeca snuff): grilled sardines, shrimp bisque, veal osso bucco and the thin-crust pizzas that are what, years ago, brought us to Spartina in the first place.

Now they bring us to, of all places, Columbus Ave. And it's cool: If Harris and Spazzia's chef Stephen Kalt stood in front of their respective establishments, they could probably?if they're properly limbered up?take out their competition's front window with a well-flung skillet.

Best Tribeca Pizza
Il Mattone
413 Greenwich St. (betw. Beach & Hubert Sts.)
Later for Ray's. We can't remember a year when Il Mattone, the Italian restaurant on Tribeca's Restaurant Row, hasn't won some kind of "Best of" award. Favoritism? You bet. After all, only one pizza out of 10 is a dud?when the pie swirler doesn't cook it long enough?and those other nine are killers, whether plain with a superb tomato sauce, or topped with sausage, pepperoni, vegetables or four cheeses. The pasta dishes are fine as well, and so are the portobello or skirt steak sandwiches, but it's the brick-oven pizza with the crispy crust we travel for. Eat there or call for delivery.

Best Burger
146 W. Houston St. (MacDougal St.)
Burger Meister. At first, Aggie's looks like most any other diner in town, despite the tables on the sidewalk outside. There's a counter, a tile floor, mirrors and a menu posted on the wall. A glance at the prices, however, reveals that it ain't no simple diner. But there's a reason for those prices.

A burger at Aggie's doesn't come cheap, by any means. We'd never deny that. It's $9-plus for a bacon cheeseburger. Oh, my, but what a burger it is. A thick, heavy, solid hockey puck of a beef pattie, seasoned and glued to the fresh bun with melted cheese. Add the bacon, lettuce and tomato, and it towers precariously over the plate. (We've seen more than one person resort to knife and fork in order to get through it.) It's one of those "only meal of the day" burgers, and it's worth it?spicy and juicy and a little crunchy, even. The kind of burger that may well follow you around for the rest of the day?but every time it comes back up, it's a fine, fine memory.

Best Chicken Burrito
El Teddy's
219 W. Broadway (betw. Franklin & White Sts.)
It's Teddy's Ballgame. Call us conventional, or snobbish, or anything else your skull can devise, but we're pretty set on this one. The best chicken burrito in the City of New York's served not at some demotic, "authentically" Mexican restaurant like the Upper West Side's wonderful Gabriela's or Yorkville's excellent Taco Taco. It's certainly not produced by the chain places at which we all eat happily a couple of times a month, like Burritoville or Benny's Burritos. And if you attempt to insist to us, a la some "cheap eats" clerk at a weekly listings magazine that the best chicken burrito on Earth is proffered by an old lady who sells grub and salsa out of a picnic basket on a well-traveled corner in Jackson Heights, we'll thank you for your expertise and go about our business. It's not that we disbelieve you, or that we don't wish the woman well. It's that we have jobs and responsibilities, and the thought of tracking down fashionably "authentic" food in the manner of Ed Levine has nothing to do with our lives. Call us provincial?and maybe in this regard we are a little?but you might as well inform us that the best croissants are to be found in a little nook in the 5th arrondissement. What's it mean to us?

The best chicken burrito in New York City is served by Tribeca's fashionable El Teddy's, they of the well-known margaritas and happy-hour crowd of well-dressed people under 40. Don't believe us? Stop in some night. If you can locate a waitress, start off with a shrimp cocktail and, if you're not into the TONY-sanctioned margarita trip, a glass of Sierra Nevada. Then, the next time your waitress makes one of her bimonthly passes in the direction of your table, leap from your chair?if you've still got the strength, that is; there're people with scurvy up in the El Teddy's smoking section; dudes who've been waiting months for their orders to appear; old bags with legs bent by rickets; it's like the Royal Navy, sometimes; squeeze that seafood-cocktail lime wedge into your parched lips, matey, for the nutrition that's in it!?as we say, leap from your chair, throw yourself on your knees in front of her and beg her to bring you, in merciful God's name, the burrito you...years?...well, at least weeks ago ordered...

We did mention, though, how it's one hell of a burrito, didn't we? An elegant little torpedo of a thing, sliced on the bias, one piece propped on the other, and in which flavorful, tender chicken?not, as in your run-of-the-mill Mexican torpedo, a mess of beans or, worse, enough rice to stuff a mattress with?takes precedence.

And while we're on the subject, do El Teddy's burrito rollers suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome? Their wrists must kill them; these fine burritos as rolled tight. We like most of the menu at El Teddy's?the excellent queso fundido, the fine guacamole, the entrees, especially the grilled striped bass?but we always come back to the chicken burrito. It's under 10 bucks, it's easy to eat and it presents no hassles?at least, that is, if you can track a server down and the chicks at the front desk don't shoot you too much lip. But those are other stories, for another time.

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