Part Two Best Diner Big Nick's 2175 ...

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Part Two

Best Diner
Big Nick's
2175 Broadway (betw. 76th & 77th Sts.)
The Kids at I.S. 44 Wouldn't Steer You Wrong. We were only 13, but even then we knew that someone in the public school system was ripping us off at lunchtime. Hotdogs boiled in water, french bread so stale you could hurt somebody with it, cake icing direct from a Jersey chemical plant. Enough! we screamed, as we ran across 77th St. toward Broadway and a real meal.

Big Nick's was new back then, but it already looked like it had always been there. Then, like now, it was a crowded diner, with newspaper clippings taped everywhere, along with glossies of various "celebrities" hanging on the walls. The collegiate boys would shove their tweed elbows into our empty stomachs as we lined up for the garlicky pizza and cheeseburgers dripping with grease?and taste. It was a food paradise.

It's nice to know that some things don't change. Big Nick's Burger Joint still serves those cheeseburgers, but now, for the more sophisticated West Side palate, there're also avocado burgers, Grecian burgers, Texasburgers (with an egg), Madrid burgers, Boston burgers (served with baked beans) and?you can't make this stuff up?ostrich burgers. But there's more, much more, than just burgers. The paper menus advertise spinach pie, onion soup, pastrami melts, broiled swordfish, charcoaled prime ribeye steaks, chili con carne with corn bread, linguine carbonara, Virginia ham steak and roast turkey dinners. There's fried jumbo shrimp, shell steaks, moussaka, lamb gyros and every conceivable pizza.

For those who don't consider a meal complete without dessert, try anything from the "Sweet Box"?blueberry crumb cake, hot pecan pie, rice pudding, banana splits, sundaes. The mystery is where they store all this food. Big Nick's is a small place. But everything's fresh, all the time. This guy (yes there really is a Big Nick) has got it down to a science. The tv used to play silent movies, which was annoying. But recently they're showing The Jackie Gleason Show. Much better. The service is friendly and quick. If you like a beer or wine with your meal they've got that too. If it's pouring rain, they deliver. They do everything for you but chew.

Best Mexican Restaurant
Mexican Radio
19 Cleveland Pl. (betw. Spring & Kenmare Sts.)
Ganador, y Todavía el Campeón. Looks like they stuck a bicycle pump in the door of the pequeñito old Mexican Radio on Mulberry St., gave it about 70-80 thrusts and then moved the whole enterprise over to Cleveland Pl. The new outpost has exactly the same charm and festiveness as the old place, the similarly delightful staff and?the smartest thing?the same menu. What's different is that the new place is bigger, and we now enjoy the superlative Radio Nachos with our elbows edging off the table instead of trussed in at our sides; polish off the succulent, fiery chorizo appetizer and an order of our favorite chile rellenos, then stretch a little bit before our plate of magnificent crispy flautas?or perhaps the incomparable chicken enchiladas con mole?arrives, instead of sitting hunched over the table, dodging passing purses and backpacks. And best of all, unlike the old spot, we don't have to wait a seeming eternity to get a table and order a plate of carnitas, Mexican Radio's amalgam of shredded pork with oranges, lemons, limes and garlic, plus some spicy sauce, served with white corn tortillas. (Waiting isn't always bad, mind you: allows time to savor a frozen or other specialty margarita, maybe some of their knockout sangria or?a real rarity in the city?a draft Dos Equis.) This time, bigger is not only better, it's just as good.

Best Frozen Cosmopolitans in Chelsea
G Lounge
225 W. 19th St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.)
Squishies for Big Boys Who Say "Fabulous." Lately we've become fond of ambling down 7th Ave. with a friend or two after work to take comfort in a deliciously smooth frozen cosmopolitan at G, prepared effortlessly by the bartender. We casually sip the fuchsia-colored, fruity drink while making ourselves comfortable on the plush banquettes lining the front room. What we love most about G's frozen cosmos is their Slurpee consistency, coupled with the smoothness that makes us forget we're drinking alcohol. The lighting here is low and romantic, with small candles on sleek, silver tables, just enough to see who's had too much surgery or spent too much time on Fire Island.

We're also fond of planting ourselves atop a stool at the oval-shaped bar while the good-looking bartenders deftly mix drinks and take orders from the usually diverse crowd of guppies, Chelsea boys, EV hipsters and a few women. More often than not, this minimalist lounge lives up to its name and delivers the goods that we can't get at most gay lounges: a mixed crowd, enjoying the rotating cast of DJs who pump out house and techno, from Honey Dijon to Carlos Pedraza. During happy hour (4 to 9 p.m.) we slurp our frozen cosmos?from the big straw, of course?for just $5 a pop. We always leave G very satisfied?two cosmos are enough to make us a little loopy?and ready for a long night of dancing and debauchery.

Best Brooklyn Wine Shop
Big Nose, Full Body
382 7th Ave. (betw. 11th & 12th Sts.)
Brooklyn, 718-369-4030
And If She Rubs Feet, We'll Marry Her. This new South Slope wine shop is the most pleasant establishment in which to purchase wine that we've come across in New York City; so much so that its existence has rejuvenated our interest in a beverage that the Foodie Era, with its fetishisms and its descents into preciousness, had mostly eradicated.

A lot of what's good about this minuscule shop has to do with its minimalism. Bottles, and not an overwhelming number of them, either?because Big Nose, Full Body seems to have come to the admirable conclusion that purchasing a bottle of alcohol needn't become an exercise in taxonomy and logistics?are racked along three walls under descriptive placards of the sort that the old salesmen at a place like, say, Sherry-Lehmann would smirk at. Which is exactly the point, and which is exactly why, when it comes to our wine-shopping, we'll avoid the Upper East Side and stay local.

Most of what differentiates this store from its competition, though?for in fact Slope Cellars, right down 7th Ave., is also a nice wine store?are enthusiastic co-owners Charles and Christy, neither of whom looks old enough to own a graduate degree, much less a wine store. Charles, who we're told is in the process of earning a sommelier's certificate, is easily the friendliest guy ever to know his wines; and his partner Christy reigns, we're sure, as Brooklyn's most charming merchant. The store's back corner contains one of those industrial-cylindrical contraptions in which it's diverting to submerge, for super-rapid chilling, bottles of wine, the head of any one of the neighborhood's burgeoning class of precocious preadolescents or?for sporting purposes?the occasional furry varmint, which you might be able to order from the pet-supplies store down the street.

Tastings are offered every Saturday afternoon at 4; and while the shop, to its credit, seems to avoid stocking ponderously expensive big-ticket wines, we're sure that, if you're compelled to ship a case of Médoc to your uncle this Christmas, the proprietors will steer you in the right direction.

Best Chef
Luis Bollo
350 Hudson St. (King St.)
Looks Like Spain. We've been through it all, and we're cynical. Every imaginable way of preparing food, from East African to Southeast Asian. But then along comes a truly magnificent restaurant like Meigas, and an authentic savant like Louis Bollo, and our attitude is adjusted. Who would have thought that Spanish?a cuisine formerly consigned to the purgatorial zones of boring paella and unctuous sangria?would have been triumphantly revived to become the new rage, the laboratory?

Besides, we adore the whole Spanish attitude, which is less fussy than the French, and less preoccupied with mama mia nostalgia than the Italian. Plus, they cook the food (one up on the Japanese), and the ingredients are generally recognizable in their essential form and integrity (one up on the Chinese). And, the Spanish make some phenomenal wine, which their food elegantly companions.

But best of all, they cherish their fish and their meat, and they, like the inhabitants of Provence, enjoy eating the unspoken-of parts of various beasts. People have been saying for years that Catalan and Basque chow is the cat's ass, and now we believe them. The food magazines have been trumpeting Ferran Adria (of the now-mythical El Bulli, north of Barcelona) as the world's greatest chef, extolling his mad-scientist ways with "foams" and other culinary wackiness?and now we believe them, because Meigas' Bollo is a disciple.

But an immigrant disciple, it must be pointed out. Meigas' early menu, featuring stranger, more experimental dishes, has been reformed and is now just a document crammed with glorious food. Roast suckling pig is the star, but Bollo's touch with myriad other unfamiliars is equally compelling. We had (and keep in mind that the menu is changing for fall): homemade bacalao, which comes with a side of stewed squid and onions; grilled monkfish, with clams and mussels; and roasted loin of rabbit wrapped in bacon. Appetizers: pimientos del piquillo rellenos, peppers stuffed with marinated tuna and served chilled; txipirones calamares, baby squid in its own ink, with Basque rice on the side; and the incomparable falda de ternera, a breast of veal stuffed with veal sweatbreads, squid and onions, served topped with onion rings and surrounded by a sauce of Rioja and squid-ink that took loaf upon loaf of Meigas' stellar bread to sop up.

Best Newish East Village Gay Lounge for Hipsters and Their Friends
Fat Cock 29
29 2nd Ave. (2nd St.)
Girthful Merrymaking. Fizz Jizz. Flaming Fuck. Those are just two of the many special drinks that anyone can order up while lounging in maroon leather banquettes and sofas and chatting with friends. We found ourselves at Fat Cock?or F.C. 29?as the sign reads, a month ago. We arrived a little before midnight, early by New York standards, but the place was packed. Lots of attractive men, some couples, a fag hag or two thrown in, and plenty of cruising. The advance buzz on F.C. 29 was that it boasts the "world's largest porn screen." The lounge, owned by Mario Diaz, has a cool jukebox and is open from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. daily.

It was a weird sort of trip to look up and see 70s porn flashing above us, looming there on that screen. It was pretty intense. We're talking guys with mustaches, big muscles and flared pants. Construction workers, gloryholes in the bathroom stall, extreme closeups of come shots and anal sex. Our friend Michael enjoyed F.C. 29's pornos the most, exclaiming "That's hot" more than once to anyone who would listen. We enjoyed the stimulating conversation that's possible at F.C. 29, since (unlike other EV gay lounges) they don't blast the music to glass-shattering levels. Another patron of F.C. 29 recently remarked to us that upon leaving the lounge one night during the week, he was so horny that he was shaking. That's what fat cock usually does to us, too.

Best Downtown Bagel and Lox
500 6th Ave. (betw. 12th & 13th Sts.)
242 8th Ave. (betw. 22nd & 23rd Sts.)
Love's Labor's Lox. Sometimes, and we acknowledge that this is a horrible thing to say, but sometimes we get the feeling that some of the most celebrated purveyors of smoked fish in Manhattan don't really love lox. There's nothing wrong with that in itself?almost no one who didn't grow up knowing slimy, salty fish products as the most special of all possible weekend-only treats could understand the nature of the delicacy. And after a few years of dealing in the stuff, handling it day in and day out, one probably grows rather sick of it. Then quality starts to slip. And it's not until a newcomer who also happens to be a true connoisseur comes along that it becomes clear what has been lost.

That loss is Murray's and all true lox-lovers' gain. With Essa lulled into complacency by overpraise of its (admittedly superb) bread product, and quick-service-king Pick-A still lagging in the quality department, Murray entered a field where laurels awaited anyone dedicated to the topnotch smoked-fish-sandwich experience. Despite occasionally slow or inept service, Murray's fits the bill. Murray's two locations are downtown's best places to enjoy premium Scottish lox (venerable Russ & Daughters also stocks the real thing, but it offers no seating).

Murray's offers reliable alternatives for the lox-weary: excellent sable (smoked cod), whitefish salad and smoked sturgeon make appearances on the rotating menu. At other bagelries, these secondary fish often spend far too long in the display case, but Murray's deals exclusively in grade-A stuff. If he's selling it, it's as good a slab of smoked fish as you're likely to find. The bagels are quite good, too, yes. But if you don't get some tender, oily, smoky prime sea-meat in yours, you might as well be eating wheat bread, as far as we're concerned.

Best Beauties, Worst Pick-Up Conversation
The Other Room
143 Perry St. (betw. Greenwich & Washington Sts.)
Trois-Way. This tiny beer- and wine-only bar in the far West Village is always full of attractive, chic, fresh-scrubbed men and women who are young, yes, but not outrageously so. Friendly, efficient bartenders and a surprising lack of attitude make this a great spot for a drink if we're adequately dressed and groomed and can reconcile ourselves to imbibing Chimay or wheat beer all night. As usual, though, the prospect of action requires us to put our pride aside, rather more dramatically here than elsewhere.

Recently we were seated next to a striking couple?he, a Dutch model naggingly familiar, we realized later, from the sides of various buses around town; she an actress originally from Montreal. They were deep in debate, and turned to us to resolve the conflict. Seems that in the Netherlands it's customary to exchange three cheek-kisses upon greeting, alternating sides, while the Quebecois kiss only twice. Which nation's custom was more to our liking?

Naturally, we were only too happy to weigh in on such a topic, but as the conversation foundered (they were serious about this, you see), we decided we'd have to go home with our virtue intact. But we'll be back.

Best Place for a Bartender to Hit on Your Boyfriend
The Village Idiot
355 W. 14th St. (9th Ave.)
She Said She Was a Bartender, But I Don't Remember Payin'! It's their job, goddammit, but we must admit to preferring the Hogs & Heifers technique for getting men to part with their money?humiliation?to its sister bar's more hands-on approach. (That's not what we meant by rimming the glass, girls.) And so in the world of Coyote Ugly Texas theme bars, Hogs is damn near preaching women's lib. Although it's worth the porn videos they screen at the Idiot to have control of the music via a well-stocked white-trash jukebox. Sorry Hogs, but after that third round of "Devil Went Down to Georgia," not even matching leather bras or naked fat girls dancing on the bar in an attempt to work out those night-before-the-wedding jitters could make us stay. Most importantly, the Idiot is the only bar in town we've actually tried to get kicked out of and failed. If you throw a glass on the ground at this honkytonk, rest assured that the management will be over in seconds?to pitch one at the wall.

Best Restaurant for Surprise Birthday Dinners
Gramercy Tavern
42 E. 20th St. (betw. B'way & Park Ave. S.)
You Guys Are the Greatest. Gramercy Tavern is on a very short list of our all-time favorite restaurants, anywhere. If Danny Meyer closed down his other operations tomorrow we wouldn't be all that discomfited, likable as they are, but if Gramercy were to shut its doors a certain light would go out of our world. It's the gestalt of the place?the food, the setting and perhaps the finest staff in the city, combined to create what has been a memorable experience every time we've been there?and we've been there a fair number of times. So when our significant other was approaching a significant birthday and the family wanted to cook up a surprise dinner, Gramercy was the first place we called. We'd booked a big to-do for the family patriarch's 75th birthday in Gramercy's private room once, and were so impressed with the staff that night that this smaller birthday wingding seemed a natural. And once again, the staff was so professional and cooperative that it went off beautifully. Family trickled in from all around the country and were seated early. When we were led to the table and they were all there, champagne glasses ready for the first toast...well, the look on our other's face was priceless. And dinner, as always, was great. Another Gramercy night we'll never forget.

Best Bar We're Glad Is Still There
288 Elizabeth St. (betw. Houston & Bleecker Sts.)
Hey, How You Doin'? We like to pretend that in our maturity, we've eased up on the boozy lifestyle. God knows we don't hang out at 288 all the time like we did in our youth. But in reality our maturity has brought sloth: we don't get to 288 so often after work because we're too lazy to make the trip. And we don't visit at night because our maturity has also brought fatigue: we're too old and tired to go out late, to fight the crowds. But when we do go out late, when we entertain out-of-towners, it's to 288, because it remains about our favorite bar. And when we go in, no matter how packed, they all remember us?Jo and Nick, Michael, Doggie, Linda, Brian, Ruthie and everyone else?and seem pleased we've come by. We're glad they're still there, an oasis among all the annoying places and people that continue to dominate that neighborhood.

Best Downtown Soup
161 E. Houston St. (Allen St.)
Bisque and a Good Woman's Friendship. Soup's a relaxant, and if it doesn't effect the chemical reaction that terminates in doping our blood with serotonins, we might as well be eating a turkey club. We attended this good newish Basque restaurant in the presence of a female friend with whom we're involved in that postfeminist institution known as a romantic friendship?see, it works for us?so we can't accurately establish what proportion of the well-being with which we left was a function of the soup, and what of her emotional massaging. But with all due respect to her, we're willing to assume that some of it had to do with the soup.

To be specific, with the crab bisque with Armagnac a waitress slid before us while we elicited our friend's commiseration for a romantic complication that had dicked around with our tender heart. Deep maternal cream spiked with the masculine effluvium of sea brine, shot through with the tonic of brandy; textures playing off each other, the hard alcohol counterpointing the thick dairy; a minor essay in the interarticulation of gastronomic timbres, and yak yak yak. Good soup, though, served with good bread, and probably reassuring on a wretched winter night.

Best Wine Store
55 W. 14th St. (6th Ave.)
Shabby as Hell, But Still the Boss. There are times when we wish Crossroads would just give up the whole throwback hole-in-the-wall vibe and pull a St. Mark's Book Shop?that is, move into some snazzier digs (or at least some roomier ones). Something with recessed lighting and glistening wood the color of honey. It's nuts, really, all those unopened boxes of wine piled to the ceiling, and the general impossibility of negotiating the premises when more than, oh, say, half a dozen people are browsing.

But still, we know these things will never change. Crossroads is Crossroads, and dickering with the square footage seems foolish when you take into account the staggering variety?and quality?of what they've crammed in there. Commonly acknowledged, even by West Coast oenophiles, as one of the best wine stores not just in the States, but in the world, Crossroads is one of the places you go in New York when you're trying to track down the best and the most exotic. On a frustrating recent quest for Ligurian Cinque Terre, only Crossroads really came through. We've lately gotten interested in German reds, and we know that Crossroads will be the first destination on our journey down that odd road.

There's no lack of superlative domestic juice squeezed into the shop's confines; admirably, they've already devoted precious space to an enticing lineup of California experiments in Italian varietals. Very promising. And very Crossroads. Don't let the seedy liquor-store vibe fool you. Treasures are tucked within.

Best Dramatic $12 Pyramid of Food that Looks Great But Is Impossible to Finish
Fresco by Scotto
34 E. 52nd St. (betw. Madison & Park Aves.)
Timber!! At Fresco by Scotto there is a fried potato, zucchini and Gorgonzola concoction that is about 10 inches high and looks great but rapidly becomes wearying to eat. Only order it in a party of at least six. All the dishes at Fresco are indecently vast. If you're about to go on the next Survivor island seance, eat there for your last supper. You won't need food for a week.

Best Chinese Takeout
Shanghai in Soho
77 W. Houston St. (Wooster St.)
It's Not Slop. Shanghai in Soho isn't a lesser of evils when it comes to calling in Chinese, not one of those places you call by default, or when you're hungover and craving greasy Chinese. It's a place we order from with forethought.

The Peking duck is an exceptional entree we'd get for company. They send a big dish of moist meat, topped with slices of crispy skin and a pile of fresh crunchy scallions. Slather the hoisin sauce on the accompanying pancakes, load 'em up with the above and you're feasting. Other standouts are the pork and pickled cabbage soup: lots of cabbagey broth with crunchy slices of the leaves plus juicy morsels of pork; and the kung-pao chicken: real poultry, and?at last?spicy enough to earn its name. All the vegetable sides we've tried have been fresh, never overcooked, and the different rices and noodle dishes maintain their integrity, failing to turn into mush.

Shanghai's claim to fame is the size (enormous) and scope (ditto, including sushi) of its menu. In fact, New York Press fan-club president Alan Richman is quoted on the takeout menu: "Where you'll also find a massive menu of dishes not offered at your local takeout." We're embarrassed to say we haven't been so adventurous in ordering; haven't tried the jellyfish with turnip, the duck tongue in wine sauce, the pig belly with pickled cabbage or even the yellow eels in hot pot. We were going to have the dry fish stomach with pork sinus last week, but we'd had it for lunch.

Best Midtown Hotel Bar w/Vue
Pentop Bar
Peninsula Hotel
700 5th Ave. (55th St.)
What Are You Drinking, Hunchback? Of course, you'll be doing your drinking with Midwestern tourists, traveling salesmen and wedding parties, but when you live in New York City, once in a while you have to act like a tourist to enjoy some of its offerings. The Pentop is perched like a watering hole for gargoyles on top of the grand Peninsula. The bar itself is actually tiny, but the charm here is the outdoor spaces. An intimate balcony faces north, with a magical nighttime view up 5th Ave., glittering like a necklace of diamonds, with Central Park looking dark and woodsy as Sherwood Forest next to it. A much larger balcony offers a view of the theatrically lighted busyness at 5th and 54th St. Flags and pennants flutter, clouds scud by behind the Midtown skyscrapers. On a balmy summer evening it's an awfully romantic place either to start or wind up a Midtown date. Naturally, you pay through the nose: a mixed drink can set you back $15, a price as stunning as the views. But hey, you're on a date. Don't be a fucking cheapskate or you're not getting any later. (If the weather isn't cooperating, a drink down in the lobby is an elegant alternative. And don't forget the Monkey Bar, a coconut's toss away on 54th.)

Best French Toast
Blue Ribbon Bakery & Cafe
33 Downing St. (Bedford St.)
And the Blue Ribbon Goes To... It can become a pretty tight squeeze in Blue Ribbon if you decide to swing by for a weekend brunch, but there's a simple reason for that. They offer all sorts of things?cheese platters, egg dishes, sandwiches?but nothing can top their french toast.

We've had french toast all over the city?overcooked, undercooked, usually made out of Wonder Bread slices. Once we were convinced, for some reason, that our french toast had been fried in bleach. But after sampling what Blue Ribbon has to offer, we need look no further.

Starting with a choice of challa or raisin walnut bread, and accompanied by warm butter and a small pitcher of warm maple syrup (or a choice of other toppings), the results are perfect?crispy around the edges, soft but not soggy in the middle. And mountainous.

Add further to the mix an attentive and friendly waitstaff, a bright atmosphere, hours set up to accommodate the club crowd?and a big pitcher of powerful coffee left in the middle of the table for you?and you're all set. And since it's right around the corner from Film Forum, it's just the place for a pre- or postscreening bite.

Best Storm Viewing
One & One
76 E. 1st St. (1st Ave.)
Ion the Prize. Boy, we've really come to enjoy One & One. Perhaps it's their bangers 'n' mash, their thick, hearty soups and their shepherd's pies?all cheap and consistently good gut-fillers. Or it could be the relief they provide from all the French-, Italian- and Israeli-owned restaurants in the neighborhood. Not that we're xenophobes or anything (One & One is an Irish joint, after all). There's just something anti-exotic, almost pedestrian about the place?clean, tv tuned to sports, frat-ish, style-free clientele?that appeals to us of late. We glom to it the same way we find ourselves clinging to the first native English speaker we meet in a foreign country.

Which is all well and good, and we heartily enjoy One & One, weather or not. But get yourself here for a storm and you're in for something special. Owing to the width of Houston St. and the considerable expanse of the 1st Ave./Houston St. intersection, the strip of sidewalk tables that lines One & One's 1st St. flank is privy to an unencumbered skyward vista. On the right days we'll spot a roiling, low-slung nimbostratus gathering force over Jersey City. We'll call up Guinness number four, sit back and track the peevish gray mass as it rolls eastward over the Hudson and toward us. A few minutes later our beer arrives, accompanied by a disturbance in the ground-level air mass. The branches of the trees along 1st St. start swaying, dust and debris form twisters above the pavement and the air turns sweet with the metallic, come-scented tang of static electricity. Soon, umbrella-less pedestrians are scrambling across 1st. St. for cover. Though we can't see them, we know that charged ions are colliding around us, teasing the synapses of dogs and babies, raising an agitated symphony of growls and barks and yawps. Oh yeah, this is gonna be good!

We watch our settling beer. The eggshell-colored head cascades into its rich, black body and the first drops of rain pelt the awning overhead. A jagged bolt strikes to the west of us, followed by a booming, spine-rattling thunderclap. CRRRLAAAACK! Soon, a gushing. We observe how in the wet, graywashed cityscape, the more muted hues transfer their energies to points of greatest density, leaving all else dull and monochrome. Our eyes draw involuntarily from the soft colors of cars and buildings all around us to a tiny blue neon sign in the window of Burkina on the far side of Houston. All the greens of oak leaves and the tans of the slick, glazed sidewalks are gathered instead in the bright red light of a model's lips on a passing bus siding. Tires go skimming by, slicing up the avenue. A siren wails in the distance.

And more lightning. We time the gap between lightning and thunder. The storm is almost directly overhead. Thick, heaving sheets of rain slant in under our awning and lick at our feet. The rain pours down for about five minutes and we nurse our beer, making it last until the storm is passed, leaving in its wake a trickle.

A brief, false calm. Time enough to order up another beer. Better make it quick, though?there's a big black one looming out over Hoboken.

Best Waiters We Can No Longer Afford
14 1st Ave. (betw. 1st & 2nd Sts.)
And I Won't Be Your Waiter Tonight. We walk into Lucien, which used to be our local place, and drink our glass of merlot at the bar by ourselves. Before the place had been touted as the best new brasserie in town, the owner employed a number of young and virile things to run the restaurant, and we briefly dated one of them. He had just returned from modeling in the Paris shows, and we took him out for drinks but ate by ourselves because he said he didn't want to "look puffy" for his "casting" the next day. Then he invited himself over to our house, motioned toward our kitchen table?and lifted us on it. His friend, the DJ-cum-waiter, met and slept with our friend that night, then later bumped into us at a cafe and asked us out while his date was waiting for him outside. Another waiter propositioned our friend and her mother at another friend's own birthday dinner. Who's to say if Lucien hand-picks his charges with talents other than waitering in mind? Or are these boys just doing their bit to return sex to the once-muscular strip of land flanked by 1st Ave. and Ludlow St.?

Then, last time we checked, Lucien and his boys had changed. Evidently we were no longer good enough for them. The butter was no longer served to us in little crocks with an L embossed on it, but rather was replaced by greasy tin packages. And the staff was no longer interested in us. Our beautiful bartender was now serving drinks to a cluster of aggrievedly single women who clearly had more disposable income than our salaries. They were waiting to be flirted with, and he obliged with his best Parisian: "You're leaving so soon? You're breaking my heart!" After a few more glasses of "this one's on the house," they were sticking their bony clavicles out at him, and we skulked out of there before we could watch a hastily transcribed number make its way into any number of purses.

Best Smith St. Restaurant
Restaurant Saul
140 Smith St. (betw. Bergen & Dean Sts.)
Brooklyn, 718-935-9844
We'll Take the Odds. There are way too many restaurants on Smith St. for Smith St.'s own good. We're honestly baffled at how they all stay in business.

Restaurant Saul is an exception. We anticipate that it will grow old with its patrons, which is to say that it will be around for a while, because its patrons are all youngsters. Named after chef Saul Bolton, who has cooked at Bouley and Le Bernardin, Restaurant Saul has imported to Brooklyn the kind of cuisine that knowledgeable uptowners typically like to eat: lushly prepared food of illusory simplicity. The roast chicken with garlic sauce is legendary, but the pork chop they're making there is about the best in town, served with a nice slab of potatoes on the side. Arctic char is delicate and flavorful and laid on a dusky puddle of lentils. The menu changes every six weeks or so, but we've no doubt that everything to come will be as good as what we've sampled. The wine list is brief, skillfully assembled and to the point, and there are plenty of selections available by the glass. The ambience is soothing and genteel without seeming stuffy. It's both cozy and sort of cool. We look forward to inhabiting it for years to come.

Best South Brooklyn Tavern
Ruby's Bar
Coney Island Boardwalk No Phone
The Heart and Liver of Coney. Owner and namesake Rubin Jacobs?one of the warmest, kindest men you'd ever want to meet?passed away last April, but his spirit lives on in Ruby's?one of the warmest, kindest bars?not only in Coney or South Brooklyn, but in all of New York.

With a wide open front that looks out across the boardwalk, beach and ocean, and positioned next to a hotdog counter, Ruby's couldn't have a better location. And with walls festooned with hundreds of photographs capturing Coney's magical history, a jukebox that can't be beat and some of the nicest old bartenders you'd ever want to buy a beer from, Ruby's has the kind of atmosphere that just makes you want to spend all your days there.

We suggest skipping the crowds, though, and going during the off-season. Once the tourists have all gone home, you can pop into Ruby's, punch up some Dean Martin and get yourself a seat at the bar. If you keep your eyes open, you'll get a more accurate portrait of Coney Island life and culture than you could ever get from a hundred rides on the Cyclone and a dozen Mermaid Parades. The regulars?a remarkable cast of barflies and beach bums?pop in and out all day, giving reports on what's going on up and down the boardwalk, trading old stories, talking about characters long gone.

It's relaxed, it's beautiful, it's one of the few places left in New York that proudly keeps its own history alive. And what's more?Ruby's maintains what are undoubtedly the scariest bathrooms in the city. But once you've had a few, that in itself just adds to the charm.

Best Armagnacs
Le Perigord
405 E. 52nd St. (betw. FDR Dr. & 1st Ave.)
Like Whiskey, But No One Kicks Your Ass. Le Perigord is no one's idea of a rowdy, rustic, hootin'-and-hollerin' kind of restaurant. The average diner at this east side veteran is rich, quiet, old, well-born and probably uninclined to order up a healthy jigger of Kentucky sourmash with which to finish off a meal.

Armagnac, for the uninitiated, is essentially a more rough-and-tumble version of Cognac: less perfume, more mouth-burn. We love it, as it reminds us of the Bourbon whiskey we were raised on (our parents had loose morals and got a kick out of watching us get all sloppy after they had spiked our Froot Loops). On a recent visit to Le Perigord, after a stunning meal, we were given the opportunity to sample not one but three Armagnacs. Each provoked a satisfied shiver, an oscillation in the spine. We got well and truly trashed. We stumbled home and passed out. We were happy, and we had Le Perigord to thank.

Best Onion Rings from a Twee Hotdog Stand
269 W. 23rd St. (betw. 7th & 8th Aves.)
Danish Dogs? There's enough about F&B that annoys us that we'd never go if it weren't for the fine onion rings and fries. Conceptually, a "European" hotdog stand, in New York City, is just wrong, wrong in so many ways it boggles the mind. It's kind of a violation of the natural order. A hotdog stand just isn't supposed to look like this, all Euro-arty, moderne and stainless steel, like the employee canteen at an Ikea or a photo shoot in Flaunt. And it's a completely inefficient hippy-dippy operation, with a needlessly complicated ordering-and-delivery system that ensures that half the time they fuck something up and the other half the time you're waiting 10, 15 minutes for your damn french fries. The dogs aren't anything special, yet they cost an absurd $2.35 and up. Yes, they serve beignets, a decent gimmick, but frankly a hotdog stand on W. 23rd St. ain't exactly the Cafe du Monde, and something is lost in the translation. We don't eat beignets in New York, we eat zeppole. Let us put it this way: This is a hotdog stand that serves wine, okay? Way more self-conscious and yuppie-pretentious than any hotdog stand has a right to be, F&B is the Fringe Festival of hotdog stands, the Angelika of hotdog stands, the Fashion Week of hotdog stands.

But we stop in once in a while and put up with all that for the fries and especially the onion rings. Naturally, F&B calls them "frites," which makes us want to punch somebody in la bouche, but anyway. They use some Belgian system that leaves them wonderfully grease-free and crisp, almost a tempura. They're great. But lord, the foppery you have to wade through to get them.

Best After-Work Bar Crew
Triple Crown
330 7th Ave. (betw. 28th & 29th Sts.)
Justin Who? How can you mend a broken heart? We didn't think anyone could replace our beloved Justin, who won not only our hearts, but last year's "Best Bartender" award as well. He went back to the homeland. Then we got all palsy with Tom, his replacement, until he shipped himself back to County Claire, too. Yet they left?we're quite happy to report?an All-Star bar crew in their stead at Triple Crown. Willie at bar right, Wayne down at the other end, Martin pacing the floor and some bar backup that rotates nearly daily make us feel welcome and?oh, all right?special, when we slump in after a hard day only to be faced with either slavering sports fans or Springsteen concertgoers, depending on what's doing at the Garden that night. Ready with our regular, happy to see us (or so we convince ourselves) and finding us seats among the throng?we t'ank Jaysus for 'em. Easy on the eyes, too.

Best Salvadoran Restaurant
690 Grand Ave. (betw. Graham St. & Manhattan Ave.)
Brooklyn, 718-218-9592
¡Sí a Bahia! The sign promises "Comidas Típicas Salvadoreñas," but that's qualified with the subhed of "Spanish, American and Italian Food." We're not sure about the American and Italian grub, as we've mostly stuck with the Spanish/Salvadoran end of the menu, but we are sure that Bahia has rightly become a regular stop for us.

Start with the distinctively Salvadoran appetizer of pupusas: cornmeal pockets stuffed with a variety of ingredients, such as zucchini and cheese, or pork, cheese and beans, then flattened and pan-fried ($1.25 each). Then, the avocado salad ($4), or maybe some chicken enchiladas ($5). Move on to the fantastic bistec ranchero ($10) for him, the pechuga de pollo al limon ($7.50) for her. Or maybe the delicious shrimp ceviche ($9) and the parrillada de mariscos (assorted grilled fish, $15). Enjoy it with a side of chimol (diced tomato, radish, lemon and cilantro?essentially, pico de gallo, $2), and when you're done, ask for a few chicken tacos to go ($2 each): they hold up quite well as leftovers.

You'll also find some basics on the menu, those things that a restaurant needs to survive out here. A burger here, baked clams there. You know, that kinda stuff. But such is what makes this place so good: it's an unpretentious, neighborhood dining spot. (They also serve breakfast from 7-11:30 a.m., but we haven't yet tried it.)

Bahia has only been open since June, and don't yet have their liquor license, so we bring our own. Be understanding when they ask to keep your bottle hidden behind the counter: they're a little nervous about the appearance of having served liquor without that license. It's a m

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