Finding a great date restaurant is a tricky proposition. It should be comfortable enough to let your guard down but interesting enough to impress. Quiet enough to hear each other, but not so quiet that an awkward silence feels magnified. The staff should be friendly, but not intrusive. The food should be solid, and the drinks should be delicious. Snag these ideal date destinations from nine food pros, from chefs to cheese experts to specialty shop owners, and solve the dinner dilemma for good.
Posie Harwood writes and develops recipes for Food52 and her own blog, 600 Acres. When it comes to “low-key spontaneous dates,” Harwood recommends Meme Mediterranean in the West Village, a tiny spot tucked into a bright, leafy corner on Hudson Street. “It’s cozy and small enough that it always feels romantic and intimate, whether the doors are thrown open in the summer or you’re nestled inside in the winter,” says Harwood. The food is simple, delicious, and perfectly shareable—split some wine or have them make you a cocktail. The owner is always stopping to chat with people, and it feels like you’re in the right place, always. Snag Harwood’s go-to order: “the hummus platter, lamb two ways, grilled octopus, and whatever seasonal dessert they’ve got.”
Emma Kella, sous chef at the picturesque Just Right Farm in South Shore Massachusetts, cooked for years in New York City restaurant kitchens. She’s been dining at Village Yokocho in the East Village “since the eighth grade, and bringing dates here almost as long,” Kella says. “The food is fast, simple, and delicious — think classic NYC yakitori. Play it safe (but still cool) ordering the chicken meatball and shishito pepper skewers or go out on a culinary limb and get the beef tongue with bean sprouts.” Split a pitcher of Sapporo. If the date is fun, keep the night going with a visit to Sundaes and Cones just down the street for a taro root ice cream chaser.
When she’s not in Massachusetts, Kella lives in Long Island City, which “doesn’t get enough love.” Fix that with a night at LIC Market. The “unassuming little spot with a short and sweet dinner menu that changes almost daily,” as Kella describes it, is right off the E, G, M, and 7 trains, so also scores points for convenience. If it’s a nice night, choose between the sweet front porch or “the very twinkly, seriously lovely covered back porch.” Its location and vibe make it great for a leisurely dinner, or a quick “I’m-not-so-sure-about-you” lunch at the bar.
Q Drinks makes surprisingly good mixers, like their famous tonic water and tangy ginger beer. Ian Pilarski is their VP of sales, and when it comes to dates, he’s all about Atla, Enrique Olvera’s more approachable sister restaurant to Cosme in NoHo. “Their kitchen reopens at 5 p.m., so I like to arrive a bit early and secure two corner bar seats,” says Pilarski. “If your date is fun and into you, you’ll end up eating and drinking significantly more than you planned, and unpredictability is exciting. I recommend starting with carajillos; a refreshing coffee-cocktail that’s both delicious and keeps energy levels high from the start.” The menu nails it with vibrant colors and fresh flavors — and don’t miss the arctic char and farmers cheese tostadas.
Tara Holland is a food editorial assistant at Every Day with Rachael Ray, which means you can find her testing recipes and trying out new ingredients in the magazine’s test kitchen. Holland’s favorite date restaurant is Estela. “I love the intimate space and the ambience…and the food is inspirational,” Holland says. She recommends “letting them completely take control of ordering.” Just let the server know if you have any dietary restrictions, and the kitchen will surprise your table with their inventive dishes. But don’t miss Estela’s signature endive with walnuts, anchovy and a rich Italian cheese called Ubriaco Rosso—a satisfying salad Holland has recreated at home many times.
Elena Santogade, author of “The Beginner’s Guide to Cheesemaking” and cheese maven (she’s also a Sales Manager at Grafton Village Cheese), says “Gramercy Tavern is hands down my favorite date restaurant.” Her new husband Josh Cohen works in the food industry and although they rarely go to the same place twice, “we have no problem going back to Gramercy Tavern time and time again,” Santogade admits. “We go early on random weekdays to taste wine and nibble on what’s new on the menu, and we even went there for lunch to celebrate after we got married at City Hall.” Gramercy Tavern epitomizes classic New York City charm with its gorgeous flower displays and seasonal, thoughtful, fancy-but-not-fussy menu.
Speaking of Gramercy, say hi to Allen Stafford, a captain who makes sure service runs smoothly, while you’re there. For a first date, Stafford recommends Café Serai at the Rubin Museum. “I’m not Buddhist,” Stafford explains, “but the calm elegant simplicity of the space counters the anxiety of meeting someone new.” They have nice unfussy tea service, and some tasty light fare which is easy to add if the date goes well, and easy to ignore if you skip eating and get the check.
Aaron Foster is the brains — and namesake — behind the specialty cheese and butcher shop Foster Sundry in Bushwick. His favorite date place these days is Ops Pizza nearby in Bushwick. “Mike’s pizza is ridic,” Foster says, “with naturally leavened dough and great care given to the toppings. The wine is all-natural and served in unpretentious cups filled to the brim. There’s no list: just tell Marie what you like and she’ll taste you on a few options to dial in.” The space is cute and informal and the service breezy and easy. Best of all: no tipping! Go Dutch.
Old Town Bar
A lawyer who helps specialty food companies with customs, international trade, and logistics, Lori Levy worked for Fairway Market for years, where she imported extra-virgin olive oil, prosciutto, and balsamic vinegar. Levy has “been told it is a bit stressful to plan where to dine on a first date with me,” but “the tables were turned on me by a handsome, quick-witted, super talented chef who had recently moved back to NYC.” Levy knew just where to take the chef for dinner. Not wanting their buzzy banter interrupted often or distracted by an overly involved meal, “I chose Old Town Bar. Dark and moody and as vintage New York as one can get.” Old Town serves solid bar fare and plays classic rock. Plus, there’s no one chasing you out of your booth to turn the table after the fourth hour.
When restaurants and food companies need a PR maven, they hire Helen Baldus. As for date spot suggestions, Baldus swears by Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, an incredible Palestinian/Mediterranean restaurant on 3rd Ave. “It’s a bit of a journey to get there, on the R or in a car, but that’s part of the fun because you feel like a tourist in your own city,” Haldus explains. “Everything is meant to be shared. Don’t miss the lamb kabobs and roasted cauliflower, fragrant with fresh herbs, pomegranates, tahini and lemon.” The wine list boasts some delicious and affordable selections from Lebanon.