For such a compact neighborhood, Gramercy/Union Square boasts an impressive number of renowned restaurants. Pete’s Tavern is perhaps the city’s oldest continually operating drinking establishment; Union Square Café is a linchpin of New American cuisine; Friend of a Farmer was a farm-to-table pioneer. It is impossible to imagine living in the area without dining at these and several other area institutions at least once.
38 East 19th Street (between Park Avenue and Broadway)
ABC Kitchen. Image: Emma Chao/Flickr
When acclaimed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten collaborated with ABC Carpet & Home to launch ABC Kitchen in 2010, the goal might have been to fortify weary shoppers with food far superior to that of a mall food court. Now the restaurant is a dining destination in and of itself. The farm-to-table fare changes seasonally, but the emphasis on organic and local ingredients remains constant year-round, and a rooftop garden provides the herbs and microgreens used. In keeping with the theme, the decor makes great use of recycled and reclaimed materials, with live-edge wood tables complementing white metal chairs and white-painted brick walls. The restaurant’s success led Vongerichten and ABC to open a companion eatery, ABC Cocina, several years later. The focus is still on fresh, local ingredients, but the menu has a Latin American flavor: sweet-corn empanadas, arroz con pollo with crackling skin, charred octopus with smoked paprika crème frâiche and guajillo vinaigrette. A third restaurant, abcV, offering seasonal vegetarian fare, opened in 2017.
77 Irving Place (between 18th and 19th Streets)
Friend of a Farmer. Image: pravin.premkumar/Flickr
One of the city’s first farm-to-table restaurants and still proudly family-owned and –operated, Friend of a Farmer opened in 1986. The rustic vibe of the interior—handcrafted wood floors and ceiling beams, brick walls, canisters of grains and beans lining the shelves of a farmhouse cupboard—reflects the menu. Depending on the season, you might find yourself torn between boneless braised beef short ribs with beet-mashed potatoes and steamed kale, mushroom cavatelli, or a burger made with free-range, grass-fed beef and topped with sautéed onions, cheddar cheese, bacon, arugula, and chipotle aioli on a brioche bun. Definitely leave room for dessert: Choices might include an ice-cream sandwich with homemade banana and chocolate-chip bread topped with warm apple chutney or Granny Smith apple pie for two, baked in a crock and served with ice cream from the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory.
42 East 20th Street (between Park Avenue South and Broadway)
Gramercy Tavern. Image: Lou Stejskal/Flickr
Since 1994 this Michelin-starred restaurant has been serving up seasonal New American fare. Part of acclaimed restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, it is in a sense two restaurants in one. The Tavern, which accepts neither reservations nor gratuities, offers upscale comfort food such as roasted Island Creek oysters with corn and brown butter, duck sausage with shoestring potatoes and smoked chili relish, and lamb cooked on the restaurant’s wood-burning grill. The dining room, which also eschews tips but recommends reservations, offers both à la carte and tasting menus with optional wine pairings. You might start with lamb ravioli, garlic scapes, tomatoes, and pecorino, then follow that with an entrée of swordfish accompanied by almonds, stone fruit, and shishito peppers. In addition to wine, beer, and spirits, you can opt for original cocktails such as the Roger Fitz Spritz (grapefruit liqueur, Aperol, vanilla, lemon juice, and prosecco) and the Alamedo Central, which packs a punch with tequila and absinthe among its ingredients.
123 East 18th Street (between Irving Place and Park Avenue South)
Founded in 1950, Paul & Jimmy’s is owned and run by the Azzollini family; Cosmo Azzollini bought the restaurant, where he worked as a waiter, in 1968, 13 years after emigrating from Italy. Cosmo’s grandson, Greg, is the current executive chef. This neighborhood favorite is the archetypal Italian restaurant, serving classics such as spaghetti carbonara, ravioli Bolognese, chicken cacciatore, and zuppa di pesce. It offers a small-plate menu that changes weekly (options might include wild mushroom risotto with truffle oil, meatballs and garlic toast, and prosciutto-wrapped shrimp) as well as a prix-fixe menu for both lunch and dinner. And if you fall in love with its filetto di pomodoro, puttanesca, or signature Nonna’s sauce, you can buy a jar to bring home.
129 East 18th Street (at Irving Place)
Pete’s Tavern. Image: Jazz Guy/Flickr
Housed in an 1829 building that was originally a hotel and serving its house ale since 1864, Pete’s Tavern claims to be New York City’s oldest continually operating drinking establishment. Even Prohibition did not stop it; the tavern simply masqueraded as a flower shop during that time. Loyal customer O. Henry immortalized the pub in his short story “The Lost Blend.” Its tin-tile ceiling, brick walls, and wooden booths and tables speak to its history, though cocktails such as Apple Pie on the Rocks, made with Fireball whiskey, and the Cayenne Mango Margarita show that Pete’s is not averse to keeping up with the times. All the same, the menu is comfortingly old school: burgers, penne à la vodka, eggplant parmigiana, cheesecake, spumoni. In short, it is everything a neighborhood institution should be.
101 East 19th Street (at Park Avenue South)
Union Square Café. Image: _molins/Flickr
When it launched in 1985, Union Square Café was located on 16th Street. In late 2016 it moved three blocks north. Like Gramercy Tavern, it was the brainchild of Danny Meyer; in fact is was his first restaurant and remains the flagship of his Union Square Hospitality Group. The new, larger, multilevel location does nothing to dim the restaurant’s iconic status. It is still praised for its friendly but never fawning service and its contemporary cuisine. Though the menu is well curated you might still find it difficult to decide on your dishes: Spaghettini with duck liver ragù or ricotta gnocchi with tomato-basil passatina? Swordfish with charred octopus and eggplant or pan-roasted Peking duck? The cheese plate, with offerings from five farms within a few hours’ drive, or a strawberry pavlova? The good news is that you really cannot make a wrong choice.