The only consolation for standing in the slow-moving queue towards Immigration at New York's JFK airport recently was watching other parents being harangued by their teenage children about their forthcoming shopping spree with the pound currently so strong against the dollar. In the likely event that this may continue for some time, here are three restaurants with unique charms for those eating out with their families.
The New York steakhouse Those diehards who still swear by Peter Luger across the water in Brooklyn, a restaurant that has history on its side but does not take reservations or credit cards, will now have to think again with the opening a year ago of Wolfgang's only a few blocks away from the Empire State Building.
The restaurant takes its name from Wolfgang Zweiner, who worked at Luger's for a mere 41 years, before finding this historic ground floor site whose barrel-vaulted ceilings are constructed of rookwood ceramic tiles, the work of none other than architect Rudolph Guastavino almost a century ago for the Vanderbilt family. And as Teddy, Wolfgang's charismatic maitre d', succinctly explained to me, "Those Vanderbilts certainly knew how to live."
Into this exquisite setting Wolfgang and his son Peter have introduced all the prerequisites of a New York steakhouse: a clubby bar serving warm, moreish potato chips; waiters, not waitresses, in long white aprons, with plenty of wit and opinions (our Serbian waiter even tipped England to win the 2006 World Cup), and, best of all, a no-nonsense menu.
Generous first courses include little neck clams; oysters; a crabmeat salad; and more than competent vegetable salads. But these are all by way of a warm-up for the main attraction, the house's porterhouse steak served for two, three or four but in such munificence that the three of us could not finish the one supposedly for two. The excellence of the creamed spinach, the German potatoes and the simply steamed broccoli should not be overlooked either, nor the restaurant's cheesecake.
If the restaurant's only fault lies in a rather unexciting wine list, its final, particular charm lies in watching the genial, gentle-faced Wolfgang walk the floor with such obvious pride.
The Italian restaurant No restaurant playing Frank Sinatra at some volume on a Friday evening can have failed to gauge what its customers want to listen to while having a good time eating Italian food in New York.
But the recent opening of English is Italian makes the process even simpler by abandoning a formal menu in favour of two prix fixe menus – US$39 for antipasti, pasta and main courses (US$33 without the main course and lower prices at lunch) - with unlimited quantities of those dishes which particularly appeal. And all this before discovering that our waitress was called Lolita!
The restaurant takes its name from chef Todd English who has here teamed up with restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow to offer the type of food he remembers his Italian grandparents serving. It is a noble and fun ambition and by and large it works in a buzzy, corner site which acts like a film set for the numerous numbers of large parties in the middle of the room and the smaller tables down the side.
We began with a large plate of salami that was soon joined by dishes of salt cod fritters, tuna and several vegetable dishes. Then came a series of pasta dishes – ravioli with an earthy meat sauce, bugatini with clams, and a baked pasta dish that was best of all – and then three main courses, a fillet of sea bass with radish and a cucumber salad, chicken 'hunter style' and a delicious rendering of slowly cooked brisket of beef topped with onion rings. The dessert plate, the work of an obviously talented pastry chef called Tiffany MacIsaac, is also remarkable, particularly her peanut butter torte.
Pizzas and ice cream These two food items have become so closely associated with this city that it is possible to find them on almost any street corner, but to enjoy the most authentic, head down to where Fifth Avenue meets Washington Square in Greenwich Village to eat, drink and relax at Otto.
Otto is the brainchild of the hugely charismatic chef Mario Batali with significant input from his business partner Joe Bastianich and Mario's father, Armandino, an ace curer of all Italian meats who has overseen the restaurant's salumeria from his base in Seattle.
Otto falls into two distinctive parts. The front section is designed to resemble the buffet of an Italian train station with marble topped tables forming convenient places for customers to mingle, drink and enjoy several antispasti plates. Behind is the pizzeria which produces classic and novel renditions such as fennel and bottarga and the most satisfying version of that hybrid dish, spaghetti with meatballs. But the ice creams, made by Meredith Kurtzman, a qualified pastry chef who subsequently turned to the world of gelati, are delicious and range from olive oil with blood oranges to rhubarb with zabaglione, not forgetting particularly fine renditions of vanilla, chocolate and caramel.
Wolfgang's Steakhouse, 4 Park Avenue (at 33st Street), 212-889-3369
English is Italian 622 Third Avenue at 40th Street, 212-404 1700
Otto, One Fifth Avenue on 8th Street, 212-995 9559.