The Nostalgic Comfort of Normcore Dining

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Images of tableware on a restaurant table.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo

Is chicken marsala on the menu? Will I be able to order creamy rigatoni with string beans and sun-dried tomatoes? Are the waiters in their 70s? Is there carpeting? Is the lighting unflattering? Would my grandmother like it? If so, count me in — and, yes, I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Ideally, I’m making my reservation for 1987. That’s a joke, because who even knows whether any of my favorite restaurants in New York take reservations. You certainly don’t need one to eat in them.

I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo

Normcore fashion, we all now know well, is a reaction to trendiness overload, a Champion sweatshirt in the face of a cutout leather dress. And as the city I grew up in has become both too fancy and too self-consciously cool for my liking, I’ve found myself seeking out restaurants that remind me of the New York of my childhood — or, even better, have actually been around since my childhood — that serve yummy, if not spectacular, food in settings that are nice, if not too nice. It’s just too exhausting to get all excited by a hyperfetishization and irritating self-consciousness and meticulousness surrounding everything from the morel mushrooms to the marble bar tops and menu fonts. There is something really great about going to a place that doesn’t have 857 Yelp reviews, where you can actually get in as a party of five without a reservation on a Friday night, and where the food itself isn’t going to be the main topic of conversation — and you can actually have a conversation. Whatever people say about how hard it is to keep a restaurant open in this city, New York has a lot of normcore options.

I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo

What is normcore dining? First things first: Normcore does not equal bad. In fact, most of these spots are really quite wonderful. If a restaurant has lasted since 1992 in Soho, it has to be slightly better than passable. (Even if it owns the building or has a great lease.) Also, restaurants like Donohue’s, Gene’s, Lucien, Indochine, or anything owned, or once owned, by Keith McNally are not normcore. Though they’ve been around for ages, they are too widely beloved, too trendy still — consider them the white leather ­Birkenstocks of New York restaurants. But restaurants that were once super-fashionable — even as recently as the early aughts — and have since faded slightly, like Kelley and Ping with its vast Greene Street space and ’90s modelly looking waitresses? Or Noho Star with its snazzy marble décor and chicken with black-bean sauce? Or the over-the-top China Grill with its wasabi mashed potatoes? Or Café Loup with its jazz brunches? All of them are normcore. Also: Chicken is really normcore.

I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo

A great normcore restaurant is, as a ­colleague puts it, blotted out by the sun — in other words, it’s a place you might walk by every day but forget exists and is actually still great. Downtown Manhattan is somehow full of these: the Cupping Room on West Broadway, Spring Street Natural on Lafayette, Tre Giovani on La Guardia, Knickerbocker on University, Bistro Les Amis on Spring. Instead of waiting three hours for a table at Buvette, get an odd-but-delicious open-faced shrimp-and-bacon sandwich with mayo and basil vinaigrette while sitting among a bunch of oddballs at Elephant & Castle.

I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo
Find a restaurant frozen in the (choose a decade)

Choose a decade

  • 2000s
  • 1990s
  • 1980s
  • 1970s
  • 1960s and before
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo

So it’s suddenly fashionable for chefs to reinterpret old New York restaurant tropes — Carbone has taken on the red-sauce joint, Mission Chinese has taken on the white-tablecloth Chinese restaurant — but why not just go to the originals? For red-sauce realness, try the capellini Bolognese at Queen in Brooklyn Heights or the penne vodka while staring at the Statue of Liberty at Gigino in Battery Park. For Chinese, get the beef lo mein at Chef Ho’s on the Upper East Side, and a (rare, these days) free glass of wine with your sesame chicken at the ­Cottage on the Upper West Side. Shun Lee toes the line between normcore and not — but if you order the Grand Marnier prawns, it works.

I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo

But, just to be clear, Carbone and Mission Chinese are not normcore. So is it possible for a new restaurant to be normcore? Of course! There are tons of them in my South Brooklyn neighborhood, which I frequent often; from Watty & Meg, to Table 87, to Aperture. All great restaurants, all easy to get into on a Saturday night.

I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo

There are also restaurants that my family, a real proto-normcore bunch of ­Reebok-and-LeSportsac uptowners, have been going to for decades. I’ve seen Robert Caro dining next to me while I was nibbling on my canard Rôti at the bilevel, carpeted French bistro La Mirabelle on West 86th Street; the waiters all knew my grandmother’s name — and her veal scallopini order — at nearby Scaletta; and the last time we went to La Ripaille on Hudson Street a few months ago, we were literally the only ones there. Which was fine by me.

I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo

My truly subjective and only-based-on-the-parts-of-the-city-I-know-best map of normcore restaurants. (Suggest your own favorites in the comments section!)

I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap.
I’d like a basket of bread served with the type of butter that you have to unwrap. Photo: Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo/© Jonny White / Alamy Stock Photo

*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.