The Absolute Best Upscale Seafood Restaurant in New York

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Le Bernardin is painstakingly elegant. Photo: Melissa Hom

It’s not always easy to remember, amid the endless hubbub about bagels and pizza slices and fat-cat steak palaces, that New York is a port town, and for much of our culinary history the most prized delicacies in the city’s restaurants came from the sea. With the overfishing of the oceans, and the long ago death of harbors’ great fish and shellfish populations, much of this old bounty has disappeared. If you have the fortitude to travel out to Flushing for a banquet of Dungeness crab, or the resources to pay big-city prices for a $28 lobster roll, say, or an old-fashioned, impeccably rendered, expense-account piece of Dover sole, it’s still possible to enjoy a first-class, slap-up feast. Here, the best seafood restaurants in New York.

The Absolute Best

1. Le Bernardin
155 W. 51st St., nr. Seventh Ave.; 212-554-1515

When Maguy Le Coze and her brother Gilbert opened for business three decades ago this year, at the bottom of the Equitable Life Assurance building on West 51st Street, their restaurant instantly became the top seafood destination in the city, and until Mme Le Coze and her chef partner, Eric Ripert, decide to retire from the city’s dining scene, that’s not going to change. Sure, it costs a small fortune to secure a table in the dim, peaceful, marine-themed oasis of a dining room (although many similarly decorated four-star joints are more expensive). But go for the wine service, which is the finest in the city, and possibly the entire USA. Go for the classic, old-world table service, which rivals any of the grand dowager restaurants in Paris. Go, of course, for the rainbow of seafood textures and flavors, which, despite the challenges of maintaining variety, quality, and sustainability in the face of mounting odds, has retained its color and range for all these years. Go for the impeccable technique emanating from the kitchen in everything from the baking of bread to the work of the legions of sauciers to the legendary butcher Justo Thomas, who breaks down his fish in the basement for 12 hours a day. But mostly go because this kind of painstakingly elegant establishment is vanishing from our dining world faster than the fish are disappearing from the sea, and when Maguy Le Coze and chef Ripert do finally decide to close their doors for good, we won’t see a restaurant like this in the city again.

2. Marea
240 Central Park S., nr. Broadway; 212-582-5100

Michael White didn’t invent the curious cult of raw-fish crudo (that’s New York’s other neo–Southern Italian seafood chef David Pasternack), and he certainly didn’t invent the art of reconstituting classic Italian coastal pasta recipes in all sorts of inventive, high-end ways. But over the years, at this posh Central Park South establishment, he’s managed — despite the challenges of running an increasingly spotty and overextended restaurant empire — to more or less perfect both. The prices of his up-market pasta creations have crept steadily upward as their reputation has spread far and wide, so go at lunchtime, when the mood in the dining room feels less formal and sunlight filters into the tall windows through the screen of trees in the park across the street. Fifty-two dollars buys a taste of the great house grilled octopus and a tangle of freshly made, perfectly al dente tagliolini tossed with manila clams, which, when you think about it, is a modest price to pay to be transported for a New York minute, or two, directly to some sun-dappled (and, yes, radically overpriced) seafood trattoria perched on the Amalfi cliffs, high above the blue blue Mediterranean sea.

3. Lake Pavilion
60-15 Main St., at Horace Harding Expy., Flushing; 718-886-6693

At this festive, perpetually busy Flushing seafood house, blinking screens on the walls reflect random images of menu items and marine life, the tables are set with violet-colored linens, and the trees in the crowded parking lot are covered, just like parking lots all over modern China, with colorful plastic leaves. But don’t let these wacky trappings fool you. The crowded, mostly Cantonese menu is filled with all sorts of wonders, like slippery piles of little sea snails or manila clams smothered in black-bean sauce, shell-less flash-fried jumbo prawns as big and sweet as plums, and platters of Maine lobster tossed in the thinnest scrim of corn starch with scallions and chunks of ginger that you can taste in the back of your nose. As with any great seafood palace, the key is demand, which leads to freshness, which leads to an endless array of variety. Up to five varieties of crab are available, depending on the season, but if you happen to have $63 in your pocket, we recommend the Dungeness monsters, which arrive at your table more or less direct from the chilly waters of Alaska, by way of nearby JFK, sizzled in a crunchy, vaguely sweet batter, like some strange, savory seafood version of funnel cake.

4. Pearl Oyster Bar
18 Cornelia St., nr. Bleecker St.; 212-691-8211

Like David Chang and his ramen, Rebecca Charles didn’t invent the classic Atlantic Coast oyster bar. But she deserves credit for reimagining it for a new generation of eaters, and her dependable, highly successful template — classic, comforting recipes imbued with first-class ingredients and technique, and a touch of New York largess — has been imitated, not just in the realm of seafood, but all over the endlessly expanding haute-comfort-food map. The vaunted house lobster roll still gets all the press, and for good reason. But the menu is dotted with a veritable murderers’ row of reliable favorites, like the Pearl Caesar and the smoky, bacon-rich clam chowder, as well as the other bountiful, less publicized lunchtime sandwiches (the fried oyster roll, the pan-fried fish sandwich) and the smoked Atlantic salmon, which is plated at this old downtown institution with a loose, buttery johnnycake instead of blinis and an elegant spoonful of crème fraîche.

5. Esca
402 W. 43rd St., at Ninth Ave.; 212-564-7272

The little green-and-white dining room was looking a little threadbare the last time we dropped in, and it’s possible that after 16 years in business, Dave Pasternack enjoys fishing for increasingly elusive stripers under the Verrazano Bridge more than he does slaving away in a hot kitchen. But Pasternack’s seminal crudo creations (pearly slices of halibut belly, mahimahi “au poivre,” pink strips of scorpion fish touched with “lemon wash”) are as fresh and bountiful as ever. The roster of Southern Italian seaside pastas and fish dishes (grilled octopus with giant, gently cooling Corona beans; linguine with clams and pancetta; the ageless salt-baked branzino for two) remain stolidly and satisfyingly unchanged, and who can resist a big-city fritto misto, which contains classic deep-fried New England steamers, delicate tempura-like monkfish cheeks, and, for added effect, a helping of crispy fried blowfish tails?

6. Lupulo
835 Sixth Ave., at 29th St.; 212-290-7600

This Portuguese-themed beer bar isn’t technically a seafood restaurant at all, but George Mendes, who has a gift for channeling the multifaceted cuisine of this outsize seafood nation at both of his restaurants, is one of the best unsung fish chefs in town. If you don’t believe us, belly up to the bar at this bustling 29th Street version of a Portuguese gastropub, and call for an order of the cod fritters, served with piri piri mayonnaise, or the mackerel spread designed to be buttered on slabs of fried “crispy” toast, or the crispy shrimp turnovers spiked with pimenton and shrimp jus. The selection of daily oysters, scrawled on the board above the bar, are among the freshest and best-chosen in town, as are the silvery wood-grilled sardines, and the pink baby shrimp folded into a nourishing egg-and-bread-porridge delicacy called açorda. Most nourishing of all, however, is Mendes’s salt-cod casserole, which is layered in the generous home-cooked style with slivers of crispy-edged potato, hard-boiled eggs, and a scattering of unpitted black olives and hoisted to the table in a cast-iron pot as large as the hubcap of a good-size Lisbon commuter bus.

The Best Upscale Seafood Restaurant in New York