What Makes A Neighborhood Restaurant Truly Great

What makes a neighborhood restaurant truly great, and why real ones are so hard to find

Jimmy Bradley doesn't want laurels. Sitting at a two-top at The Red Cat, the restaurant the 47-year-old owns in Chelsea, Bradley catches a server as he pours water into his glass. "Viramo," he says, "I keep forgetting to mention, maybe the laurel isn't the best. The blossoms don't wanna stay on the branch." Viramo, a dark-haired waiter who doubles as the restaurant's florist, nods, a little crestfallen. To soften the blow, Bradley adds, "They look pretty though."

The laurels that greet diners in the foyer of the new American bistro are soon removed, to be replaced with something more durable, like pear or blueberry branches. Branches, Bradley tells me, hold up well. And I trust him. Since The Red Cat has been around for 17 years, Bradley knows from durability.

The Red Cat has been a fixture in Chelsea since it opened there in 1999, when the High Line was just a rusty old railway and the Hudson River lay behind a chain-link fence and dirt. Nearly two decades later, it remains that rara avis every town so desperately needs: a Great Neighborhood Restaurant, or the GNR.  (Apologies to Axl.)

The prototypical GNR is neither just a great restaurant nor a neighborhood restaurant, or even simply the overlap of greatness and neighborhoodliness. It's something more complex and fluid. A Great Neighborhood Restaurant must be great per se, but it also must be harmonious in its relationship to where it lives.

The GNR is a shimmering thing that takes myriad forms. It varies from city to city, from neighborhood to neighborhood. Daniel, a white-tableclothed GNR in the Upper East Side, shares almost no cosmetic similarities with Raoul's, a crowded GNR of Soho. Daniel is much more buttoned up, elegant, expensive, old. But so too are its environs. If a GNR exists in relation to its neighborhood, naturally, it is as mutable as man is. But it's clear, as well, when a restaurant caters to a neighborhood clientele and when it doesn't. Price point relative to mean income is usually a good indicator. So is if and how many tables are reserved for walk-ins. I can think of a few restaurants off the top of my head that purport to be neighborhood restaurants but instead are simply hawking an idealized idea of said neighborhood to outsiders. This is not what a GNR does.

"A Great Neighborhood Restaurant is a feeling when you walk in the door," JoAnn Clevenger, the septuagenarian owner of a Garden District GNR in New Orleans called Upperline, says. "It's the feeling that you'll be taken care of." Clevenger achieves this by alighting from table to table, bending her magnificent crown of gray hair down and making you feel as if you're the only one in the restaurant. It's not the turtle soup that keeps people going back since 1983. It's the woman who serves it.

The Red Cat isn't that way. Bradley is more behind the scenes. He leaves the welcoming to the hosts, many of whom have been there for years. Nor can one really generalize exactly how this sense of belonging is instilled from one GNR to the next. Some of it probably has to do with the placing of the host stand, if one exists, and the greeting and the layout, but more often than not, a sense of belonging is like a fart: You know it's there, you don't always know where it came from and the sense of it embraces you.

As for some other attributes of a GNR, they are less nebulous.

The food is comforting but excellently done.

Whereas the peloton of 50 Best and the Michelin junkies chase innovation and invention, the rallying cry for GNRs is comfort food. Bradley, for instance, is proud that his menu is, as he says, "straight down the middle of the fucking road." Think pastas that look like pastas. Plating that doesn't look like the food has already been eaten and the scraps merely artfully arranged. Salads in, gasp, bowls.

This isn't to say the food isn't excellent or surprising, but it is rarely challenging. This isn't normcore cooking either. A recent pasta special from The Red Cat, for instance, was a ceccamariti, a rather obscure slippery pasta from Salento made from bread dough. And while the quick sauté of zucchini has been on the menu for three presidents, the mechanic of toasted almonds and julienned zucchini is just as fresh today as when it was introduced.  

Perhaps the most salient factor in distinguishing between a GNR and a neighborhood joint is that the staff at the latter do not mistake comfort food for sloppy cooking. "It's about giving a shit," Bradley says, "every day." And because this shit-giving is unlikely to be rewarded in any formalized way, it takes a special and rare breed of restaurateur to do it. One must be either motivated by an almost samurai-like sense of honor and duty, or, as in Bradley's case, a sort of hard-bitten old-school Philly-and-Rhode Island sense of righteousness.

The bar scene is lively but not slammed.

The lifeblood of a GNR is the bar, no matter how fancy or casual it is. A gracious and spacious bar where solo diners can enjoy their meals alone is necessary—for the solo diner at the bar is the protagonist of all GNR stories. It is he or she who is the Edward Kennedy, the swing vote. Barry Wine (order: Negroni, quick tempura of string beans), who has been going to The Red Cat for a dozen years and nearly always sits at the bar, puts it thusly, "You want the perfect ratio of supply and demand, never too crowded, so you don't have someone waiting behind you, but never empty either."  

But there is more than simply having space and volume. There must be a food menu available at the bar, but the cocktail menu must be adroitly calibrated, too. Thomas Carter of Estela, which is only debatably a GNR—great, it is; neighborhoody, well, I'm not so sure—has calibrated the cocktails to be easily made. "The point is," he tells me, "to give the bartender time to interact with the people sitting at the bar." So a GNR will always have perfect rye Manhattans, and you won't have to explain you don't mean perfect as in well executed but perfect as in equal parts dry and sweet vermouth. But these are not elaborate chadō-level preparations, nor should they be.

The patina is real, but the decor isn't shabby.

We live in an era of restaurant simulacra. There are design firms whose entire raison d'être is to gin up a sense of history through the uncanny use of flea market material and patina finishes. Very successful restaurant groups specialize in such manufactured nostalgia, so one can not trust fully materials. Nevertheless, GNRs wear the handsome creases of an aging movie star. Robert Redford isn't any less handsome for his laugh lines, nor is The Red Cat for its lived-in bones. But it's a studied well-kempt age. Bradley says not without dismay, things do change. They just change quietly. "People come in and say it's stayed the same for 15 years," he says. "I tell them, you know what? If nothing ever changed, it'd be fucking disgusting. Things change all the time. The art is in not showing the changes."

And this speaks to the point of how time plays into all this. While instant GNRs exist—often in neighborhoods which themselves are uber trendy, like MePa, where Santina is a bona fide instant GNR—more often than not whether a place actually is a GNR is not manifest immediately. Andrew Carmellini, whose The Dutch and Locanda Verde both qualify as GNRs, says, "There's always the first six months of a restaurant, and then there's the rest of the life. It takes up to a year to know that you've nailed the neighborhood place. You just don't know that in the beginning."

I might argue that a GNR takes years to develop into maturity. Like a fighter, it's got to get into deep water, go to the championship rounds. When no one is looking, when you're really sure no one is looking, and you still julienne the zucchini with precision, that's the mark of the GNR. And it takes time for people not to pay attention.  

There is a community of regulars who disappear like the 1919 Black Sox in Field of Dreams when they leave.

Gaining entry to a GNR doesn't guarantee acceptance. A GNR is like a community. Actually, it isn't like a community, it is a community with all those invisible electric fences of kinship one must surmount through commitment and the accumulation of hours. This isn't to say this is a "close" community, or even a particularly warm and fuzzy one. Often the bonds among regulars are anonymous, without context outside the restaurant and within it, embodied by small talk and a raised glass. Jim Kempner, an art dealer, has been going to The Red Cat for 17 years. "My favorite part is still the characters I've met at the bar," he says. Yet when asked whether he sees them outside 227 10th Avenue, he pauses. "A few," he says, "but that's not really what those relationships are like." Though gossamer, the connections are real and the community is real, too.

And, of course, the staff are key.

A neighborhood restaurant with high front-of-house turnover will never be a GNR. For people don't relate to places or plates; they relate to other people. A bartender who knows your drink and knows you drink three glasses of water before you order it, a waiter who knows better than to even offer you a menu—these are the herald angels of the GNR. But this knowledge takes time to develop, to become ingrained. Despite the perfection ethos of Make It Nice, the hospitality group from chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, there is no shortcut. It takes time, the greatest luxury. And in that way, I suppose, though a GNR is rarely expensive, it is perhaps the greatest luxury.

So why are they so goddamn hard to find?

Well, let's discuss.

They depend on the health of the neighborhood.

Since Great Neighborhood Restaurants exist in relationship to their neighborhoods, logically, this presupposes the existence of a healthy neighborhood in the first place, which is the first clue as to why the GNR might be so difficult to find. Fifty-five years after The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs's nightmare has become true. Thanks to ever-growing income inequality and to the Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome insanity of the real estate market, New York's neighborhoods—you know, the kind with real people in them—are vanishing. Sure, the names still remain—the Lower East Side, Chelsea, Tribeca, Hell's Kitchen, the West Village—but as for that chaotic fabric that turns a zip code into a community, much of that has been bulldozed away.

This affects the GNR in two ways. Firstly, without its natural habitat, a GNR withers. It can not exist any more than a penguin can without an ice cap. Secondly, as price-per-square footage fashions wings of wax and soars toward the sun, the financial pressure on restaurant grows, too. Few restaurateurs are as lucky as Jimmy Bradley was to sign an advantageous 25-year lease in an up-and-coming neighborhood.

They often fly under the radar . . . and like it that way.

Those GNRs that do exist largely survive without detection or broad recognition. Restaurants like The Red Cat can rarely afford a PR firm and probably wouldn't want one anyway. They will never make the usual suspect best-of lists or earn the elusive accolades on which many restaurants rely to keep their dining rooms full. In fact, those accolades are antithetical to what a GNR is. Take, for instance, the most coveted award: the Michelin star. The guide was introduced in 1900 by two brothers, Éduoard and André Michelin, to incentivize French motorists to drive. Two stars means a restaurant merits a detour; three stars means it's worth the journey. There's no award for "Thank God, I live nearby!" One must discover a GNR on one's own or through friends, by those antiquated pre-Internet technologies, like elbow grease and shoe leather and just drifting without agenda.  

But the reward when one finds one's GNR goes beyond laurels or stars. Finally, to find a GNR is to find one's place in the world, to pull up a stool, have a drink and be happy.