Chef Ed Lee's Favorite NYC Restaurants

When the chef returns home, here are his go-to spots

"The beauty and the tragedy of New York is that it changes every 10 years." Truer words have never been spoken, so it's no surprise they come from one of the wisest chefs around: Ed Lee.

Having grown up in Brooklyn and cooked for many years in NYC before settling down in Louisville, Lee knows a thing or two about the ebb and flow of NYC's dining scene.

The acclaimed chef is in town this week for the New York City Wine & Food Festival, where he'll be cooking with Deuki Hong, so we caught up with him to talk all things NYC and Louisville.

"I always hit one of the old classics, and one new and trendy," Lee says of where he likes to eat while he's in town. His go-to spot is Peking Duck House in Chinatown, and another favorite is under-the-radar Japanese gem Hakata Tonton in the West Village. "They specialize in pigs' feet," Lee says.

"I'm always excited to go back to Mission Chinese—spectacular stuff," he continues. "If I have a hankering and I have the time, I'll got to the Di Fara. I remember going there as a kid," Lee, who grew up in Canarsie, says.

"Then there's always one or two places I won't tell people about," he continues. (Hey, we respect that.)

Lee is also excited about NYC's current French dining renaissance (think newcomers like Le Coucou, Le Coq Rico, Le Turtle and Mimi, to name a few).

"I grew up in the time of the great French bistro, and actually one of my favorite restaurants ever was this Alsatian French bistro called L'acajou. It's still, to me, my favorite restaurant anywhere in the world." Unfortunately, the restaurant is no longer open, but Lee's looking forward to exploring the other French stunners that have popped up of late. Le Coucou is on that list as is revisiting Gabriel Kreuther, where he had what he calls the best meal all year.

"Whenever I get startled by a meal, I like to go back," he says.

Though he misses certain traits of the NYC with which he grew up—like "great old diners, a great Latino food culture all over the city and dive bars"—he doesn't lament them.  

"You have to have room for improvement. I lived through the worst crime years of NYC. It's give-and-take."

Lee is similarly cognizant of what might be lost as the hotel and restaurant scene in Louisville, his home for the last 14 years, continues to build up, and makes an effort to celebrate the food culture as much as the developing dining culture. This means he frequents and takes out-of-towners to establishments like Freddie's bar, where you drink bourbon with a bag of potato chips, and Shirley Mae's Café, where food comes on paper plates and there aren't any waiters.

"The culture and the narrative is wonderful," he says. It's an effort New Yorkers might do well to try themselves—before it's too late to get a bagel and cream cheese that isn't rainbow.

Ed Lee's NYC
Go-to: Peking Duck House
Under-the-radar gem: Hakata Tonton
Hot spot: Mission Chinese
Childhood favorite: Di Fara
Fancy French: Gabriel Kreuther