The Restaurant Hall of Fame As Far as I'm Concerned

Some of my favorite restaurants anywhere. Highly biased, naturally, in favor of restaurants in cities where I've lived. (This part of the page is permanently under construction.)

The best Italian restaurant. Gennaro, 665 Amsterdam Avenue (+ 93rd), New York City, (212)-665-5348.

A very tiny, very popular place, serving unassumingly perfect down-home Italian food to elbow-bumping crowds. Come early or be prepared to wait an an hour or more. Or beat the wait and order take-out; you'll be the envy of the upper upper West side as you stroll out past the line with food in hand. I like the Cornish hen, rubbed with lemon, roasted, and set down on top of bitter greens; Tanya has never ever ordered anything but the gnocchi with tomato and basil. The risotto is always exactly right, never over-cheesed, over-salted, or over-cooked. When it's served with squid ink, you can taste the ink. Don't neglect appetizers -- eschew the obvious antipato platter and get the beautifully smooth tomato soup or the plump sardines, stuffed with breadcrumbs, capers, and pine nuts. Bring someone you love, on a cold night when you have something to celebrate. (That you're going to Gennaro on a cold night counts as something to celebrate.)

Update: Gennaro renovated in July 2001 and now has twice as many tables; this has ameliorated the wait somewhat.

The best sushi.Tojo's, 777 W. Broadway, Vancouver, (604)-872-8050

Order the chef's selection and keep reminding yourself they're only Canadian dollars. Except for the tuna sashimi, the house specialty, you probably won't recognize what you're eating. Don't worry about it. Just eat slowly and savor. I've eaten single leaves here that I enjoyed more than most whole meals.

The best pizza.Cheeseboard Pizza, 1504 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA. (510)-549-3055.

The Cheeseboard is a Marxist pizza collective that showcases everything good about centralized command economies. Every morning the collective decides on their pizza of the day. All you get to choose is "how many slices." But you'll never be sorry, because every pie they sell is a glorious, crispy, oil-soaked joy. There's not too much topping and not too much crust; the pizzas here aren't much thicker than a quesadilla, and every bite counts. The four-cheese, three-onion pizza is particularly great. Be warned that the Cheeseboard closes whenever they run out of pizza, which some days can be not too long after they open. If you get shut out, you can buy half-baked Cheeseboard pizzas to bring home at the Cheeseboard market three doors up the street.

The best ice cream.Christina's, 1255 Cambridge St., Cambridge, MA. (617)-492-7021.

You can get your ice cream here in flavors ranging all the way from vanilla to Wild Turkey to clam chowder ( just as bad as you would think. ) The winners here are the exotic variants on familiar flavors, like burnt sugar and Mexican chocolate. Sadly, Christina's ice cream is no longer available at Scoops and Beans in Harvard Square; you'll have to go to their original Inman Square location. (While you're there, check out the mural on the firehouse.)

The best macaroni and cheese. Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too, 366 W 110th St (+Columbus), New York City, 212-865-6744.

This eat-in branch of a popular soul food caterer is uneven, but any trip to the northwest corner of Central Park should include a detour here for a take-out container of macaroni and cheese: tangy, oily, and guaranteed to cancel out an hour's pleasant exercise outdoors.

The best barbecue.Redbone's, 55 Chester St., Somerville, MA. (617)-628-2200. Redbone's website

Eat the soft, saucy, perfect beef here before you mock Massachussetts barbecue. Big, dark, loud, messy room: just like the South, but the valet bike parking tells you it must be Somerville. While you're in Davis Square, stop at Macintyre and Moore's and Disc Diggers: great used books and great used records, respectively, not as picked-through as their counterparts in Harvard Square.

The best hamburger. Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage, 1246 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA. (617)-354-6559.

Mr. Bartley has been serving out his massive juicy burgers to hungry Harvard Square residents (though, surprisingly, not many Harvard undergraduates) since 1960. A Bartley's burger is so moist the bottom bun is soaked by the time it gets to your table. Eat one and you'll wonder why people even noticed when the vastly inferior Tasty bit the dust in 1999. Try one of the specials named for local and national celebrities (I like the Bill Clinton, a "slick burger" with cheese and barbecue sauce) or the standard deluxe. Make sure to get a side of the shoelace-thin onion rings, and wash it all down with a lime rickey. Note for vegetarians and friends of vegetarians: if you eat meat, there's no reason to get anything but a hamburger, but the veggie burgers and the vegetarian platter are said to be good.

NOTE: I am told that Tom Cruise works at Bartley's in the early part of The Firm.

The best Morningside Heights lunch. The Mill, 2895 Broadway (+ 113th), New York City, (212)-666-7653.

Good, cheap Korean lunch specials just three blocks from Columbia; I like the bi bim bap. Everything comes with a bowl of miso, a little plate of kimchi, and three other appetizers, which range from spicy seaweed to marinated potatoes to tiny whole sardines. If you're in the mood for something more festive, get your bi bim bap in a hot stone pot. Leave the sizzling dish alone while you eat your amouse-bouche, and the rice fries into a tasty crust.

The best Mexican restaurant. Cafe Poca Cosa 110 E. Pennington St. , Tucson. (520)-622-6400.

Don't let downtown Tucson's deserted streets scare you away from this popular restaurant in the old Santa Rita hotel (see update below), which serves sophisticated Mexican food (no taco, no enchilada, no burrito) to a satisfied crowd. The place is somehow dark and cavelike but at the same time colorful and festive. There are lots of reviews from German travel magazines on the wall; so if you are German and like Mexican food, it seems you will be especially happy here. German or not, you should order the Plato Poca Cosa ("Little Thing Plate"), which gives you the chef's choice of one beef dish and one chicken dish, and a hunk of tamale pie so moist and unformed it seems to be held together only by the intense force of its corn-liciousness. Everything here tastes better and more complicated the longer you hold it in your mouth. Don't forget to breathe.

Update: Poca Cosa has moved from the Santa Rita; the address above is correct.

The best cod with aioli. Cafe de l'Academia, Lledo 1, Barcelona.

All I remember from the lunch I had here in 1992 is the garlickiest aioli I ever had. Which is the point.

The best diner.Tastee Diner,7731 Woodmont Avenue, Bethesda, MD. (301)-652-3970. Tastee Diner website.

Everybody thinks their hometown all-night diner is really the best one. I think so too, and, as it happens, I am right. In a city of restaurants, Tastee Diner is mightiest of all. Nothing is bad. Everything is cheap. Don't eschew your table-side jukebox.

The best tom ka gai. Cha Am, 1543 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA. (415)-546-9710.

The alliance of sweet and hot is best understood by ordering coconut chicken soup at this upstairs Thai in the heart of Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto. (See Cheeseboard Pizza above.) Spicy little blobs of chili oil float to the top and inhabit each rich, milky spoonful of broth, creating a harmony that both surprises and seems unquestionably correct. The vegetarian version makes essentially the same point.

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Jordan Ellenberg * * revised 24 Jun 2002