There are a bunch of restaurants in the world, including some in New York City. But in a city of over 24,000 restaurants, how do you find the best? You begin your search in places that are already popular: New York's hottest tourist destinations. In the new feature The Best Restaurant in New York Is, writers Caity Weaver and Rich Juzwiak attempt to determine the best restaurant in New York.
The best restaurant in New York is
The American Girl Café, located inside American Girl Place.
Cost, before tip (including 2 glasses of champagne and 1 Shirley Temple a la carte)
Caity: I think we have to start with the escalators. Escalators are one of the biggest issues facing American Girl Place today.
Rich: The child in front of us, who took approximately five minutes to muster up the courage to step on, congratulated herself after: “Yay! That’s nice, Mommy!” (I wasn't particularly impressed, tbh.)
Caity: There is also a sign outside the American Girl Café providing extensive text instructions about stepping off an escalator, and informing parents that, if their children are wearing "Crocs™ , flip-flops, or similar footwear," they should not take the escalator.
Rich: It seems ridiculous but I bet there have been incidents. Now, witnessing one would be well worth the price of the meal we ate, but you don't want to be part of that.
Caity: I would not have been surprised if our prix-fixe meal had been accompanied by an escalator-themed dramatic performance. They included everything else. Like dolls! Because we were the only table without one in the whole place.
Rich: When you walk in, they ask, "Table number?" (They assign you a table number when you check in before walking into the dining room, which, let's be honest, is just busy work for everyone.) And then they say, "How many dolls?"
Tell the people what I said.
Caity: You said "Just this one!" and pointed to me. (At exactly the same time, I mumbled "Zero," which undercut the moment a little bit.) It really felt like you were taking me out for a special day.
Rich: It was your special day even if you were not given the crown that said, "It's My Special Day," which they distributed to children who claimed it was their birthday.
The people LOVED when I said that. ("So cute!") I think they thought we were in love.
Caity: I think I did too.
Anyway, my doll was a randomly customized humanoid with brown hair and brown eyes, not unlike myself.
Rich: Mine was supposedly male.
Caity: "I call him Bieber!" the waiter’s assistant said, after you wondered aloud whether it was "a boy or just butch."
Rich: That man was very nice. EVERYONE WAS SO NICE. The place is run with the efficiency and courtesy of a Disney property.
Caity: I thought the same thing. We were treated like first class passengers on the Titanic.
Let's describe the four courses.
Rich:The first thing we had were dainty little cinnamon buns. I’d say Cinnabon-level taste and texture. I finished mine in two bites.
Caity: The sticky buns themselves were fine. The novelty of having sticky buns—AS AN APPETIZER—was incredible. It set a confusing tone for the rest of the meal, but not an unpleasant one.
Rich: Dessert in the front and the back. Party everywhere in between.
Caity: It was sort of the restaurant experience I designed as an 8-year-old when I would make my Nana pretend to eat Play-Doh in her basement: girls only; constant dessert; everyone gets a doll; lots of little gifts to hoard (including a FREE PINK BOW HAIR TIE that doubles as a napkin ring and a doll-sized cup and saucer set).
Rich: The girl sitting directly across from me who was having her special day with just her mom was feeding her doll out of the miniature teacup, and she looked so despondent. Like she was just going through the motions of feeding an inanimate object a drink that wasn't actually there.
Caity: She did look sad! I figured her Mom had brought her as a Sorry-Daddy-And-I-Are-Getting-Divorced treat until the waiter sang "Happy Birthday."
Rich: At least she got a doll outfit, a fake balloon for her doll to hold, and an unbelievable birthday cake.
Caity: I did worry that maybe we were ruining her fun birthday experience by being weird adults eating alone with dolls.
Rich: No way, she got to stare at us without me scowling at her. That's basically the nicest present I've ever given anyone.
There were four men and one boy dining in total, surrounded by let's say 30-40 females. (One man was wearing sweatpants.) The majority of the waiters and their "assistants" (a euphemism if ever there were — next time I'll bring my "roommate") were also male, and made to wear pink aprons that looked like string bikinis. I guess that's feminist? The men serve the women?
Caity: I don't know if string bikini was exactly the shape they were going for, but the aprons were certainly angular. They looked like unflattering dress-length halter tops on both sexes.
Course 2 was Baby's First Weird Little Crudité Platter, which the American Girl website describes as "A family-style platter featuring soft pretzel bread with honey mustard, cheddar cheese triangles, grapes, crisp vegetables with ranch dipping sauce, and chicken-salad cups."
I obsessed over the online sample menu for several days before our lunch date, and I was very excited for the chicken-salad cups. They did not disappoint. About a teaspoon's worth of chicken salad in a tiny tarte shell.
Our platter had no grapes.
Rich: We also got one pretzel bite apiece, which would be infuriating if they weren't so damn caloric. DO NOT READ THE CALORIE COUNT OF PRETZEL BITES AT THE MOVIES IF YOU WANT TO CONTINUE TO ENJOY PRETZEL BITES. I mean they're seriously 1500 calories (sorry for literally spoiling that for you).
Caity: To be honest, that was all the pretzel bites I needed since I had just finished a sticky bun and two chicken salad cups and had a cheeseburger and desserts on the way.
Rich: Funnily enough, pretzel bites came up in conversation, too: The American Girl Café provides small cards with questions to ask your table, which at first I thought was sooooo wack. It actually turned out to be very stimulating. I learned things about you, Caity, and your former schoolmate, Keisha.
Caity: I loved the cards IMMEDIATELY. I wish all restaurants had them. I learned a lot about your childhood. Your dog Ted.
Rich: The relevant question was, "What's your favorite movie snack? What makes it so good?"
Caity: Do you remember my favorite movie snack?
Rich: “Milk Duds” and what makes them good is “the taste.”
I like that we got to debate the worth of grading things like handwriting and gym class performance. These questions were topical and illuminating.
Caity: The cards made our conversation a little more stilted than it is naturally, but we covered conversation areas we otherwise never would have, so I loved it.
Rich: Well sure. It was formal. But hey, we were in a classy place.
If I had to pick a word to describe the American Girl Café, it would be chill. No one threw a tantrum. I think everyone was placated by the commerce that inevitably preceded their trip up to the restaurant. The kids were zonked out on their new dolls.
Caity: And no one on staff acted like it was the least bit strange we were there alone and (initially) doll-less.
Rich: Two normal people eating at a doll store's restaurant and one of them was sipping champagne the whole time. One mother kept eyeing me.
Caity: I felt like I was having lunch with a glamorous Upper East Side mom. (I got a disappointing Shirley Temple and a fantastic pink lemonade.)
Do you think we looked weirder with or without the dolls?
Rich: I think we looked equally weird in different ways, much like the lenticular pictures downstairs that went from photos of the dolls to cartoon renderings of the dolls. One Uncanny Valley to the next.
Staff members asked THREE times how our food was. You loved your burger.
Caity: Yes! On the menu, it was described as a burger with bleu cheese sauce (which struck me as a VERY strange choice for a children's restaurant, and also a VERY blegh choice for any restaurant), so I asked if I could substitute for another cheese. The waiter offered "American." You pointed out later that he could have said “American GIRL,” though it was really not that kind of place, Rich. (I ended up bargaining him up to cheddar.)
Rich: I just wish it were a little bit more of that kind of place. They could have been a little more punny.
Caity: Yes, but American Girl is always going for more aspirational than kiddish These are $110 dolls that are hard to play with. American Girl isn't about fun. It's about American Girl.
Rich: That's true. Hence the cosmopolitan bleu cheese sauce. And speaking of cosmopolitan, I had the pizza, which was cut into 9s like a tic tac toe board. I had the option of pepperoni O’s and pepper X’s, which I refused. I mean, that's for like toddlers.
Caity: I wonder: Would they have provided the ingredients on the side pre-cooked? And let you place them?
Rich: I wonder too. And how many games would I go through before I got tired of the games and just wanted to eat? Probably less than one.
Caity: To be honest, we ordered the most childish items possible. Can this young man please have a PLAIN CHEESE PIZZA? (And two glasses of champagne.)
Rich: My pizza was somewhere between Little Caesar's and roller rink. It was thin but not crispy. Flimsy. Cornmeal on the bottom, which I love, but in this case it added little. The nine squares added up to what amounted to a little more than a normal slice of pizza. But I'm not mad. It was better than at least half the pizza I've had at random places in New York.
Caity: I would say the same of my cheeseburger. I'd order it again because I'm a kid and I hate to try new things at American Girl Place. I want everything to stay the same forever and no one to get divorced on my birthday.
Dessert was buck wild.
Rich: Dessert was the best course. Cupcake with a shortbread cookie in the shape of a heart? Flawless. Mousse in flower pot merch? Flawless.
Caity: "That mousse is buttery as shit!" you exclaimed, SWEARING in the American Girl Café.
"I'm not with him," I told my doll.
Rich: How many “Happy Birthdays” did we count?
Caity: Ten. Isabella, Olivia, Selena, Abby, Giulianna, Jasmine, Gianna, Something-dy, and two that were absolutely unintelligible.
Rich: I never thought I'd say this, but I miss the days of chain restaurants having their own birthday songs. I wanted a "Happy Birthday to You/American Girl" mashup.
Caity: One of the very few things American Girl does wrong is that they don't get multiple staffers to sing the Happy Birthday song the way chain restaurants do. The Happy Birthday song sang by one quiet gay man sounds more like a Happy Birthday dirge.
Rich: You're right. He's singing his life and it feels mad '80s.
Caity: Every rendition we heard was anemic. But, of course, the American Girl Café simply doesn’t have the manpower. With 10 happy birthdays in about as many minutes—all scrunched into the dessert course—you need to keep the performances efficient.
Rich: So, you have to climb three stories to get to this restaurant which means you have to come down three stories to get out, thereby passing a ton of things you can buy. In our 45-minute trip down to the ground, I learned three things:
- Addy escaped slavery so that she could afford a $90 table-and-two-chairs set that could only fit doll bodies.
- The American Girls are, largely, middle class and cost at least $110 a pop, which is to say nothing of the outfits, the accessories ($20 doll curling iron — about the price of a real, human, functional curling iron, right?), the hairdos ($20 "ponytail veil" done by an in-store American Girl Doll beautician), the pets, the outfits, the furniture, etc., that you can buy to spiffy up your doll. It costs a lot of money, let's say UPPER CLASS money, to play this middle-class drag game. That's perverted?
- Girls have so many options. They can carry umbrellas, they can ride bikes, they can play instruments, they can frolic with their friends in the streets of New Orleans.
Caity: American Girl Place really stokes the fires of materialism (which, granted, are always burning at 5-alarm levels) in me. I want to buy all the dolls for myself and for my unborn daughter. I want us each to have our own set of pristine dolls that we never take outside for fear of getting them dirty. I want Rebecca's gold and periwinkle butterfly costume plus "theater accessories."
Rich: That's sick. You are sick.
Is Everything Okay?:
Would you go back?
Caity: It's a bit pricey, but I would definitely go back because it was a fun experience and my cheeseburger had fried onions on it. American Girl Café is my second favorite restaurant in Midtown.
Rich: I would go back if you made me.
Is it a good first date spot?
Caity: Yes! The service is excellent, everyone is in a good mood, and you have instant conversation topics 1) because it's a weird place to be 2) because you literally have them there on the table.
Rich: Yes, especially if the date is between a girl and her gay friend.
Is it a good place to have an affair?
Caity: Possibly. There’s a low chance of getting caught if you go in the middle of the day on a weekday, but if you do see someone you know, there is no avoiding them. There is no way to be inconspicuous at the American Girl Café.
Rich: Also, there's no explaining your way out of it if you’re caught there with another grown up. I would avoid it, especially if your circle includes moms without jobs who live in or near the Upper East Side.
Is it a good place to bring a doll?
Caity: This is probably one of the best restaurants in New York City to bring a doll.
Rich: Dolls eat like kings at the American Girl Café.
[Photos by Caity Weaver]