Rich: Rock Center Cafe is the ideal spot to eat if you enjoy watching people, specifically children, fall down.
Caity: Finally, a restaurant for people who love to see children cry. There is a hot chocolate on the menu, but it has vodka in it. Sorry, children.
The best restaurant in New York is
Rock Center Café, adjacent to the Rink at Rockefeller Center
À la carte
Cost before tip
Caity: This was, from start to finish, the most anxiety-filled excursion we've made since we emigrated from the United States to Liberty Island a couple months ago. Rock Center Café is an easy place to see, but a much harder place to find.
We made a couple false starts, including almost directly walking onto the Rockefeller Center ice skating rink. Eventually, an employee on the sub-street level informed us that to enter the restaurant we had to walk back up to the street level in order to take an elevator back down to the sub-street level, where the restaurant was.
There appears to be only one elevator dedicated to this purpose. We shared it with a little girl driving a small plastic car.
Rich: All the while, we were surrounded by a throng of people who were joyful, I guess? They certainly had some semblance of the yuletide spirit.
Caity: We walked by some school children singing a song from "Frozen" while waiting in a very long line for—what exactly? Unclear. For their chance to sing songs from "Frozen" at the front of the line, perhaps.
I danced to "All I Want for Christmas Is You," which was playing from a boombox.
Rich: It was playing from my heart.
Caity: Once we made it into the cafe, a woman asked us if we had reservation with the same seriousness of purpose with which a flight attendant might ask "Is there a doctor in the house?" And we did! Thank God. The restaurant was packed.
Rich: They seated us right away, which I couldn't believe, given the volume of people in that room. And not right next to the window, but next to the table next to the window, which was close enough to gawk at the terrible ice skating.
I felt no shame photographing the people as they fell, or looking right into their faces as they came crashing to the barrier at the edge of the rink. The social contract is: You're having a better time than I am so I can stare at you and perhaps photograph you if I am particularly amused.
Caity: I was having a very nervous time, watching all the children attempt to negotiate their ever changing centers of gravity. It's odd to me that we let children ice skate in packs. Walking on ice isn't dangerous enough—let's introduce heavy metal blades into the picture.
Only one woman appeared to be having a truly wonderful time: The Ice Witch.
Rich: Rockefeller Center is a hell of a place to be at one with nature, and yet there she was: twirling with her arms out; examining her hands as they waved fluidly just above her head. It was as if she were conjuring something.
"She's speaking to the spirit gods, the ice gods," said the woman sitting at the table next to the window that we were sitting next to. We ended up chatting with her and her husband. She was basically Amy Sedaris playing a Southern tourist in funky eyeglasses.
Caity: Wow, I did not hear her make that remark. Sounds like the real Ice Witch was sitting right next to us.
Rich: That's how I knew she was on our team. And then I really knew she was on our team when she piped up and said, "IT WAS GOOD," after I considered ordering the "Shrimp Chop Chop Salad" aloud. "It was light," she continued.
Caity: That woman also made the same observation I did in my head about one particularly beautiful little girl, with long flowing brunette hair and a stylish dress coat: "She looks like a Victorian doll." I'll go one better and identify which specific Victorian doll that little girl resembled: Samantha Parkington, American Girl—who was, in fact, sold with optional ice skate accessory.
Rich: Rockefeller Center is a GREAT place to bring a doll as long as she has the proper gear and attire.
That same woman lamented the falling children and said that she wanted to see some adults "crash and burn." I loved that woman.
Caity: She was just like the "Shrimp Chop Chop Salad": GOOD. And light.
On his way out of the restaurant, her husband leaned over our table and, jerking his head toward the ice, said in a conspiratorial voice, "You know there's some photo bombers out there." And we both said "Haha—yes!"
Rich: My favorite little girl was one that I saw bounding up to the barricade with a look that seemed both resigned her clumsiness and aware how much more adorable it made her. We locked eyes. I mouthed, "You're perfect."
Caity: She hammed it up. She was actually a sister of the beautiful doll girl, as indicated by their nearly identical outfits. There was only one truly captivating family on the ice, but thankfully it had a lot of members and they were all wearing matching leggings.
Rich: There were four sisters of varying ages. Like nesting dolls, but with slim physiques.
Caity: As for the stuff going on inside the restaurant: Our waiter was great: Kind and accommodating and friendly and speedy. The sort of waiter you have to be to work at a packed holiday tourist attraction like this, and serve food like this, at prices like this, with a straight face.
Rich: Oh yes, what we should explicitly state is that this was kind of like diner food with half the quality and for double the price. It was dressed up, but it all felt sort of like a facsimile of a real restaurant. It was defensively priced. "This is real food. It's expensive!"
Caity: Everything we ate was on par with or slightly above what I would expect to be served on a flight lasting 4 to 6 hours.
Rich: The aforementioned vodka hot chocolate, which I ordered, was supposed to be "mint," but was actually more menthol. I felt it in my lungs. They felt alive with pleasure...but for how much longer?
To start our meal, we ordered the baked ricotta (sans the pork). It was good but garlicky.
Caity: The baked ricotta was a wonderful idea. It had honeycomb on top! I felt upscale and reveled once again in man's sovereignty over the bee. Why, after placing the honeycomb on top of the ricotta, the restaurant then set the entire dish afloat in 84 ounces of garlic oil is unclear.
Rich: Yeah. You order that because you want something delicate. Something that's just one notch of flavor up from sticking your tongue in a cloud.
Caity: I wanted to lick the rink. Barring that: a little ricotta.
Rich: This was strong enough to render your tongue out of commission (at least for social purposes) for the rest of the day.
Caity: For my entree, I got a burger, which cost $22.00. YES, American dollars. YES, twenty two of them, like this:
$ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $ $
This was a bad burger. It was served with bacon aioli, which sounded intriguing, and which, when spread on top of the cheese on top of the patty, gave it a curious peachy pink sunrise color—
Rich: Special special sauce.
Caity: —but it did nothing to improve the taste; merely made it slightly wetter.
Rich: Unspecial special sauce.
Caity: The fries were as underwhelming as the attempted figure skating on display. The tomato was a bright fire engine red, though.
Rich: I got the aforementioned "Shrimp Chop Chop Salad," which was like shrimp salad on top of salad salad. It was good. Light. In the loafers, at least.
Caity: Light in color, perhaps. That looked like one of the heaviest salads I've ever seen in my life. Wasn't it served with about a quart of mayonnaise?
Rich: It was like a Chop't salad's slightly overweight sister. More to love.
So I'm watching Caity eat her burger open-faced—
Caity: (Even the bun tasted like it didn't care, so I removed it.)
Rich: —When all of a sudden, they call everyone off the ice. The crowd both in the restaurant and in the rink had dwindled at this point, which I thought was weird. It was 2 pm.
Caity: I figured the rink employees were just cleaning the ice for the next session, which in fact they were. But two troublemakers hung back on the ice after being told to clear it. A boy and a girl. A man and a maid. She was wearing a coat of Confederate gray. He was wearing khakis. And as I watched them dilly-dally on the ice, very ostentatiously refusing to vacate the rink, my heart soared: Is my dream about to come true? Am I about to witness a public marriage proposal?
Rich: Santa came early for you. Yes, Caity, there IS traditional marriage.
He got down on one knee on the ice. THAT is a sign of devotion. I bought this union.
Caity: She said 'Yes' to his proposal (I guess? Impossible to hear through several inches of glass. Maybe she said 'No') and he stood up and hugged her. The restaurant burst into applause which, of course, the couple could not hear.
[There was a video here]
Rich: They skated their last skate.
Caity: I yelled something, but I forget what. ("They did it!" maybe. Or "Oooooooh!")
Rich: And that was that.
The entire rink, by the way, was lined with people watching. This really is the best place to go if you want to stare at people openly.
Caity: I heard a waiter tell another table that these proposals happen several times a day.
Rich: Our waiter told us that the one we had just witnessed was the second so far that day. Not so special after all, then. People get engaged all the time who cares.
Caity: I wish there had been nothing happening on the ice but proposals. No teetering toddlers or twirling tweens. Just rote proposals, one after the other.
Rich: I'm grateful for the entire tableau we were offered. Rockefeller Center is a great place to watch people fall on the ice...and in love!
Anyway, back to our food: The tart was a joke. The waiter put it down and we said, "Thank you," but it felt more like a fuck you, honestly.
That said: it was an extremely tasty two and a half bites.
Caity: The tart was served with a lump of tan cream that I mistook for ice cream, a big bite of which I spooned into my mouth, to my immediate horror.
Rich: The cream was tan for no particular reason. Like it had been sitting out in the sun. I detected no flavor to go along with the tan.
Caity: The most interesting flavor by far came from the family seated to our left. A wealthy-looking husband, two very expensive-looking children, and a wife wearing...just normal clothes.
Rich: The boy came over to our table and presided. He just stood there, expectantly. I wondered if we were supposed to tip him.
Caity: It was not clear to me if the parents were perhaps working for the children? If we were witnessing some sort of body swap scenario?
The parents either paid for their enormous meal in cash or left, like, a $100 tip.
Rich: The children's lemonade stand money.
Before we left, the table next to ours turned over and we found ourselves next to another chatty woman. She told us that she's almost 6 feet tall and so if she were to ice skate, a fall would mean "a long way down."
There is something about getting the opportunity to watch people fall around Christmastime that brings those who aren't falling together. It's a beautiful thing, really.
Caity: I could have sat in there all day, talking to strangers and watching children careen into walls, but we had to leave. It's a busy season. Much to do. We've got to get to FAO Schwarz.
Is Everything OK?
Questions About the Dining Experience
Would you go back?
Rich: You know, what? I would. The food amounted to an afterthought, yes, but sometimes that's how it is when you're surrounded by friends, makeshift family, and people struggling to stay upright. What a great time.
Caity: I would go back for a menthol hot chocolate and to watch someone get proposed to. (Maybe me?? Maybe all the ice skaters press their faces against the glass to watch a proposal taking place in the restaurant???)
Is it a good first date spot?
Rich: Only if you know that proposing/getting proposed to on an ice rink is where this thing is heading. Will require prescience on your part, good luck.
Caity: Yes and no. At the time, I found the food distractingly disappointing. Fortunately, it was so unmemorable that, days later, all I'm left with is the happy memory of watching the strangers flail about on a giant fake pond. My advice: buy hot chocolates from a coffee shop, crumble menthol cigarettes and vodka into them, and sip them outside the restaurant, from the rink's sidelines.
Is it a good place to have an affair?
Rich: Everyone is so focused on the ice and their immediate neighbors that you could do all sorts of crazy shit in dark corners. Ask for a table that's away from the window and go to town.
Caity: Yes. I assume every single person in there was having an affair because the alternative is that they had simply elected to spend two hours in the middle of the day watching strangers ice skate poorly.
Is it a good place to bring a doll?
Rich: Your doll likely had spent much of her life staring out from inside a box at the world. Eating near this restaurant's giant glass window replicates that experience, but for humans. This is not only a great place to bring a doll, it's a great place for you to go to understand your doll's life. It's a great place to bond with a doll as a human.
Caity: Merry Christmas. :)
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 Best Restaurant in New York Is, writers Caity Weaver and Rich Juzwiak attempt to determine the best restaurant in New York.
Previously: The Best Restaurant in New York Is: The 9/11 Memorial & Museum Café; The Empire State Building; The Macy's Basement; Wall Street Bath & Spa; El Museo del Barrio; The Williamsburg Urban Outfitters ; The Central Park Boathouse; The Tommy Bahama Store; The Bronx Zoo; The Armani Store;The Crown Cafe at the Statue of Liberty; The Campbell Apartment inside Grand Central; The U.N. Delegates Dining Room; Play at the Museum of Sex; Le Train Bleu inside Bloomingdales; LOX at The Jewish Museum; The American Girl Café
[Top photos via AP, Twitter // Other images by Rich Juzwiak and Caity Weaver]