On Thompson Street between Bleecker and Houston, you’ll find a little restaurant where waiters in maroon tuxedos serve rigatoni in vodka sauce to people who used to date John Mayer. It’s called Carbone, and you probably can’t get a reservation there. Neither can we - so we made a list of great alternatives.
You could walk past Emilio’s Ballato on Houston Street a million times without noticing it was there. We know this, because that’s exactly what we did. But underneath a black awning you’ll find one of Manhattan’s best red-sauce Italian restaurants. It’s the stripped-down version of the over-the-top atmosphere you’ll find at Carbone - a clubhouse for celebrities and people who have lived in NYC longer than you. And dinner here feels like your temporary membership. Ballato doesn’t take reservations, so unless you’re Obama or Rihanna (they’ve both eaten here), we recommend you show up early. It’s worth it.
You want some of the best Italian food in the city, but you’re looking for something on the (relatively) lighter side. Head to Al Di La in Park Slope and get some fantastic northern Italian dishes like tripe and braised rabbit, as well as pastas like housemade ravioli filled with squash and mascarpone. They don’t take reservations (except for large groups), so you have as good a chance as anyone of getting in, but there will still probably be a wait. Get a drink at Blueprint a block away until your table is ready.
Dirty French is from the same people who own Carbone, and the two restaurants have a few things in common. They’re both fun spots where you can show off that jacket you feel awkward wearing to casual places, and where you’ll spend your tax refund on Champagne and the raw bar before appetizers even hit the table. That being said, Dirty French still isn’t quite as expensive as Carbone, it serves French/North African food rather than Italian, and you can get a reservation without having to commit to dinner a month in advance.
The Grill (which is also from the same group as Carbone and Dirty French) is larger than Carbone. Which makes it easier to get into. This is the definition of a special occasion spot, and the food consists mainly of old-school American dishes like prime rib and a crab cake topped with potatoes (but if you want pasta, you can have some that involves a tableside duck press). The whole place feels like something out of a black-and-white movie, and as long as you’re looking to spend a significant amount of money on dinner, you’ll have no regrets after doing so here.
The food at Carbone is excellent, but you’re also there for the experience. The same can be said of Holy Ground. It’s a dimly-lit, below-ground steakhouse in Tribeca with red leather booths, low ceilings, and great martinis. While all the slow-smoked meats here are really good, it’s the details - like servers in jackets and ties slicing full racks of ribs tableside - that make the meal especially memorable.
If you’re looking for a red-sauce Italian spot where servers in suits bring you shareable plates of baked clams and veal parmesan, check out Bamonte’s. Sure, the suits aren’t tailored like the ones at Carbone, and the rigatoni probably won’t make you want to adopt an all-pasta lifestyle, but you can show up with a big group on a random Wednesday night, spend about a third as much as you would at Carbone, and listen to the servers tell stories about a time before Williamsburg apartment buildings had in-house doggy daycare.
Long before Carbone opened, Il Buco was serving great Italian food out of an old antiques shop in Noho. And after more than 20 years, this place is still around, and still one of the best Italian restaurants in the city. The interior also still has an antique-store feel, so it’s a good place to bring a date or some family members for an upscale meal that isn’t too stuffy. Be sure to get whatever risotto is on the menu.
If you close your eyes and squint, the inside of Minetta Tavern looks kind of like Carbone. It’s dimly lit, it has black-and-white tiled floors, and it feels old-school in a similar way. It’s also just a few blocks away from Carbone, and it’s much bigger and significantly easier to get into. The food is French and American, and they specialize in heavier things like steak tartare, bone marrow, and various cuts of beef. They also serve a “Black Label” burger that costs $33 and is still very much worth ordering (it’s one of the best in the whole city).
Frenchette is, unsurprisingly, French, so the food isn’t similar to Carbone’s - but if you’re looking for a place where you’ll be surrounded by people wearing expensive clothes, this one qualifies, and you can hang out in a red leather booth while you eat your duck frites and drink something from the all-natural wine list. It’s not easy to get a reservation here, but (unlike Carbone) Frenchette does have a bar area where you can eat if you’re willing to try walking in.
Like Carbone, Don Angie is an Italian restaurant, but it’s less of a red-sauce place. Instead of spaghetti and chicken parm, they serve things like chrysanthemum salad and gnocchi covered in poppy seeds. And everything’s great - which is why this was one of our favorite new restaurants of 2017. It’s still pretty tough to get into, but you have a chance of getting seats in the bar area that’s reserved for walk-ins. Get the garganelli.
4 Charles Prime Rib is at the bottom of a townhouse in the West Village, and it looks like a dark little clubhouse from the mid-20th century. There are red leather banquettes and candles on the tables, and a general lack of natural light that contributes to the old-timey atmosphere. You don’t come here for natural light, anyway. You come to eat one of the best burgers in the city as an appetizer, then follow that up with fries, creamed spinach, and a big piece of prime rib. It’s pretty much impossible to get a dinner reservation here at a normal time, but if you’re the kind of person who could happily eat a $300 dinner at midnight, that’s both achievable and encouraged.